Visible Women

Remembering Lyra McKee, a courageous woman killed while doing her job

Northern Irish journalist and LBGTQ+ activist Lyra McKee was shot dead during riots in Londonderry on Thursday. We should never forget her name. 

Death is always sad, one way or another. But it is a specific kind of sad when someone has their life taken from them, rather than passing away naturally. It is a specific kind of sad when someone did not get the chance to live a long, full life. It is a specific kind of sad when someone was, by all accounts, a kind and courageous person simply bursting with talent, empathy, integrity and potential.

Lyra McKee’s death is a specific kind of sad. It is shocking and heart-breaking and enraging that in 2019, in the United Kingdom, a young female journalist and LGBTQ+ rights activist – McKee was just 29 – could be killed while doing her job. She was shot in the head on Thursday 18 April while covering a riot that had erupted in Londonderry, Northern Ireland’s second city. (Many of the city’s residents, although not all, refer to it as Derry.) She was rushed to Altnagelvin Hospital, but was confirmed dead on Good Friday.

It was on Good Friday in 1998, of course, that the British and Irish governments settled on a historic peace deal, one that outlined how Northern Ireland should be governed in the wake of The Troubles. Officially called the Belfast Agreement but more commonly referred to as the Good Friday Agreement, the deal followed decades of violence and division between predominantly Catholic republicans and mostly Protestant loyalists in Northern Ireland. 

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Republican paramilitary group the New IRA has now admitted responsibility for McKee’s murder. In a statement sent to the newspaper Irish News, the group said McKee was “tragically killed while standing beside enemy forces. The IRA offer our full and sincere apologies to the partner, family and friends of Lyra McKee for her death.” On 23 April, the Police Service of Northern Ireland announced that a 57-year-old woman had been detained under the Terrorism Act in connection with McKee’s murder. The arrest comes after two men, aged 18 and 19, were arrested and released without charge.

Lyra McKee's girlfriend Sara Canning
Lyra McKee’s girlfriend Sara Canning speaks at a rally near the scene of her shooting on 19 April

McKee, who was born in Belfast, was not even in secondary school during The Troubles: she had recently turned eight when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. But much of her journalism investigated how the effects of decades of violence and division continued to reverberate down the generations in Northern Ireland, even as the prevailing narrative insisted that everything was fine; that that dark chapter of history was over.

In the proposal for her first novel, The Lost Boys – which she was working on at the time of her death – McKee wrote about growing up in a “conflict hotspot” in North Belfast, off the road known as Murder Mile. 

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“Many people have grown to dislike the use of the word ‘war’ to describe what happened here,” she wrote. “The term ‘The Conflict’ became a more acceptable alternative, even if it made a 30-year battle sound like a lover’s tiff… I lived with its legacy, watching friends and family members cope with the trauma of what they could not forget.”

McKee’s most recent story, published in the Belfast Telegraph four days before she died, explored one aspect of that traumatic legacy: the rising rates of suicide among young people in Northern Ireland since the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement. It was a subject she had written poignantly about before, notably in a 2017 essay titled The Suicide of The Ceasefire Babies. Reading McKee’s final piece now makes one feel sick that such a bright talent has been snuffed out; devastated that such an obviously warm heart has been stopped. 

Tributes to Lyra McKee
Tributes to Lyra McKee left near the site of her shooting

There is also a painful irony in McKee’s analysis of how the Northern Irish “peace process has succeeded – in some ways”. People wanted peace in Northern Ireland, she wrote, “to stop mothers being robbed of sons, daughters, husbands… to stop the violence from visiting our doorsteps”.

But while “people are no longer dying at the hands of paramilitaries,” she continued, “they’re still dying, too young and too soon. The culprit now is suicide.” She did not know – how could she? – that she herself would die at the hands of paramilitaries, both too young and too soon.

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McKee finished the piece by invoking a promise often used within the LGBTQ+ community that she was so proud to be a part of: “It gets better”.

“It’s what we tell LGBT youths and others who are currently journeying through hell. Keep going, we say, because one day you’ll wake up and be glad that you lived.” It was the same advice she had offered her closeted 14-year-old self in an open letter that went viral in 2014, making her name as a writer: “It’s going to get better”.

Lyra McKee flowers
Flowers left for Lyra McKee

At the time of McKee’s death, her life does seem to have been getting better – and better, and better, and better. She was living in Londonderry with her partner, Sara Canning, whom she had described in another article for the Belfast Telegraph as “the love of my life”. She was working on her novel, which was due to be published by Faber next year, and had just approved the cover for a non-fiction novella she had written about the murder of Belfast MP in 1981, titled Angels with Blue Faces.

Perhaps most importantly, she was surrounded by friends, family and colleagues who loved and admired her. In the wake of her death, some of her friends have staged protests outside the office of Saoradh, a political group linked to the New IRA, covering their palms in red paint and placing scarlet handprints on the walls. At the time of writing, police had declined to arrest any of the grieving protesters.

Immediately after McKee’s death, Canning spoke of how members of the LGBTQ+ community had been “left without a tireless advocate and activist”, while she had been left “without the love of my life, the woman I was planning to grow old with”. She has now asked attendees at her partner’s funeral to wear clothes inspired by Harry Potter and Marvel, a nod to McKee’s pop culture passions and joyful spirit.

The funeral, Canning said, is “going to be a celebration of her life”. We should all join her in celebrating McKee’s life – and mourn that it was ended too soon.

A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to raise money for the family of Lyra McKee for funeral expenses and to decide on her legacy.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images 

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