The day after I agreed my book deal, I woke at 5:30am to compile the latest version of my manuscript so I could send it to my editor. It felt like a dream.
I checked Twitter while making my first coffee of the day. A tweet from Lyra McKee was top of my feed. The four words “Derry tonight. Absolute Madness” captioning a photo of a riot chilled me. The riot didn’t surprise me – since moving back to Ireland in the summer of 2016 I’ve been feeling a nightmarish slip-slide backwards and downwards with each visit to the North. I wasn’t surprised that tiny, brave Lyra was out at 11pm at a riot. But I was surprised and horrified to learn that a 29 year old woman had been shot dead. I felt the old pain, the old panic rise again. It took me a while to join the dots.
When I realised that Lyra was the 29 year old woman in question I went into shock. I tried to reach her like I usually did, via Twitter. I replied to her tweet. As if she could read it. As if she’d write back.
I found Lyra’s death devastating. It wasn’t just because she was a talented writer, a hugely generous human being, and one of the most brave, fierce and gentle women I have ever met. I feared Lyra would become just another anonymous Northern Irish death – a footnote in history, instead of the change maker she was destined to be. I wanted to tell the world how amazing she was – a huge loss not just to her family, partner and friends, but to Ireland and beyond. My underlying fear was that this violence would unleash more violence.
I first met Lyra in person at a tech conference in Belfast eight years ago. We were already connected on Twitter, and I remember watching her womble over to talk to me with that strange sense of dislocation I get meeting someone I know virtually IRL. I was instantly smitten by her killer combination of kind intelligence and a wide-open heart. And I feared for her because I already knew what she wrote about, the issues she tackled, the conversations she started.
In that first conversation – and the few times we met in person afterwards – I tried to convince Lyra to move to London where I told her bigger opportunities would come her way. I never stated the obvious – that she would be safer out of the North. Lyra told me again and again that she’d never leave the North because her mother was sick and she wanted to be there for her.
In April 2018 Lyra announced her 2 book deal with Louisa Joyner of Faber. I was thrilled for her. I was also jealous. I had been struggling with my writing for years, and wished I had the courage to write like Lyra. Though we are both from the North, we were very different. I was raised in a small rural community on the border. Lyra was brought up in the inner city. Lyra was a ‘Ceasefire Baby’. I am ‘A Child of The Troubles’. My generation was born into the conflict and came of age before the ceasefire. I – like many people of my generation – felt that Lyra’s generation had it easier compared to mine – even while they also have it much tougher than most of their peers in the Republic of Ireland, England, Wales, and Scotland. Lyra once wrote:
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.Mosaic
When I first read this, I wondered what Lyra had thought of as the spoils of peace. Perhaps she believed in what politicians spoke of in the media – economic prosperity – more jobs resulting in disposable income that could be spent on better houses and in nice cafes, fancy shops, or at non-sectarian festivals. It is a sign of how low my expectations were as a ‘Child of the Troubles’ that I saw the spoils of peace as the reduced chance of a violent death. It surprised me that Lyra and her generation asked for more. But I never articulated that to her. Because I wanted her generation to want more, and to have everything the peace dividend promised. I wanted them to have their hope and houses and cafes and festivals. And before her death, it felt like Lyra – with her partner, her friends, her family, her book deal, her rising star – was going to have it all, without leaving Northern Ireland. It felt like she was part of the generation that – despite the trauma and challenges it faces – was going to achieve change, and build a better future while processing the horror of the past.
I read that Lyra went out that night to see her first riot. I read that she was standing beside the police when she was shot. It struck me that if she’d learned the unwritten rules my generation learned, maybe she’d be alive.
I learned in my first riot (I was 4) that crowds are dangerous, that being small puts you at risk, that some people don’t stop to protect little kids when stones, bottles and fists are flying. I learned the hard way to keep a physical and emotional distance from ‘legitimate targets’ . I learned from bomb scares not to follow the crowd to the ‘designated safe area’ and instead get as far away as possible from the site of the risk. That if you see people running away, don’t stop to ask questions – run away (ideally taking an alternative route to the crowd). I learned not to trust the media, the police, the army, the government, my community, school friends. I learned to run away.
These rules can help you survive. But they didn’t help me thrive.
Years of violence taught most of my generation the hard way that Northern Ireland is not a place worth fighting for. Lyra’s lesson to me – one she learned from her family, her friends, her partner – is that Northern Ireland is a place worth living for, worth staying in, and has a future worth working for.
I want to be one of those people tackling the hard, unglamorous, unending work of peace. I hope that the politicians who were brought together at the site of her murder, the leaders gathered at her funeral, will roll up their sleeves and ensure that Lyra’s name is the last to be added to the Lost Lives list.
I believe Lyra’s legacy will live on. I picture her book coming out next year – in the centenary of Irish partition – surrounded by other books, documentaries and articles and music created by artists like me, whose voices are stronger, clearer, fiercer and kinder for having heard hers.