Lyra McKee obituary: Journalist cut down in her prime by dissident republicans

Northern Irish author was also an active campaigner for LGBTQI and women’s rights

Lyra McKee 1990-2019. Photograph: Jess Lowe/EPA

Lyra McKee 1990-2019. Photograph: Jess Lowe/EPA

 

Lyra McKee
Born: March 31st, 1990
Died: April 18th, 2019

The journalist Lyra McKee, who was shot by dissident Republicans whilst covering a disturbance in Derry on Holy Thursday, had confided in the writer Anna Burns a few months ago about her doubts in relation to The Lost Boys, the book she was researching and writing. “It’s a big undertaking and I’m very nervous about pulling it off,” she’d said, adding, “But I live in hope.”

Burns had no such doubts. “I thought, that should be no problem because this little powerhouse is on a roll – determined, tenacious, intelligent, and honest in her approach,” she told The Irish Times on the eve of McKee’s funeral. “And since her death she has pulled off more than she could ever have expected by bringing all communities together.”

Lyra was working on The Lost Boys, about children who went missing during the Troubles. She was intent on finding out what happened to them and finding their bodies

The tribute from the Booker prize-winning author of The Milkman would have delighted McKee, who was proud of Burns’s achievements as someone from a similar north-Belfast background to her own. They both attended St Gemma’s High School. They drew on some of the same dark materials, bringing a profound sense of compassion and hopefulness to stories replete with grotesque cruelty and misery. Like Burns, McKee was as capable of reducing people to tears of laughter as she was of making them weep with sorrow. McKee looked set to become to non-fiction the star that Burns has become in fiction.

Early writing

She was born on March 31st, 1990, the youngest of Joan McKee’s six children, and spent her earliest years on the Cliftonville Road, one of the most dangerous parts of Belfast during the Troubles. “She was always our wee baby,” her sister and godmother Nichola said. She resisted going to school and had to be carried across its threshold on a daily basis, kicking and screaming. She struggled with reading and needed remedial teaching, but blossomed when an inspiring teacher, Mr O’Neill, introduced her to Roald Dahl’s The Twits. Her granny bought her each of JK Rowlings’ Harry Potter books as they came out. Soon she was writing and producing books herself. One of these was called Laura Sees a Fairy.

At secondary school she was subjected to homophobic bullying. She was full of anguish because, as a Catholic, she knew her sexuality was regarded as sinful, and she considered suicide. She describes this period in her Letter to My 14-Year-Old Self, published in 2014 and subsequently made into a short film, which begins “It gets better kid”. And it did.

Lyra McKee at TEDxStormont Women in November 2017. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye
Lyra McKee at TEDxStormont Women in November 2017. Photograph: Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

She got involved in Headliners, a community-based multimedia journalism programme for vulnerable and disadvantaged young people. Shy and lacking in self-esteem when she started, she was soon producing remarkable reports. She won a Sky UK Young Journalist award in 2006 for a hard-hitting story about suicide in north Belfast. She had recently become a trustee for the charity and was a passionate advocate for its young participants.

McKee enrolled to study English at Queen’s University, Belfast, but found it culturally alienating and left without graduating. She did, however, obtain a bursary to study journalism through distance learning at Birmingham City University, and earned a master’s degree. Tutor Paul Bradshaw remembers her tenacity, her passion and her eloquence. She raised €6,000 in 6 weeks through crowd funding in order to pursue the investigation which became the ebook A Boy Soaked in Moonlight. In 2017 she gave a talk to students on the course, commenting as she did on class bias in the profession.

Rising star

She worked for numerous outlets including BBC Blast, the news startup Qluso, Mosaic, Private Eye, Buzzfeed, the Atlantic , the Ferret and the Belfast Telegraph. In 2016 Forbes Magazine named her in its 30 under 30 list of up-and-coming talents. She specialised in long-form investigative essays and was transitioning into writing books. In the same year she was one of the investigative team in the Ferret to win two awards for a report on domestic violence against migrant women. Earlier this year The Irish Times listed her as one of the top 10 rising stars of Irish writing.

The fact that she could work from home, and on a part-time basis in her role as an editor with the US news aggregator site Mediagazer, enabled her to concentrate on her own writing. She had just completed the final edits on her short book, Angels with Blue Faces about the murder of Robert Bradford, and having signed a two-book deal with Faber last year, she was working on The Lost Boys, about children who went missing during the Troubles. She was intent not just on finding out what happened to them, but on finding their bodies.

She cared for her mother, to whom she was devoted, at their home in Belfast, for several years. She was a campaigner too, for women’s reproductive rights, and for equality for people in the LGBTQI community. She danced this year in a fundraiser for Derry’s Rainbow Project and had been co-opted by Canning into a Sister Act tribute group called Bad Habits to raise funds for Foyle Hospice. At her funeral Father Martin Magill, a personal friend, recalled that she had tweeted him a photo of herself dressed up as a nun and with a bottle of cider in her hand. “Need any help with mass tomorrow?” she had captioned it. She loved the cinema and friends recall her sitting behind a bucket of popcorn as big as herself. Her friends included people from all backgrounds, ages, genders and religious persuasions.

McKee was cut down in her prime. She had met Derry woman Sara Canning, whom she described as “the love of my life”, a year ago and had moved to Derry to live with her. She loved the place and its people and was soon part of a close circle of new friends. McKee loved people and had a generous soul – she had many friends. The couple were to go to New York – McKee’s first visit – in a few weeks. McKee was romantic, and asked an artist friend to make a Harry Potter egg in which she had placed a diamond ring. She planned to propose to Canning, and knew the answer would be yes. They were to marry in Donegal in 2022. Instead McKee was gunned down on a Derry street.

She is survived by her partner, Sara, her mother, Joan, her siblings, Gary, Joan, Mary, David and Nichola, nieces and nephews, and her great-niece Ava, whom she adored.