By ANTON THOMPSON-MCCORMICK
There was no point trying to be calm the night I first crossed paths with Lyra McKee. It was February 2019, and here we were in a former Pentecostal Church in central London to celebrate Anna Burns becoming Northern Ireland’s first winner of the Man Booker Prize, for Milkman. It was Burns’ first big post-Booker event and all eyes were on her, readers and writers hanging on every word. I’d a hunch Lyra would be here; we’d been exchanging tweets and messages for a few weeks since I congratulated her on her new book deal with Faber (also Burns’ publisher). And as I looked round, there she was, just across the auditorium, rapt, taking notes. My heart leapt.
Burns had become a friend and mentor to Lyra — they had been raised in the same working-class, north Belfast neighbourhood, 30 years apart, and had attended the same high school. Both were putting Ardoyne on the map. Where Burns had pioneered a new way of writing about the fears and insanities of life during the Troubles, Lyra’s non-fiction documented her own era with comparable originality. She was the rising star for my post-Troubles generation. We loved her authentic voice and easy manner, the way she asked difficult questions of the previous generations, and linked their experiences with ours, “the Ceasefire Babies”. We identified strongly with what she had to say. Nobody else had ever put it like she had.
Reading Lost, Found, Remembered, Lyra’s posthumous collection of journalism and extracts of unfinished work, the unavoidable context is her murder – she was shot dead while reporting in Derry, aged just 29, in April last year. Pieces like ‘Requiem for a Journalist’, calling for solidarity following the shooting of young Mexican reporter Jaime Guadalupe González, take on an eerie new urgency. The facts are bleak, but the writing here is too lucid, too alive to let us get lost in remorse.
The book is arranged in three sections: previously unpublished work in ‘Lost’, lesser known pieces in ‘Found’, her best known in ‘Remembered’. In a brief introduction, Louisa Joyner, Lyra’s editor at Faber, states that the aim was twofold: to “commemorate her writing and magnify her voice”. For much of the first half, Lyra is concerned with legacies, particularly how the Troubles linger in the minds of Northern Ireland’s young people today. “I think it’s possible, for the first time,” she writes, “for someone of my generation to write about the conflict from a historical perspective. And yet, like so much of the recent past, it’s haunting, too. It’s all still there, just underneath the surface of things.”
Having grown up in late-Nineties Ardoyne, near ‘Murder Mile’ — the area of north Belfast that recorded the most Troubles casualties per square foot — Lyra remembers her mother’s palpable fear when she, Lyra, ventured into the backyard giddily carrying a cowboy gun. Her mother lost her temper, convinced the helicopter hovering above would swoop down from a thousand feet. The young Lyra is left puzzled. “The reality was that for many of us,” she wrote elsewhere, “our childhoods were defined not by what we saw, but by what we might see.” In this book she explains: “We, the elders believed, would never see or know the war they had. But we did. We just saw it through their eyes.”
Looming threats carried over from an invisible past: this feels familiar. For many of us children born to those Lyra calls “the survivors of the Troubles”, it is hard to ignore the brutalising effect the conflict must have had on our parents’ young lives. For them, growing up in a country about equal in size to Yorkshire, with a population a fifth of London’s, everyday brutality — shootings, bomb scares, blue lights, checkpoints and soldiers — was brushed off as “faraway” when really it was only just down the road.
Unspoken rules and good manners — ‘whatever you say, say nothing’ — had allowed people to live as if the Troubles hadn’t taken over the atmosphere and infected the air. “This was not schizophrenia. This was living otherwise,” as Burns puts it in Milkman. “It was a normality trying to happen.” Like Burns, Lyra’s work on the Troubles and their aftermath draws us away from bombs and bullets and men calling ceasefires, into the shadows of a more insidious, collective trauma: ordinary people forced to “live otherwise”. Mental illness, child abuse and domestic violence towards women “don’t stop just because there’s a war on,” Lyra writes. “They carry on because they can.”
In her author’s note in The Lost Boys, the book she never finished, she writes that the reason she knows the Troubles so intimately is because she has “lived with its legacy”. “They call us the Ceasefire Babies,” Lyra repeats time and again, but she hates the implied optimism of the term, how it conceals the way the conflict has taken on a life of its own in those of us born after the Good Friday Agreement. There are examples of hauntings from her own life: a funny sign in a pub full of hipsters becomes a weird cue back to events she knew about but didn’t experience; conversations with friends get stuck in an endless loop, battling over unsolvable questions left over from the Sixties. “We should have been worrying about the future, not the past… it was nasty, but kind of irresistible,” she writes, “like picking at a scab.”
These slippages between times add drama to her writing, no doubt, but they also ring true. Many in my own circle look back over our childhoods and wonder how much the collective trauma of the Troubles was a shaping force in how we now take in the world. Even if it was only in the way our elders tried to shield us from the actual, historical Troubles by acting as if they never happened, we were unnerved by their strange silences and evasions. Where lay the missing pages of our story? “Some were consumed by the memories and loaded their children with them, like bags on to a mule,” Lyra writes. “Others buried them.” Across Northern Ireland, the Troubles were “there in nearly every family, a ghost in the background somewhere” — murdered relatives, or just the story of a parent’s childhood friend, ”forever seventeen, shot in the head as he walked to the first job he’d ever had.”
In two important pieces originally written for Mosaic and the The Atlantic, Lyra weaves memoir, reportage and science to find out whether “transgenerational trauma” — trauma carried across the generations, genetically or psychologically — could explain Northern Ireland’s high levels of mental illness. In the 20 years of peace, total suicide deaths now outnumber those killed during the 30 years of conflict, including a disproportionately high number of young men. Lyra questions why the peace process hadn’t reached them. She takes fellow commentators to task for fixating on tribalism as if nothing else mattered: “We’re setting the bar pretty low for how we expect our public representatives to behave.”
As a young, gay woman from a mixed-religion background, Lyra broke access barriers on who got to ask questions, and how they were to be answered. She writes about social disadvantagement, the failing job market, under-funded education, and the unseen plight of asylum seekers. In columns in the Belfast Telegraph, she appealed like a friend to the best instincts of her readers, trusting them to engage on the level of lived experience. “I don’t want a United Ireland or a stronger Union,” she told them, “I just want a better life.”
Despite recent changes to equality laws, it’s still difficult being LGBTQ+ and pro-choice in many parts of the Christ-haunted North. In 2014, in a megachurch on the way to the Protestant Bible Belt that sweeps up through north Antrim – land of drive-in Churches and Scripture verses nailed onto trees – one minister made his opposition clear: “Two lesbians living together are not a family. They are sexual perverts playing let’s pretend”. In response, Lyra wrote a public letter that would become her most widely shared piece on both sides of the Atlantic, subsequently adapted into a short film. It’s addressed to her fourteen-year-old self, and to gay and trans selves everywhere — young people who had, like her, sat in their bedrooms bartering with God, wondering whether it’s worth living under the weight of so much shame. “Kid, it’s going to be okay,” she assures them, before telling her story of deep woes and thrilling highs — road stops to the adult life she never believed she’d live. Self-acceptance, falling in love, discovering her calling, bonding with new friends over Nando’s — in short, the dreams of freedom of any ordinary teenage soul, even Pastor McConnell’s if only he could remember.
By telling her story, Lyra wanted church representatives to acknowledge the human cost of ignoring its legacy of harm. She also wanted to reach out to those many ordinary Christians for whom gay and trans issues are less grounds for hatred and more about genuine confusion and fear. By telling her story honestly, she hoped Christians would share theirs too, and recognise the need for change in church teachings. “We need to do the one thing I didn’t want to do when I left school at 16,” she says in her brilliant TED talk, delivered 18 months before her death, and transcribed in the final chapter, “to have conversations, difficult conversations, and fight for the hearts and minds of those who oppose us.”
Earlier in the talk, she relates the story of her trip to the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where on 12th June, 2016, 49 people were shot dead by 29-year-old extremist Omar Mateen. At the burials of the gay dead, a group of fundamentalist Christians had protested with signs and issued a statement: “God sent the shooter to Orlando”. Initially nervous upon visiting a religious leader nearby to talk about these events, Lyra is stunned when their discussion of thorny topics unfolds into a profound sharing of grief over gay lives lost too young; “it changed my life.”
Closer to home, she describes going to a Belfast gay bar with her friend Jordan and his church-going Free Presbyterian mother. The mother had come down from the Bible Belt to support her son, and the next day tells everyone at work how amazing it had all been. Lyra recalls: “Now if you had told me that I’d be sitting in a gay bar with one of Ian Paisley’s disciples drinking cocktails, watching a drag show, I’d have told you you were mad.” The moment is like something out of Derry Girls — funny, but also defiantly hopeful. Regressive policies such as the Presbyterian Church’s 2018 declaration that it would not baptise the children of gay couples remind us that battles persist, but Lyra is clear: love wins.
The day before she died, Lyra and I were messaging each other planning a meet-up in Derry that summer with our friend and mentor Susan McKay. Now, as then, I imagine the three of us walking the city walls at sundown, laughing and grieving and hoping for better days in the “beautiful tragedy”, as Lyra called Northern Ireland. I wanted to talk to her about the sunset scene in Milkman, depicted on the book’s cover. It was a parable of life trying to happen in the Seventies Northern Ireland of our parents’ youth. In it a teacher brings her adult night-class to the window to study the sunset. Unable to still their minds and surrender to the mix and blend of colours in the sky, the students turn their backs, feeling betrayed by the teacher’s acknowledgement of other colours besides blue. Betrayed, because to admit to new amazements might leave them helpless before a tide of admissions their society couldn’t face. In our own era, Lyra’s life and work declared new freedoms and accommodations that only very recently have felt possible in Northern Ireland. Now she’s gone, we ask ourselves how we’ll manage without her. Her answer — for it is all here in this extraordinary book — is also her call to action: open your minds, permit all the colours, and render new possibilities through words.
Anton Thompson-McCormick is a writer and actor based in London and Ballycastle, Northern Ireland. His co-written piece about cycling the length of the Irish Border with his English partner, David, launched the Irish Times ‘Long Read’ section last year. He studied at Queen’s University Belfast and Drama Centre.
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