Lyra McKee: The search for a lost body on Cave Hill
The late journalist describes a day in 2018, in an extract from a new book of her writing
Journalist and author Lyra McKee pictured in Belfast in 2017. File photograph: Jess Lowe/AFP/Getty Images
At the time of her death in April 2019, Northern Ireland journalist Lyra McKee was working on a book entitled The Lost Boys, for Faber. She planned to explore the disappearances of a number of children and young men during the Troubles. This is an extract from her unpublished work-in-progress.
There was a reason I went searching for the body that day. I can’t say it was solely because I wanted to find him. The other volunteers out searching on the mountain were doing so in hope, believing that maybe the boy had fallen or tripped and hurt his leg and just couldn’t make his way home. But I knew he was dead. I’d seen the same story play out before and it always concluded with headlines that said: “Body found in hunt for missing lad.”
I referred to him as “the boy” even though he was a man. He was old enough to smoke, vote and drink but too young to die. The week he went missing came after a season of storms. They had felled trees and power lines, turned the mountain slopes into slush and the ocean treacherous. It was a bad time to go missing, if you had any hope of being found, and a bad time to be out looking for a body.
The boy probably didn’t want to be found. It was all but a certainty that he had died by suicide somewhere on the slopes above. The volunteers, I believed, knew it too, even though they were lying to themselves because no one wanted to give up hope until they had to. When the call went out on social media – “Appeal: Man, young, missing, last seen –” – the search, always, would begin with mountains and parks and rivers.
By 48 hours, the more experienced searchers would be mentally preparing themselves to find a corpse. Maybe he had wanted to deny his family that sight, believing that not knowing his fate was better than knowing. It seemed logical – the reason so many of them disappeared into the water or the woods.
We’d all seen the havoc a dead body could wreak. You didn’t have to actually have seen one to know. As surely as people from the Welsh valleys knew coal miners or Scots knew the taste of haggis, Northern Irish youths knew someone who’d been murdered. It was there in nearly every family, a ghost in the background somewhere. Sometimes, it was an aunt or an uncle or a father or grandmother.
But grief was persistent. It hung thick over its victims. It manifested itself in night terrors and alcoholism and PTSD and an inability to forget. They called us, the young, the Ceasefire Babies because we were born either around or after the time of the Provisional IRA ceasefire, in the last four years of the Troubles before it “ended”. We, the elders believed, would never see or know war the way they had. But we did. We just saw it through their eyes.
So I understood the boy’s reasoning, why he’d taken to the hills to die. It probably seemed like the lesser evil – to leave loved ones without a body, to let them think – in the absence of evidence – that you’d just had enough and had decided to escape. Others had done it throughout the conflict – just vanished into thin air, leaving their family to wonder whether they were alive or dead.
As mountains went, Cave Hill was no Everest. It felt wrong to even call it a mountain. It stood at 700ft, throwing the northern edges of the city into shadow. At its foot, a path that veered from gravel to muck and back again could take you straight to the top, with moderate difficulty. It was – should have been – an easy climb, if you just followed it up from the foot of the mountain. We didn’t.
It seemed unlikely that the body would be there, on the well-travelled route. The decision to join the hunt was made the night before. “I wanna help out with the search,” Stuart had said. Stuart, not much taller than I was at 5ft 6, was nonetheless a man built for mountains: sturdy, with a little bit of loose muscle hanging over an otherwise slim frame. He had a large, heavy mop of silvery grey hair, which contrasted heavily with a boyish, stubble-flecked face. A scriptwriter, he liked to spend his time in between drafts and takes by hiking large peaks, for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom. “Up the mountain?” “Aye,” he replied. “There’s a route the volunteers haven’t looked, I don’t think. There’s a few places I’d like to check out, in the more remote parts.”
The son of a Church of Ireland preacher, Stuart had grown up in Monaghan before eventually settling in north Belfast as a teenager. He’d fallen in love with that corner of the city in a way that only someone who’d spent time apart from it could, looking at it with a fondness tinged by absence. He’d come back as it was changing, with New York-style loft apartments and delis and fish shops which no longer served chips but “gourmet” meals.
It had taken a decade for the North to feel the effects of gentrification. Here, the residents were the poorest in the country, never mind inside the city limits. Still, even as the shop fronts changed, with grease-stained interiors in cafes replaced by fine wood panelling and the latest in hipster decor, it was forever marked in my eyes as the same s**thole I’d spent most of my life trying to climb out of.
Maybe Stuart’s Christian upbringing meant he could shake off bitterness easier than I could. I’d known too many who had died, who’d gone up Cave Hill not planning to return. I could count their names on my fingers until I ran out of hands and then trace each death, in some way, to the city and its history and a time when there was at least one murder every day.
“I’ll go with you,” I said. I didn’t know the young lad but I knew the mountain. By all accounts, he was handsome, talented and well loved, judging by the seemingly hundreds who’d ascended the mountain looking for him. The morning he’d disappeared, he’d been seen by a neighbour, heading up the peaks for a walk – and no one had seen him come down.
“Are you prepared for the fact that we might find a dead body?”
It had been raining. The dirt track that led up to the back entrance of Cave Hill was slick with muck. The potholes dotting it had turned into puddles of brown water.
“Yeah,” I replied. “Maybe. Just about.” Silently, I said a prayer that there would be no dead bodies to be found, though I knew it was futile. If the boy was on the mountain, he was dead.
“This is kind of like Stand by Me,” Stuart said, shifting his backpack. “You seen that movie? This is how their adventure starts. They go looking for a dead body.”
“I’ve read the book.” I’d read it only a few months before. It was a form of research. I didn’t read it to learn how to search for a dead body but to get a sense of how I might feel when I eventually found one.
We got out of the car and began to walk. At the top of the path, close to the glass house, a bungalow sat in the corner, behind a row of hedges and a gate. It had probably once belonged to a farmer who’d tended to sheep on the hills above. Beside it, the gravel road continued through a broad gateway.
The official search had been organised via social networks. Volunteers had met at 10am, two hours earlier. It was now 12pm and we were only getting started. “If he’s come up here, he’s come up here to die,” Stu said. We’d veered off the road, into an undergrowth of trees and fallen branches. For those in the north of the city, Cave Hill was becoming a bit like Aokigahara, the forest in Japan where lost souls went when they couldn’t take any more. Bodies had been found here throughout the years. Yet this was the second search for a young man in as many months.
Fifteen years before, the suicides had started – or seemed to start – in Ardoyne, a formerly hardline republican area in the city. It had started with one local kid. Six weeks later, 13 of them would be dead, and parents were left wondering how so many young could die in a community of just a few thousand.
It had become contagious. One after another, they began to die – a 13-year-old here, a 16-year-old there. Some I only knew to see. Then the older folks started dying the same way.
It baffled families, journalists and politicians alike. Every “outbreak” – four deaths or more within a five-mile radius – was treated with fresh horror, as if it was happening for the first time, even more than a decade after it had first begun. Some politicians acted as if it wasn’t obvious why people would grow up here and feel like life wasn’t worth living. Did they deliberately turn their eyes from it?
Maybe it was the best way of sidestepping awkward questions at election time about why young people were still dying when the peace process had promised an end to all that. It was 2018, nearly 20 years to the day since the Belfast Agreement was signed. It had been sold on the backs of the young, on the promise that the next two decades would be better for us than the previous 30 years had been for our parents and grandparents. Yet here we were, scattered across the mountain, searching for the dead. I knew we’d be back here eventually, looking for another body.
The victims were disproportionately working class, with no prospects and no hope of ever leaving. Belfast was a city you could fall in love with, but only if you were middle class. It only revealed its best side to those with enough money to enjoy it – the new restaurants opening up, the hotels, the attractions. If you were poor, it had nothing to offer.
The paramilitaries’ targets had shifted; now, they almost exclusively killed members of their own communities, those who’d fallen short of the tribal laws they were expected to live by. If you didn’t have the money to escape, to flee to London or the suburbs where the lawyers and doctors and civil servants lived, it was like the Troubles had never ended.
“I’m just going to check something here,” Stu said. He wandered off, disappearing beneath a tangle of leaves and branches and thorns, which appeared to have been decimated in the recent storms. A few feet away, a tiny stream bounced over brown stones. With the rain, the grass beneath my feet squelched, creating eerie sound effects in the silence.
Along with tiredness, shame was starting to settle. I’d become a hindrance rather than a help
I glanced around. Stu was out of sight. I scanned the overgrowth in case someone had crept up and we hadn’t heard them coming. It was paranoia, but I hated green spaces. The city’s green belt was slowly evaporating, but during the Troubles, the paramilitaries had turned these areas into graveyards.
Slightly further north, just beyond the city limits, there was a quiet road that led to the edges of the mountain’s lower slopes. Some of the paramilitaries would use it to make their kill and then leave the body, phoning a tip in to the police using a code name. These were just the victims we knew of – the corpses they’d intended for the cops to find and the press to write about. I wondered how many times I’d walked over the top of a grave without knowing it.
I poked under some of the fallen branches, pulling them back. The greenery was so dense; it would be too easy to miss something – a grey shoe obscured by a tree trunk, or a glimpse of a pair of legs.
We began to climb. My legs were beginning to scream. The recent storms had made the ground soft and unreliable. What looked like crooks or shelves of hardened soil, protruding out from the mountain, caved beneath our feet the moment we stepped on them.
The hill was almost vertical now. The only way to continue was to use the trees as anchors to pull ourselves up, but in places where the trunks were a few feet apart, the scramble became a leap of faith. Yet the only way to get off the mountain was to keep climbing upwards, until we reached a ridge at the top. The ground was less steep up there. If we made it that far, we could walk to the path that connected to the mountain’s peak.
I tried to push myself up with my foot, but the ground kept giving way. Beneath me was a 12ft drop. The slope’s slanted angle meant if I slipped, I would just slide, but if I fell backward, I might just hurtle straight down to the next clearing below. At the very least, I’d have a broken collarbone. I tried to push myself up again. The muck caved underneath, sending me forward into the side of the mountain. I screamed.
“It’s okay,” Stu said. He sounded like he was trying to coax an anxious four-year-old. To him, a man of the mountains, this was nothing, but I was spent. Flat ground was somewhere 350ft below. Exhaustion had crept in about 250ft above that. Without the ground to propel me forward, I was struggling. My 20s had added a layer of fat round my stomach, and my arms had remained the thin, weak reeds they always were, even with weekly workouts at the local MMA gym.
The lad was going to be impossible to find in this terrain. Stu was right. If you wanted to spare your family or some innocent hiker out for a walk in the woods the trauma of finding a dead body, you’d head up this route.
The foliage was so dense that, coupled with the thick grey sky above, winter wardrobe colours like greys and greens and blacks – what he’d been wearing when he went missing – wouldn’t stand out. And the climb was challenging enough to distract from the task at hand, especially for volunteers with little mountain experience. If he was here, someone would stumble on him accidentally, if at all, and it probably wouldn’t be until the summer. By then, the body wouldn’t even be recognisable.
Along with tiredness, shame was starting to settle. I’d become a hindrance rather than a help. Every few feet, my legs would give out from underneath me and I’d collapse into the grass in a heap, but unlike the slopes below it was soft, welcoming. If I zipped my coat up, I could curl up for the night or even just a few hours and sleep, but the grass was so thick, I feared I could be sleeping on bodies. I could picture them – lying down, tucking themselves underneath the grass and slipping off into the ether. So I got up and kept walking upwards, until we met the path.
“Do you wanna ride on my back?” Stuart asked. “It’ll be like Frodo and Samwise Gamgee on Mount Doom, in Lord of the Rings.”
“I’m okay, thanks.”
Mist was beginning to roll in over the summit, along with a promise of rain. We needed to get down quickly. As we descended, the data connection on my phone returned. I checked the Facebook group the volunteers were using to share leads and tips.
“They’re saying now he was spotted somewhere else,” I said. “Over the other side of town, later the day he went missing. After he was seen up here.”
The path down was as slippery as the slope coming up. The mud was as thick as tar, trapping our feet as we walked. My phone buzzed again.
“They’re now saying he might have taken his passport.” “I bet that f**ker is in Malaga having a pint, while we’ve been struggling up here,” Stuart laughed. I hope he is, I thought.
Three weeks later, they found the young lad’s body on the mountain. Where they found him, they didn’t say. Had we just missed him? Had we walked right past the corpse? It would have been easy to do, yet the thought was guilt-inducing; him, dead but alone, just a mile or two from home but lying closer to the sky than to the ground. Maybe it was the last vestiges of an Irish Catholic upbringing stirring guilt inside me. Even as the world had changed and technology advanced and my generation began to leave the church and God behind, every death in the family was met with the same rituals, and one of them was never leaving the body alone. It would be stationed in the coffin, usually in the livingroom, and family and friends would take turns to stay, snoozing on the sofa or in the chair, making sure the person lying there wasn’t on their own for this part of their journey.
Why had I told Stu I’d join him that day? I thought about it in the shower afterwards, as I washed the muck and dirt off. Black and purple bruises had spread across my knees and shins, but otherwise they were intact. Why had I agreed to help Stu when I was so unfit? How could I have helped?
The answers were multiple and conflicting. I knew he was dead but I wanted to find him alive; I wanted to help rule out which part of the mountain the body wasn’t on; maybe not finding a body was better than finding one, but what if not knowing was worse for one family than knowing was for another?
Then there were the selfish reasons for doing the search. Searching for the boy had provided an idea of what to expect, of how the hours and days and weeks after someone went missing unfolded.
This is an edited extract from Lost, Found, Remembered, published by Faber on April 2nd