Article By Kathryn Johnston - Photography by BRUCE WANG
This week ITV broadcast a unique documentary, The Real Derry, curated and narrated by Jamie Lee O’Donnell, who plays Michelle Mallon in the Channel 4 sitcom which offers a biting commentary on Derry in the years before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
It was both moving and inspirational, and particularly significant in the beautiful tribute she paid to Lyra McKee, the 29-year-old journalist who was shot dead in Derry just over three years ago.
Now CWS, in a lengthy and exclusive interview with Lyra’s partner, Sara Canning, Sara discusses growing up in Derry, her relationship with Lyra, her memories of the night that Lyra was murdered and her hopes for Lyra’s legacy.
We met in her house.
‘Lyra looked like a child. The night she was shot, we got to the hospital, and somebody was like, they shot a child, they shot a child, they shot a 12-year-old.
‘And then I realised they were talking about Lyra, because she was wearing baseball jacket and sweatpants and her wee shoes that she’d just got for her birthday. And I was like, no she just looks like she’s twelve.’
Sara Canning was talking about her lover and partner Lyra McKee, the 29-year-old Irish journalist shot dead by a republican dissident group on 18 April 2018 in the Creggan area of Derry/Londonderry in the Northwest of Northern Ireland.
‘You didn’t get to let Lyra go. If she met you and she liked you, you were hers for life. You didn’t get to get away from her. That was one of the things that I loved about her. She would say ‘I met so and so when I was 17 and doing a story about x y z.’ Whenever she would bring up her calendar on Google, it would have been all blocked out, like 5.30 on Thursday, ring Kathryn.’
I first met Lyra Catherine McKee when she was sixteen and had just won the Sky News Young Journalist of the Year award.
I still have all her texts. The night before she was killed, this is what she sent me:
‘Ring me, missus. Urgent’.
She probably wanted someone’s phone number. She had form for that.
When we first met, it was not long after she had written ‘Letter to my fourteen-year-old self.’
When Bruce Wang and I talked to Sara Canning after the Northern Ireland Assembly election, we were still waiting to hear what the results were.
‘I went and voted in the Assembly elections yesterday and that was how I chose who to vote for, right who’s pro-choice. I got to vote for five people, which was very good.
‘But nothing’s changing. There must be an end to this. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) must be renegotiated; it must be.
‘It fails on all kinds of diversity issues.
‘It has the lowest number of women representatives on it of any elected body in the UK.’
‘Look at East Antrim, not one woman there. We make up 52% of the population yet you wouldn’t think it to look at Stormont.
That is changing slightly since the election results came out.
For the first time ever, the number of women in the Assembly has increased, Sinn Fein has outstripped the extreme unionist Democratic Unionist Party. And most significantly, for the first time, three openly gay men have been elected to the Assembly.
But the poor gender representation figures still give cause for concern.
CEDAW – the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women has repeatedly linked the relationship between successful peacebuilding to gender representation in post conflict situations.
‘Women are by and large left out of the peace process. Realistically if you look at a lot of the peace process it was women who instigated it. People like Monica McWilliams. She is on the Board of the Hume Foundation. She is brilliant!’
I asked her about how she met Lyra. Before I did, we talked about our joint memories of Lyra and how happy moving to Derry with Sara made her.
In an email shortly before she died, she wrote, apologising for failing to ring me when she had said:
‘I’m exhausted. You should try ferrying a carload of drunk lesbians around Derry.’
In another post when she had dressed up as part of a Sister Act tribute, she tweeted Father Martin Magill, a mutual friend who officiated at her funeral service, with a demure smile on her face as she clutched a pint of cider:
‘Got roped into performing as part of a Sister Act tribute act for Foyle Hospice. Hey @MartinJMagill, you need any help with mass tomorrow?'
Sara spoke about her first contact with Lyra McKee.
‘When I met Lyra – we started talking the day after St Patrick’s Day, 2018 – the 18th of March.
‘And I was very hungover. I’d been out the night before to drown my shamrock. And I was lying on the sofa in my wee living room with curry in my hair.
‘You could do this thing on Plenty of Fish where you sent a like, and she had sent me a like a while before.
‘And I read her profile and I went, oh my god, this is a woman who can use punctuation, who knows what an apostrophe is. And I was like, there’s no way she’d be interested in me. But I said to myself, I’ll send a like back, and we’ll see what happens.
‘Then she sent me a message and it was basically ‘If you’re a proper Harry Potter fan’ – how that has aged badly – ‘you’ll know your American Hogwart house’ and I said of course I know my American Hogwart house – and that’s how it started. With Ilvermorny School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
‘And we never stopped talking from that point on until the time she died.
‘It was just a constant flow, we never got bored with each other, we never ran out of things to say to each other, there was always something to talk about. She was so interesting, and she knew so many people – it was mental. I had never met anybody up until I met Lyra and then I met the entirety of Northern Ireland’s hoi polloi. Journalists – like I remember going to meet you in Burger King on York Street.
And then I met Ali…
‘Lyra was like, she’s won BAFTAs and IFTAs and that…. OK!
‘I remember coming out from work in my work uniform and my big coat and I went to meet them in the Bishop Gate’s hotel, it had just opened…And I looked in, and I saw Lyra, and she ran and ran and jumped up into my arms…And they were having a meeting with this guy who did finance for a large production company – it wasn’t your normal, sit down for ten minutes and have a cup of coffee sort of thing…They were a massive backer and she just got up and disappeared!’
‘We all went to Achill Island Film Festival (an island off the coast of Co Mayo in the Republic of Ireland) next week for a screening of the Lyra film.’
Ali is Erica Starling film director Alison Miller, her husband, the children’s author Paul Howard, Lyra’s sister, Nichola McKee Corner and her husband John, Sara, of course and a couple of dogs.
‘It’s in for a lot of awards, but that means it can’t be broadcast on Channel 4, who commissioned it, until it’s finished going round all the festivals.
‘After Achill Island, it’s going to Sheffield.’
I’m off to America at the end of June. With the Hume Foundation. I’m on the Board of Directors.
I’m the youngest person on the Board – ‘youngest’ because I’m nearly 39 – and the only queer person. Our political views wouldn’t be identical, but we are broadly apolitical.
Back in the day, in 1995, when Lyra was five, I had just started secondary school. I was a second year in St Cecilia’s in Creggan.
St Cecilia’s now is state of the art, it’s a beautiful school, but the school I went to at the time had bullet holes. During Operation Motorman, the army came into the school, they took over the top floor and used it like a watchtower and they would have regular gun fights with the IRA.
‘Then there was a door as you came through the front gate - the first gate you came to, right up until the 80s, was the army door. But we couldn’t use it, the school children couldn’t use it at that time, it was strictly for the armed forces to come in and out of our school.
‘The thing that gets me with it is how little regard both the armed forces and the IRA had for the children. Which is an ongoing issue. This total disrespect of a place of learning, a place that is supposed to be a sanctuary and a safe place for kids. The army made it a target by taking it over. And the IRA responded in kind.
‘But it’s ever decreasing circles here, it’s the ripples that constantly collide. It’s such a small place to have such conflict.
‘That’s the nature of where we live. And if you don’t live here, or if you aren’t politically aware living here, you could probably exist in a vacuum and never think about it.
‘And then in 1989 – there was a wee place in the grounds of the chapel, and it was a school for years, it was called the Wee Nuns – now it’s a cultural centre. We were the last year to use it as a school. We were in doing our PE one day, we were all on the floor, wearing our wee crappy 99p plimsolls…And then the windows all came in. The IRA and the army were having a gunfight and the crossfire was coming through our classroom windows.
‘We were six years old.
‘But all we did was stayed on the floor and when it finished, we got up and went into the next classroom. The teachers brushed it up, and the handymen came and nailed up the windows.
‘Life went back to normal. And it kind of - you tell people that - it didn’t faze us – I think because it was all around us, it was everywhere…
‘The only other thing that I ever remember was during the year that the IRA planted the bomb on the Bloody Sunday commemoration march (28 January 1990), the bomb on Derry’s Walls? The IRA planted the bomb on the walls targeting the British army and a 17-year-old boy died when masonry fell on him and killed him.
Lyra wasn’t even born until two months after that.
I remember that day meeting Gerry Adams. Me and my mammy were standing talking to Gerry Adams – because I asked him for his autograph! He was famous, he was on tv, but they blurred out his face and Stephen Rea the actor had to read his words! Because he was a terrorist.
I was like, oh my god. It was like meeting a star. They were weird times here then!
‘So it was before Christmas 2018 that I met Lyra. And then she moved up to Derry to live with me here. Just months before she was taken.
‘But we had had a great year, we’d fitted so much into the year. We did Spain, twice, Alicante. We were in London, Manchester. I always said we fit more into that year than I did in six-year relationships. Obviously, there was a reason we were meant to fit all that in.
And I think a lot of people think when you’re a freelance journalist and you’re tapping away at a keyboard, working from home, that your time is free. Whereas you are really having to graft, both physically and mentally.
As well as the freelance work, she was also doing her editing job, she was writing a book – well two books really, because she was editing Angels With Blue Faces again, plus working on Lost Boys…Lyra’s biggest problem was she got bogged down a lot with the research, she would get lost in it. And she suffered from writers’ block badly.
But she found, when she moved to Derry, that she was on her own, because I was at work, that she was able to get her head down and really work. So she got a lot done in that short time she was living here.
We were working together; she was learning how to cook – I was glad that I didn’t meet her until she had learned to drive! The first couple of times I got in the car with her, it was like hold onto the Jesus handle, but she had really improved a lot.
I helped her with research, I used to go off to the newspaper library and watch microfilms for hours. It worked well for both of us because it kept my brain ticking over. She was good for me, and I was good for her. It was all sliding into place for us. And we had this house, we were going to get it sorted the way we wanted it, the wee bedroom was going to become her office. And we had Marie, the cat, Lyra brought her up from Belfast when she moved.’
Lyra spoke of how happy she was on Twitter.
‘Thanks so much for the recommendations, everyone. Spending my evening with a Chinese, the cat, the missus, and some Netflix now!’
‘After Lyra died Marie became a real snuggle bug. You know how Lyra went on about Marie, the cat was evil. And she had a god complex, all that sort of stuff. She wouldn’t have come and sat on your knee, she liked being petted but only on her terms.
‘In the months after Lyra died, she obviously missed Lyra and just became a proper snuggly wee thing. She would come over and curl up on my chest and give me cuddles and sit on my knee, and I was, like McKee would love this. It was quite sad.
‘But yeah, she was well settled. We had got engaged, we were meant to go to New York a few weeks after she died, this time three years ago we were supposed to be flying off to America, to New York, and we had everything booked.
We were doing a Mafia/cop food tour, because of course you had to mix food with crime, you couldn’t have one without the other, at least not with Lyra.
‘We had tickets booked to go and see Harry Potter and The Cursed Child on Broadway.
‘We had loads of like wee adventures booked for different days and then we realised, this day has nothing. So maybe we’ll get cheap tickets to a show, or maybe we’ll go on the Staten Island ferry…
‘She obviously had the engagement all planned, we were staying with a friend of hers from Princeton, who lived in New Jersey. She was the one Lyra met in the Linenhall Library in Belfast. She had been doing an internship there. Her mother was from Belfast and left because of the troubles and then Kelsey obviously came back.
‘She had it all planned out and I knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know quite when. She had shown me the ring after she bought it, she couldn’t keep it a secret. She said, it feels like a bad secret to be keeping. I said, it seems like the best secret you could be keeping to me.
‘Then obviously that night happened, and I didn’t want to go up that night because I’ve lived here my whole life, I’ve seen it play out loads of times. Obviously, it has never played out the way that it played out that night…
‘But she was a journalist to her very bones. And I could see it in her as soon as she got up there. She stopped talking to me and she was messaging, and she was taking pictures, tweeting photographs.’
Sara went on to describe the brief time she and her lover, Lyra, were standing observing the riot on the night she died.’
‘We were only there eight minutes. It was eight minutes from when we arrived till she was shot. And in that time, I knew, because she just stopped talking…and if I needed her to move, I had to pull her about the place. We were quite a way down, near the burning vehicle and then the burning vehicle started making noises, and I was like, I don’t like this. I know that they say they don’t explode, but we’re not taking chances, we’re coming back up here.
‘And it could have been me. It could have been the woman holding her baby down the street. It could have been the 14-year-old girl standing behind Lyra who now must live the rest of her life having seen someone being shot in the head. It’s never going to be nice to see somebody being shot, but like, somebody being shot in the head.
‘I didn’t see it; I saw the aftermath. I didn’t even realise that it had happened. Where is the line going to be drawn for people, where they literally took a life? Where they didn’t care?
‘And then the next day, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill (then First and Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly) came up to a rally, the first time they had ever appeared together, in Creggan!
‘If nothing else, Lyra McKee’s legacy is that she got Arlene Foster to Creggan. If she knew that, she’d be screaming! You know yourself; she would find that hilarious.’
‘I don’t know if I’ll ever find out who pulled the trigger. I would love to know because I hate the thought of walking along the street and maybe being near him.
There is no justice in knowing who shot her, there is no justice in vigilante justice, nothing will bring Lyra back, but I would just love to know who it was.
The culture of silence here is just never ending.
The poem Seamus Heaney wrote, where he said ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ that’s the truest thing ever. It’s drummed into you from a young age. Especially around here. Whatever happens you don’t talk to anybody, especially the police. Whatever happens. How do you break that?
‘I’d like Lyra to be remembered for her love of dialogue and engagement. You couldn’t walk down the street without her stopping to talk to somebody. She talked to everyone homeless that she met.
‘We went to Dublin one day, and we were dandering down the street and she stopped to speak to a homeless person, who turned out to be from Belfast and she gave him money and she went and bought him a hot meal. It was just her way. She had a really nice way about her, she would have given her last penny to somebody. She loved hearing people’s stories.
‘You know like you would have had your fantasy dinner party? Lyra’s would be terrifying - she would have brought together the worst of humanity! To try to make them talk to each other. She had a brilliant talent for communicating.
The troubles have been over for 24 years and our kids still aren’t educated together, we still don’t live together. There is no point in educating our children together if they then go home to divided housing.
‘And they are all faith centred. We need a secular education system here; people can’t send their children to a non-faith school. It’s a real problem.
‘One of the things about Lyra that’s massively important to remember is the way that she looked at the world and the way that she looked at people. She wouldn’t – and it’s a thing that I struggled with when we were together because I grew up the way I that grew up, it took me till I went to university and out into the world of work – to start meeting people from other backgrounds, which is one of our biggest problems here. Instead of growing up with it, you must learn it as an adult. A lot of people can’t cope with that. They can’t undo their childhood.
‘I think because Lyra’s friends were often the outcasts and the other queer kids, and they had different things on their minds, that weren’t sectarianism…she never had that mindset, so she never had to undo it.
That was the beauty of the letter she wrote to her 14-year-old self retrospectively. Kid, it’s going to be OK.
‘And I think that’s one of the most important things about that piece. Maybe not for adults reading it themselves, but for adults who have kids I think it’s very important. To look at the way you raise your child is going to massively impact how they look at other people, never mind how they turn out themselves…If they are not open to people from other backgrounds, if they are not open to making those connections, then we are never going to get anywhere. They will always keep that mindset and that mindset will be perpetuated – over and over and over again.
‘Read the things that Lyra wrote, read what was important to her. It was never about orange or green, it was about what is their mindset, what kind of a person are they, what do they bring to the table.
‘And then she would have the difficult conversations with them, about why they saw themselves as either orange or green.
‘She had the cojones to have the conversation with people, to say that is a terrible view and here’s why I think that. Obviously, you are entitled to your view but I’m just going to give you a counterpoint, because you’re only getting your information from one source and it’s a fucking terrible source.
‘Lyra did that a lot and I think that’s an important thing for us all to do, to challenge people on their weird preconceptions.’
In ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing’ referred to above, the poet Seamus Heaney asks, ‘Is there life before death’.
Lyra packed more into her life for twenty lifetimes, but her death is an ongoing tragedy for journalism, for her many, many friends, her family and most of all for Sara Canning.
Sara is living her life now not just with vivid memories of Lyra but is working for a better future for all of us on this island through her work with the Hume Foundation, her campaigning and lobbying and to keep alive the love they shared.
It may be some comfort to her that those we love never leave us when they pass.
In the meantime, she would like to encourage all of us to think of the future, to think of each other and to work for a better, peaceful, and more diverse future.