Like many journalists, I am haunted by the tyranny of the deadline. Take yesterday, when I sat down to reflect on the first anniversary of the death of my 29 year old close friend, journalistic colleague and fellow National Union of Journalists Belfast & District member, Lyra McKee.
Lyra and I often took solace in the words of Douglas Adams in ‘The Salmon of Doubt’ when he summed up their unique fatal attraction by saying ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’
As ace procrastinators, we often turned to the internet for inspiration.
That was how I learned that the original meaning of ‘deadline’ is a line drawn that someone passes at the risk of being shot.
A chill ran up and down my spine.
Today, 18 April, is the first anniversary of the day on which Lyra was shot dead in the Creggan area of Derry by an armed member of the New IRA, a dissident paramilitary organisation associated with the political grouping, Saoradh.
They had been attacking police officers and vehicles who were watching them in the belief that they may have been attempting a show of strength as part of the IRA Easter commemorations.
Lyra was part of a group of journalists observing the riot. Earlier that night, with the love of her life, her partner Sara, by her side, she had posted a photograph of the rioters confronting a police land-rover on Twitter, with the comment, ‘Derry tonight. Absolute madness.’
Shortly afterwards, her young life had ended.
Perhaps, in the warped ideology of the New IRA, she had crossed the line.
Ironically, the day of her death was also the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.
Lyra’s cross community funeral took place in St Anne’s Cathedral on 24 April last year. Michelle Stanistreet, General Secretary of the NUJ, and Séamus Dooley, Deputy Secretary, were at one of the foremost rows of seating. I had taken a seat beside them when another NUJ member, Gerry Curran, from Dublin joined us.
Our small group sat near the family mourners, Lyra’s partner, Sara Canning, and Lyra’s mother, Joan, to whom she was devoted. Sitting beside Joan was Lyra’s sister Nichola, along with Lyra’s other brothers and sisters and her many nieces and nephews.
They were a close family and our eyes burned with the recognition of our common pain and their terrible loss.
In the silence before the ceremony began, Gerry nudged me and without speaking slid a bag across the floor to me.
Inside were tributes that mourners had left at the NUJ Dublin vigil on the eve of the funeral.
They ranged from a mass card, a rainbow sequined cap and wristband and a little cherub, to a tiny battery operated Chinese cat, which flashed red and blue lights. Lyra had loved these ornamental Chinese cats, which always had one paw raised in the air, as if in benediction. One had been placed on the window-sill of her family home where her coffin lay at her wake.
Séamus Dooley said at the time, ‘What strikes me most was that immediately people took her to their hearts…She became known only as Lyra.’
The Dublin vigil, held in the shadow of the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin’s Parnell Square, had been attended by hundreds who joined the NUJ to commemorate her life. They were silent as the Gloria Gay and Lesbian Choir sang ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ before Dublin singer Noel O’Grady sang Paul Brady’s ‘The Island’, about the pain and loss suffered here during the troubles.
‘Up here we sacrifice our children
To feed the worn-out dreams of yesterday
And teach them dying will lead us into glory...’
Brady had written it in 1985, five years before Lyra Catherine McKee was born in North Belfast on 31st March 1990.
Years later, in January 2016, in Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies, Lyra would echo his words when she wrote: ‘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.’
I first met Lyra in 2006 soon after she had won the Sky News Young Journalist Award in a UK wide competition – that same year, Forbes Magazine named her as one of their ‘Thirty to Watch Under Thirty.’
We quickly developed what would be a lifelong bond.
Lyra was born to be a journalist. Writing was in the very marrow of her bones.
And her guiding light, her North Star, was the search for the hidden truth behind the stories of many of the victims of the Troubles. By uncovering them, she wanted to restore both meaning and agency to their lives.
She was fascinated by the story of the murder of Reverend Robert Bradford, the Belfast South MP who had been assassinated by the Provisional IRA in 1981, the year of the hunger strike in the Maze prison.
It was a project which would absorb her for years and the month before she died, she had just finished correcting the proofs of the Bradford book, ‘Angels with Blue Noses’, published shortly after her death by Belfast publisher, Excalibur Press.
In 2018, she signed a two-book publishing deal with Faber & Faber, the first of which, The Lost Boys, about the unknown victims of the Troubles, had been due for publication later this year.
Faber’s Laura Hassan said at the time, “I was hooked by McKee’s singular, crisp prose and I loved the blend of investigative journalism, true crime, memoir and social history in The Lost Boys. McKee has that knack of engaging the head and the heart – the fate of these children is deeply affecting.”
Hassan didn’t miss and hit the wall.
She wasn’t alone in her judgement, either. Just a month before Lyra died, Martin Doyle in The Irish Times featured her in his article ‘Best of Irish: 10 rising stars of Irish writing’
Today, her colleagues in the NUJ will mark the anniversary of her needless death by celebrating her life and legacy.
We invite media organisations, trade unionists, civil society leaders and members of the public to join with us in a symbolic virtual commemoration, just as they did following her killing.
Last night, Séamus Dooley said: ‘We will gather through social media, which she used so effectively, to celebrate Lyra’s legacy of hope and optimism. Her partner and family will be in our thoughts as the NUJ community unites under the banner “WeStandWithLyra.” That slogan remains relevant; Lyra’s positive spirit serves as an inspiration in these dark days.’
Here’s the big thing about our Lyra.
She was a talker, and a listener too. Naturally friendly, she was also unassuming, private, and very discreet. Respect and compassion for others guided her every step.
But she was no pushover. Her grit and determination were matched by her tenacity.
That was the type of her.
How will Lyra be remembered?
I like to think of the words of Roland Barthes here, ‘Where you are tender, you speak your plural.’ In that way, may the empathy and compassion which shines in every word she ever wrote show a path to the future for all of us, that the ceasefire babies of her generation may find their way.
This was first published in Belfast Telegraph 18 April 2020