Lyra McKee remembered by Sara Canning

31 March 1990 – 18 April 2019
Her partner on the murdered Northern Irish journalist who had time for everyone on both sides of the divide

• Scott Walker remembered by Michael Morris
• Read the Observer’s obituaries of 2019 in full

Lyra and I met on a dating app called Plenty of Fish, the day after St Paddy’s Day, 2018. We started talking and we didn’t stop for a year. I didn’t realise who she was until about an hour into our chat. I asked her what she did and she brushed it off by saying she worked for a Silicon Valley news site and did a bit of journalism on the side. That’s when it clicked and I was, like: “Oh God, hold on, are you that Lyra McKee?”

Afterwards, we kept texting and DM-ing each other and eventually I drove up from Derry to Belfast to meet her on the Saturday before Easter weekend. I was really nervous, to tell the truth. I felt like I was in a bit over my head. I remember thinking, she has the world at her feet – a Silicon Valley job, a two-book deal with a big publisher in London – and I work in a hospital sticking needles in people.

We hit it off right away. There’s a meme about lesbian dating: let’s get the small talk out of the way and you can tell me about your deepest trauma and how it still affects you. That was us, really. We talked all afternoon. We went to Clements on Botanic Avenue for coffee and later to Sakura for sushi, just talking nonstop. Then we went to the Botanic Gardens for a wander and more talking. Even by Northern Ireland standards, we did a lot of talking. We could have talked the hind legs off a donkey.

We had a lot in common. We both came from deprived Catholic areas. We both went to all-girls schools where it was terrifying to be gay. Lyra had written about coming out when she was 18, and how, to her relief, it was received quite well by her family. I came out when I was 26 and in a relationship with a man. Not ideal. I left and, initially, I made some new friends at Pride, but relationships were tricky. In Northern Ireland, when you meet someone relatively untroubled about their sexuality, it’s a real joy. Lyra and I had a deep connection from the start. I wanted to see her again straight away so we arranged a date for two days later. It developed really quickly into full-on love.

We swapped stories and, of course, hers blew my mind – the stories she was working on, what she had achieved. She didn’t ever believe her own hype, which, of course, was totally deserved. She’d made her mark when she was 16 or 17. People knew her from her writing about the Ceasefire Generation, but she didn’t view herself as anyone special. In fact, she constantly questioned her worth, if she was worthy of all the praise, no matter what she had achieved. It made her really likable and just, well, normal.

What struck me most was the way she had of just seeing the best in people and reaching out to them, even if their political views were diametrically opposed to hers. She cared really deeply, sometimes too deeply. She had this collection of waifs and strays. Many of them amazing, but some of them were absolute nightmares. I don’t know how she put up with them. She took on other people’s problems, their pain. It would spill over into her own life and she’d fret and worry a lot.

In a way, it was amazing that she achieved what she did because, underneath, she was in severe anxiety a lot of the time, a ball of nervous energy. She was like one of those ducks that seems calm and unruffled on the surface, but underneath, its legs are going like mad. The empathy and the anxiety went hand in hand.

Lyra kept in contact with the people she wrote about. She didn’t drop them once the story was done. After her death, I was overwhelmed with stories from people I’d never met. At her wake, one young guy was breaking his heart telling us how she had helped him on social media when he was suicidal about being bullied. Lyra had personal experience of that. He had posted something and she had DM-ed him right away and then, afterwards, kept an eye on him.

My da had died the year before and Lyra and I had taken some time off. I was helping Lyra with research for the book she was working on about Thomas Spence and John Rodgers, two young lads who had disappeared without trace in Belfast in the 1970s. She believed they had been murdered, but not for the usual political or sectarian reasons. I spent hours in the Newspaper Library in Belfast while she went out meeting sources and doing the difficult, potentially dangerous stuff on the ground. It’s fair to say it had become a mission. That was what she was like in work mode – obsessive, single-minded. She had a thirst for knowledge about the Troubles but also for people’s personal stories. It didn’t matter what foot you kicked with, she wanted to hear your story. In a Northern Irish context, I think she was quite exceptional in that way.

Lyra moved to Derry and soon after she was making contacts and speaking to ex-political prisoners about their experiences, on a quest to understand it all. She had grown up for a time on what was called the Murder Mile in Belfast, but her mum had kept her sheltered from the worst stuff. That night, 18 April, we were lying in bed in our pyjamas when we heard there was trouble up in the Creggan. Right away, she said “Will we go up?”, and I was, like, “Nah, no way.” I was ambivalent but I could see she was going to go up on her own anyway so we got dressed and headed up there... In Derry, there had been a lot of rioting the previous summer and people would still go up to my friends’ house in the Bogside and have tea and biscuits while the rioting was going on. You could watch it from their front door. It might seem mad to outsiders, but that’s what they did. The attitude was “it’s just another riot”.

Lyra McKee and Sara Canning.
Lyra McKee and Sara Canning. Photograph: Courtesy of Sara Canning

When we got there and Lyra saw the demographics of the crowd, it tied into her interests. These young lads were part of the Ceasefire Generation, too, and younger. Where were the dividends of the Good Friday agreement for them? She went straight into reporter mode. We were there for eight minutes and if she uttered two words to me in that time, that was it. She was on the phone, taking pictures, her mind was taking it all in for the story probably already forming in her head.

What I remember is that I heard this kind of cheer from the crowd and I immediately thought they were going to rush the police line. I turned to tell Lyra and she was on the ground. It was just unreal. Now, I know it happened and I have flashbacks, but it still doesn’t feel real.

I used to wonder how Lyra spent so much time on the phone. After she died, I understood. She had so many people in her life, so many people she had reached out to and made friends with. It kept her going and maybe it kept a lot of them going. That’s just the way it was with Lyra. She acknowledged people. She really cared about them.


Sara Canning

The GuardianTramp

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