Lyra McKee was a brilliant journalist on the cusp of success, but also a wonderful friend, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
Published: 21 April 2019
At 6.30 last Friday morning I opened the email from Ann Travers with the subject “Shocking news”. It turned out I was one of those she was telling about Lyra’s murder.
I was grateful Ann had spared me from hearing it from a news broadcast. We could, at least, exchange distressed messages about the awfulness of it, particularly because Lyra had been so happy with her new life in Derry with Sara, to whom she was planning to propose. Ann ended her second email with: “I just keep waiting to hear her voice saying ‘Travers, I’m not dead but when I am I’ll haunt you!’ And that mad laugh of hers.”
And there, in a few lines, Ann captured so much of Lyra’s blithe spirit. Although she was driven by her deeply serious commitment to using her journalism and her life to help the underdog, she loved to have a good time and laugh a lot.
It was Lyra who brought Ann and me together. She couldn’t bear to miss an opportunity to combine people she loved, knew we had a shared interest in helping victims of terrorism and also thought we’d get on. Ann – whose sister Mary was murdered by the IRA as they attempted to kill their father, Tom, a Catholic magistrate – has been for years a doughty campaigner for victims (most recently with SEFF, the highly effective South East Fermanagh Foundation) and – particularly through my years of involvement with some of the bereaved of the 1998 Omagh bombing – I’ve had a particular concern for the ordinary people whose tragedies get forgotten about.
Lyra was pint-sized. When she rang me – in response to that distinctive voice saying “Hello, Lovely” – I would respond with “Hello, Midget”. But the tiny body contained a formidable mind, a strong will and a compelling personality. Ann was persuaded to travel to London to meet me, with Lyra alongside gripping the arms of her seat because she was at that time so terrified of flying. I remember a very happy afternoon outside my favourite cafe eating, drinking and mostly laughing as Ann and I began a friendship and an alliance. I remember, in turn, being persuaded to fly to an Irish Blogs Awards event in, I think, Kilkenny, where the three had serious and silly conversations.
I would have laughed with Lyra, next time we talked, over her second last tweet: “Slimming World is like going to confession. This week, I confessed to Burger King, a brownie, a white hot chocolate, a large bucket of popcorn, a large Coke, and a bag of Maltesers. My poor SW instructor was stunned into silence. Amazing, I put only half a pound on this week.”
However, the terrible reality Ann and I and so many others have faced since then, was summed up in her last tweet, an hour later: “Derry tonight. Absolute madness.”
When people die tragically, their qualities and importance are often exaggerated in the aftermath, but there isn’t any need to do that with Lyra. She was a social media devotee, so I immediately wrote a Facebook post which was a simple statement of what I saw as the truth. “Lyra McKee and I were long-time friends. She recognised no barriers to friendship except bigotry & badness. Her commitment & talent were about to bring her undreamt of success as a writer & she was in a loving relationship. What a sickening waste of a lovely, gifted human being!”
There, and on Twitter, where I posted a shorter message, the response was huge and almost all positive. Apart from the obvious tragedy of this promising young life being extinguished in a second by a criminal ideologue, there were the responses from so many lives she touched.
Lyra’s life had not been easy. She grew up on a tough, nationalist estate, was bullied at school and was horrified by her sexual inclinations. In a letter she wrote to her 14-year-old self, 10 years on, which begins “Kid, You’re going to be OK,” she commiserated with her: “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, it had to tell them the truth and you can’t do that.”
She found friends when she went to the local technical college, and had a key moment in her development when her friend Gavyn, who knew her secret, became a Christian and she feared he would reject her.
Instead, he sent a text saying: “This changes nothing. You’ll always be my friend.” “Accept him for what he is,” she advised young Lyra, “as he has accepted you.”
Lyra’s wisdom was also a reflection of that of her mother – whose devoted carer she has been for years.
She tells her young self that there will be the moment just before her 21st birthday when – guilt-ridden – she will feel driven to confess: “You can’t get the words out so she says it: ‘Are you gay?’ And you will say, ‘Yes mummy. I’m so sorry.'” And instead of getting mad, she will reply “Thank God you’re not pregnant,” and will ask how Lyra would think that anything would make her love her little girl any less.
And thus Lyra was helped to become someone who was a powerful force for uniting people, as well as standing up for underdogs.
In a TED talk she did in 2017, she spoke of how anti-gay bigotry should be countered not by howling insults about homophobia, but by initiating genuine conversations.
And that was how she applied herself to combating bigotry, tribalism and the herd mentality.
She made friends on a spectrum from Sinn Fein to the Orange Order. With all of us, she accentuated the positive.
But always, there was the intense curiosity about unsolved mysteries which led her initially to taking on as her first project an investigation into who in 1981 had murdered the unionist MP Reverend Robert Bradford. Such was her persuasiveness that I found it easy to help her crowdfund the time necessary to write the book.
After some years as a freelance journalist, as she spread her wings and began to develop an international reputation as an investigative journalist, she would focus her attention on unremembered victims of the Troubles and terrible legacies left decades on in, for instance, suicide levels.
It was an astonishing tribute to her remarkable talent that Faber and Faber gave her a two-book contract and were enthusing about the story of two forgotten boys who had vanished without trace.
The New IRA, perpetrators of this terrible murder, are defending themselves by claiming it was an accident.
That is what the Provisional IRA said about the killing of Mary Travers.