Lyra McKee’s death should be ‘doorway to a new beginning’

The sight of the journalist’s simple wooden coffin was too much for many of her friends

The death of Lyra McKee should mark a new beginning for Northern Ireland, Father Martin Magill told mourners at the funeral of the young journalist in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast. Video: Reuters / BBC pool

 

Lyra McKee was remembered at a thanksgiving service in her honour as a beloved daughter and partner, an adored younger sister and aunt, a generous and mischievous friend, and a journalist who was “a powerful example of ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.”

She united people of many different backgrounds throughout her life, as she had in her death. And now, said her friend, Fr Martin Magill, in an impassioned homily that had the congregation on its feet before he had finished, there is a “deep desire” to make her death “the doorway to a new beginning”.

That desire for a new beginning was evident throughout the afternoon, in several remarkable moments of unity.

Shortly before 1pm, members of the McKee family – including her mother Joan, her partner Sara Canning, sisters Joan Hunter, Nichola Corner and Mary Cross, brothers Gary and David, nieces and nephews – came out of a side room in the Church of Ireland Belfast Cathedral of St Anne and took their seats.

They were followed by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, northern secretary of state, Karen Bradley and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone.

And then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar emerged, alongside the British prime minister Theresa May, President Michael D Higgins, and Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle, Lord Lieutenant of Belfast and the British Queen’s official representative. They walked to the front row together in a slow procession and a choreographed gesture of unity.

Spontaneous moments

There were other memorable moments – some choreographed; many spontaneous. The President hugged McKee’s partner Sara Canning outside the cathedral, released her, and then hugged her again. Before the service began, Mary Lou McDonald and Arlene Foster sat beside one another and chatted easily, as the British Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, sat further along in the second row.

President Michael D Higgins offers his condolences to Lyra McKee’s partner Sarah Canning after the funeral service in Belfast. Photograph: EPA
President Michael D Higgins offers his condolences to Lyra McKee’s partner Sarah Canning after the funeral service in Belfast. Photograph: EPA

At the far side of the church, also near the front, a group of McKee’s friends from Derry – including some of those who were applauded for their courage after they daubed the walls of the office of dissident Republican group Saoradh with red handprints – sat together with stricken faces and Harry Potter themed T-shirts printed with the message “#TeamLyra”.

For many of her friends, the sight of McKee’s simple wooden coffin, carried on the shoulders of her brothers and other loved ones, was too much, and they wept openly.

Dean Stephen Forde opened the celebration with an expression of “our grief and our shock, our tears and our loss”.

“Lyra was a person who broke down barriers and reached across boundaries. This was her hallmark in life. This is her legacy in death. As a journalist, she pursued the truth wherever it took her, never content with the sullen silence of unanswered questions. Lyra was a child of the Good Friday agreement . . . She grew up to champion its hope for a society that was free from the prejudices of the past, and open to the possibility of a new future for the peoples of these islands,” he said.

Need for unity

Fr Magill delivered a message to the politicians present about the need for unity.

“I commend our political leaders for standing together in Creggan on Good Friday. I am however left with a question: ‘Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her. . .”

He didn’t even get to finish his question before the congregation broke into loud applause and rose to its feet. Of the political leaders, the Northern Secretary was first to her feet, and all of the rest followed.

Fr Magill revealed he first met McKee when she wanted help with a book called the Lost Boys, about the disappearance of two children from a bus stop on the Falls Road in November 1974. That investigation and the book remain unfinished and, he said, “I pray that her work will be taken up and that their bodies will be found and even more importantly that there will be no more ‘lost boys’, ‘lost girls’ or ‘lost people’.”

But for all the political messages and the tributes paid to Lyra’s work as an investigative journalist, there were many more memories shared of her as a daughter, a partner, a sister, a friend, an aunt and a grand-aunt, who had recently found “The One”.

“Lyra is many things to many people,” Ms Corner said, referring to her sister in the present tense throughout. “But to us, her family, she always will be our Lyra . . . Lyra is an inspiration to many people. Her whole life story speaks of rising above or pushing past external challenges.”

Determination

Her determination was a theme throughout.

Fr Magill said her family had described her as like “a dog with a bone” and “I certainly experienced her gentle, determined doggedness” during their friendship.

Ms Corner revealed that Ms McKee, her youngest sister and also her goddaughter, had phoned her after she met Ms Canning and said, “I’ve met The One”.

“Once Lyra had made her mind up, there was no going back. It was full steam ahead,” she said.

“The unconditional love they shared with each other will continue for eternity.”

Stephen Lusty, a technology executive and close friend, said she had recently shown him the ring she intended to produce when she proposed to Ms Canning in New York. She told him to keep 2022 free for a wedding in Donegal.

He remembered a young woman who was “smart, kind, passionate, interesting, feisty, generous, fun and truly compassionate”. He made the congregation laugh often – many of them through tears – as he recalled her impish sense of fun, the antics that involved calling him with “emergencies”, including one in which she couldn’t find the petrol cap on her car, and another where she wanted a lift home because she couldn’t walk in a pair of borrowed heels. She was frequently late to dinner because she would stop to talk to a homeless person, and probably gave them half her dinner money.

“That was our Lyra,” he said.

The atmosphere in the church was at times sombre, and at times celebratory, infused with memories of McKee’s wit, warmth, determination, passion and love of Harry Potter and Marvel characters.

Hufflepuff

Warner Brothers had sent over a box of scarves in the colours of Hufflepuff, one of the four Hogwarts houses, as a tribute to her. The distinctive yellow and black stripes could be seen scattered throughout the congregation, along with T-shirts bearing the Marvel logo – touches of informality amid the majesty of the cathedral that her family said McKee would enjoy.

Her love of Harry Potter was sparked when her granny, Patricia Lawrie, bought her the books in primary school, after she had initially struggled to learn to read. It was apt, said Fr Magill, that she had a particular affinity with the house of Hufflepuff which JK Rowling had described as “just and loyal . . . true and unafraid of toil”.

“I hadn’t heard the term ‘Hufflepuff’ until I did an internet search and found this definition – ‘Hufflepuff is the most inclusive among the four houses; valuing hard work, dedication, patience, loyalty, and fair play’. It struck me that the definition could just as easily have been about Lyra.”

Underlining the themes of unity and acceptance, McKee’s family had requested that the funeral service be held in St Anne’s Cathedral, which has a strong record of ecumenism and is seen as a “shared space”. It was one of the first major Protestant churches to welcome Catholic clergy to its pulpit, and it has previously hosted the Dalai Lama.

The sun streamed into the cathedral through stained glass windows engraved with lines of poetry by Robert Laurence Binyon that, in the circumstances, seemed heartbreakingly apt: “They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old . . . At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.”

As the service ended with a performance of Amazing Grace, members of the National Union of Journalists gathered to form a guard of honour on the steps of the cathedral. As the coffin emerged, watched by a large, silent crowd from the square opposite, they were joined by all of the political figures who had attended the service – the President, Taoiseach, British prime minister, northern secretary, Queen’s representative and their colleagues standing alongside one another in the sudden chill of the April afternoon. It was a final, fitting moment of unity.