“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner. “It is not even past.”
The senseless shooting dead of journalist and author Lyra McKee by dissident republicans in Derry last night feels like the worst of our past reaching out its cold, dead hand to rob us of the best of our future.
"We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us." McKee was writing here in a typically empathetic essay about the toll the legacy of the Troubles took on the young in the form of suicide.
McKee, already an acclaimed journalist, looked set to reap the spoils of peace with the publication by Faber & Faber next year of her much-anticipated book The Lost Boys. There is a risk that it too may be lost as the book is unfinished, possibly compounding our loss.
Only last month, I featured her in an article Best of Irish: 10 rising stars of Irish writing: "North Belfast, once the cockpit of the Troubles, is suddenly a hotbed of fiction, thanks to Man Booker winner Milkman by Ardoyne's Anna Burns, flanked by Paul McVeigh's The Good Son and David Keenan's For the Good Times. Next up is Lyra McKee, a 28-year-old journalist, whose debut, The Lost Boys, will be published by Faber next year.
“The Lost Boys will explore the disappearances of a number of children and young men during the Troubles. Many of them were not believed to be victims of the IRA or the UVF. Some were kids who left home for school and never came home and their disappearances were never solved by the police. McKee will investigate what happened to them.”
Angels With Blue Faces, a non-fiction novella about the murder in 1981 of Rev Robert Bradford, the Ulster Unionist MP for South Belfast is due to be published shortly by Excalibur Press. “It’s only last week that she approved the cover; we’re only a week or so away from releasing it,” publisher Tina Calder said. “The book has been fully written and edited.”
Laura Hassan, her editor at Faber & Faber, said: “As a writer Lyra was drawn to subjects usually met with silence – she wrote about growing up gay in Northern Ireland, the epidemic of suicide among her generation in Belfast and in her forthcoming book she was investigating the unsolved disappearances of children during the Troubles. She could always see the imprint of the Troubles in the graves freshly dug for those too young to fully remember the conflict and it is just heartbreaking that a continuation of that violence has cut short her life too. Lyra asked the right questions and reported on the things that matter.
“I will miss her candour, her humour, her determined curiosity and her warmth. Belfast has lost a distinct writing talent and a lovely young woman.”
Will Francis, her agent, said: “Lyra McKee was gifted, brave, kind and funny. I’m proud to have been her literary agent. I started working with her after Chrissie Giles at Mosaic published Lyra’s extraordinary piece about the effect of the war in Northern Ireland on her generation, growing up in Belfast after the Good Friday Agreement. She wrote about the legacy of the Troubles, about a city haunted by its recent past, and did so with tremendous wit and insight.
“I sold her book, The Lost Boys, about the disappearance of children in Belfast in the 1970s, to Faber last year on the basis of a short proposal. In that document she wrote about growing up in a ‘conflict hotspot’ in north Belfast, off the road known as the Murder Mile. She wrote: ‘Many people have grown to dislike the use of the word “war” to describe what happened here. The term “The Conflict” became a more acceptable alternative, even if it made a 30-year battle sound like a lover’s tiff. It’s got the ring of a euphemism, the kind one might use to refer to a shameful family secret during a reunion lunch… I witnessed its last years, as armed campaigns died and gave way to an uneasy tension we natives of Northern Ireland have named “peace”, and I lived with its legacy, watching friends and family members cope with the trauma of what they could not forget.’
“As William Faulkner wrote, the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past. We’ve lost a tremendous talent, and today I’m remembering Lyra, and thinking of her friends, her partner and her family.”
It is easy in retrospect to recognise the writer and author Lyra McKee would become in a 2008 article in The Irish Times about an educational trip by Northern Ireland pupils to Auschwitz. While some students struggled to relate, Mc Kee empathised: "Down in the gas chamber, I saw this square of light in the ceiling," she recalls. "It was such a sunny day and in there it was so dark, and it was nearly like I was in the mindset of one of the Jews 60 years ago, because the first thing I thought was 'I'm never going to see the daylight again'."
The year before, she had spoken about her passion for journalism ina feature by Fionola Meredith on Headliners, a news agency run by young people in Belfast.
“In her diary for the BBC Blast website, 17-year-old Lyra McKee, from Belfast, was refreshingly frank about the challenges of the job: “The strain of the past 11 days plunged me into a zombie-like stupor . . . Even with all this, I can still honestly say, wait till I cross my fingers, that I love being a journalist. Turning out a great piece of work even when time is running against you is like sticking your tongue out and saying, ‘Ha ha, look what I can do!’
“Lyra – a confident, articulate girl who says she was never a straight-A student - last year won Sky’s young-journalist competition. “I always dreamed of winning an award for journalism. It’s the sort of thing that normally only happens to grammar-school girls.” Lyra says the agency has changed her prospects. “Headliners offered me a clean slate, a chance to prove myself, to show I had a talent I could be proud of. The stereotyped formula where I come from is that you leave school, then work in a shop. But now I’m going on to do my A levels.”
In 2015, her career took a new turn when her blog post went viral, a letter to her 14-year-old self, who had struggled with the fact of being gay in a hostile environment. Friends made it into a short film.
To paraphrase LP Hartley, for violent extremists of whatever shade, bitter orange or bile green, the past is not a foreign country. It is the only country they know and love and they are seemingly incapable of doing things differently ie living and letting live in peace. All we can do as a society is protect ourselves from them and provide a better example.
Lyra McKee represented the future, another country, a better one.
Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times