“All the promise of Northern Ireland’s post-conflict generation”: a tribute to Lyra McKee

The young investigative journalist was shot dead during rioting in Derry last night.

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At the age of just 29, Lyra McKee was an accomplished and respected investigative journalist. Her reporting tackled the difficult subjects of post-conflict Northern Ireland with a sharp intelligence and concise, compelling writing. She forged a reputation for forensic interrogation of issues, coupled with clear compassion and empathy for the people at the centre of her stories.

I first got to know Lyra a few years ago when I was receiving a lot of sectarian and sexist abuse online over my writing. She messaged me to offer solidarity and support, and urged me to keep going. Following her death, many other journalists I know have shared similar stories of a young woman who was passionate about supporting fellow journalists, who went out of her way to be kind-hearted and to offer support when she sensed others were going through difficult times.

Her writing first found a mainstream audience in 2014 through an article she wrote about growing up gay in Northern Ireland, styled as an open letter to herself. In it, she wrote about her personal journey of feeling stigma and alienation, followed by acceptance and pride:

Kid,

It’s going to be okay.

I know you’re not feeling that way right now. You’re sitting in school. The other kids are making fun of you. You told the wrong person you had a crush and soon, they all knew your secret. It’s horrible. They make your life hell. They laugh at you, whisper about you and call you names. It’s not nice. And you can’t ask an adult for help because if you did that, you’d have to tell them the truth and you can’t do that. They can’t ever know your secret.

Life is so hard right now. Every day, you wake up wondering who else will find out your secret and hate you.

It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better. In a year’s time, you’re going to join a scheme that trains people your age to be journalists… For the first time in your life, you will feel like you’re good at something useful. You’ll have found your calling.

She signed it: “Keep hanging on, kid. It’s worth it. I love you.”

Reading it at the time, I was taken aback by the bold confidence she displayed in discussing an issue which was still at that time considered ‘controversial’ or taboo in Northern Ireland, where prejudice and discrimination against the LGBT community still persists. It was one of the first times I had seen someone in Northern Ireland discussing LGBT pride unapologetically, with confidence and joy. Her vocation for and commitment to journalism was evident to see. It clearly struck a chord with many, quickly going viral and letter being made into a short film.

Lyra was eight years old when the Good Friday Agreement, the peace treaty which marked an end to Northern Ireland’s bloody conflict, was signed. She had grown up in north Belfast just off the area known as “Murder Mile”, a moniker reflecting its infamy as having some of the highest death rates during the Troubles. She developed a voice as one of the most talented writers of Northern Ireland’s post-conflict generation, writing intelligently and compassionately about inter-generational trauma, and the lingering effects of the Troubles among younger generations.

In “Suicide Among the Ceasefire Babies”, a 2016 article published by the Atlantic, she investigated how some communities in Northern Ireland experience a much higher suicide rate than elsewhere, as they continue to struggle with the trauma of the past long after the Troubles ended. She painted a compassionate and vivid portrait of an issue seldom discussed in Northern Ireland, where stigma continues to cling to discussions about mental health more than in other societies.

In that article, she wrote of her own awareness and relief of coming from a generation which had been spared the worst horrors of Northern Ireland’s violence:

The Sunflower is a tiny little pub perched on a corner in an alleyway between the edge of north Belfast and the city centre, in the province of Ulster. With bright green paintwork, it’s known for attracting a genteel crowd of writers, journalists, poets, and musicians, a smattering of post-conflict hipsters who wear tight jeans and tweed jackets and Converse. There are poetry readings and concerts by local indie bands in a smallish room upstairs. A sign outside on the wall says: “No Topless Sunbathing—Ulster Has Suffered Enough.”

For tourists, it’s an introduction to the natives’ quirky black humor, our way of dealing with all that’s happened. For those of us who grew up in north Belfast and know the area, the sign calls to mind the suffering experienced on those very streets when a loyalist murder gang, the Shankill Butchers, drove around looking for Catholic victims to torture and kill. If I’d been born a decade earlier, I wouldn’t have dared to venture down those streets, never mind drink there. Now, it’s safe.

In 2016, Lyra was also named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 in media in Europe.

She had recently signed a two book deal with Faber & Faber, who described her as a “rising star of investigative journalism”. The first was due to be published next year and examined the stories of children and young men who went missing during the Troubles and the impact of their disappearance on their families.

In her short life, she had achieved so much and still had so much potential.

Lyra embodied all the promise and potential of Northern Ireland’s post-conflict generation. Her death is the loss of a burgeoning talent and a kind, compassionate, young woman who will be very much missed.

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.