n our latest opinion piece, journalist Kathryn Johnson pays a moving tribute on the first anniversary of the death of her friend and colleague Lyra McKee, who died while observing a riot in Derry in April 2019.
“Lyra’s beautiful young life, ended so abruptly, will always be in our hearts and minds”
by Kathryn Johnston
A year ago, my friend, colleague and fellow member of the National Union of Journalists Belfast & District Branch, Lyra McKee, was shot dead in Derry by a dissident republican activist as she observed a violent clash between the New IRA and the police.
I miss her more than ever.
The first time we met was in 2006. It was obvious that the sixteen year old would go far. She had a knowledge of the troubles and a reverence for all those affected by them which just shone out of her.
She was some pup.
Already she was making an impact. She had just won the Sky News Young Journalist Award in a UK wide competition – later that same year, Forbes Magazine named her as one of their ‘Thirty to Watch Under Thirty.’
We got on like a house on fire – in spite of the difference in our ages.
I had lived in North Belfast near where Lyra had grown up for many years during the troubles and had worked as a freelance journalist since the mid 1980s.
The first person to commission a piece from me was Martin O’Hagan, then Deputy Editor of Fortnight Magazine and later an investigative journalist for the Sunday World.
Marty became Secretary of our Belfast branch of the NUJ. In 2001 he was assassinated by the Loyalist Volunteer Force as he walked home with his wife, Marie. He was the only journalist to be killed in Northern Ireland.
Until Lyra, that is.
His killers have yet to be brought to justice.
Like Marty, what motivated Lyra as a journalist was the fight for truth, justice and equality – no matter who the victims may have been.
Lyra was born in 1990, three and a half years before the first IRA ceasefire. As the main parties to the conflict in Northern Ireland signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the young Lyra could not have known the significance of that day.
But as she grew, she instinctively understood the legacy left by thirty years of the troubles, where more than three and a half thousand people were killed, with many, many more injured.
In January 2016, in Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies, Lyra wrote about Northern Ireland’s high rate of suicide.
It was published world-wide, including in the Belfast Telegraph, who published a selection of extracts of her work as a tribute to her after her murder last year.
Her words spoke for many.
‘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.’
It was on the eve of Good Friday 18 April 2019 that 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.’
Lyra 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.
She worked on it for years.
Shortly before she died, she had finishing correcting the proofs of the book she wrote about his death, ‘Angels with Blue Faces’, 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.
On Saturday 18 April 2020, her many friends and colleagues in the NUJ celebrated her life by inviting media organisations, trade unionists, civil society leaders and members of the public to join a symbolic virtual commemoration of her life, just as they had rallied together following her killing.
Throughout the day the banner ‘#WeStandWithLyra’ trended throughout the UK and Ireland on Twitter.
Thousands posted in solidarity. Among them was the author J K Rowling, who wrote:
‘I never met Lyra face-to-face, but we used to chat a lot by DM, mostly about politics and writing. I'lll never forget the ice cold shock of thinking I’d heard her name on the news and dashing to turn up the volume, telling myself ‘it can’t be her’, even though I knew it must be.
‘She was such a talent and so deeply loved, as was proven by the outpouring after her death. I’m thinking of her partner, her family and friends right now and sending love. Anniversaries of loss are always hard, but I think the first is the worst.’
Lyra had adored the Harry Potter books which Rowling wrote. One of the proudest days of her life was when J K Rowling retweeted her. Lyra’s partner, Sara – ‘the love of my life’ – said that Lyra would have loved it if mourners at her funeral would like to wear Harry Potter scarves in her memory.
Many of us did.
Last Saturday evening, I paid tribute to Lyra on UTV Live, a Northern Ireland three minute bulletin of the day’s news.
‘She stood for everything that is best about a journalist: deeply ethical, deeply compassionate…Lyra was named after a constellation, the Lyra constellation, one of the brightest stars in the sky and she is still burning brightly. It is my hope that that light will keep on shining and illuminate the way forward for those of her generation, the ceasefire babies.’
Often, when we mourn, external events can assume deep significance.
The very next morning I learned that April is marked by the Lyrid meteor shower, which radiates from the bright star Vega in the constellation of Lyra – the Harp.
Roughly every thirty years, shooting stars which radiate from the bright star Vega, in the constellation of Lyra, produce a dazzling cascade of light through the sky when the dust enters the earth’s atmosphere
There is an average of 30 years between the showers.
At the end of March, it would have been 30 years since Lyra was born.
As I look up at the sky to watch the meteor shower this week, I will think of her partner and family, who she loved so much.
Her beautiful young life, ended so abruptly and needlessly by a killer’s bullet, will always be in our hearts and minds.
This was first published online in www.ireland.ie on 20 April 2020
Kathryn Johnston is a journalist and writer and is Director and Deputy Editor of The View Digital.