One of Northern Ireland's most haunting and unsolved murders is relived in harrowing detail in a powerful new memoir by a friend of the victim.
Kerri ni Dochartaigh reveals how Jonathan Cairns (18) was killed less than an hour after she had said goodbye to him - and also tells of the enduring heartbreak his untimely loss brought to all who loved him.
The teenager was attacked in the early hours of April 25, 1999, while on his way home from a night out in Ballykelly. The next day his body was found in a shallow grave in nearby Loughermore Forest. A man was jailed for helping to dispose of Jonathan's body but no one has ever been convicted of his murder.
"Jonathan was a really beautiful person and one of the best people I have ever met," says ni Dochartaigh (37), whose critically acclaimed book, Thin Places, charts her emotional recovery from a turbulent upbringing in Londonderry as the child of a mixed marriage - her mother is Catholic, her father, Protestant.
The family suffered sectarian attacks, which left her feeling terrified and an outsider from each community. That violence also proved a harbinger for later tragedies that engulfed her, and she spent her twenties and early 30s consumed with self-hatred, suicidal and self-medicating with alcohol.
Ni Dochartaigh was just 16 and enjoying a rare period of stability in her young life when Jonathan was killed. They never dated but she writes how "he was my closest male friend, the only boy I'd slept beside in a bed, the first person to give me a Valentine's card. He was murdered, most likely less than an hour after I said goodbye to him...
"That night our friend had walked me up home from the village chip shop, and we chatted about life on the short, dark walk. He made me laugh, so very much; it took me years to find people that made me laugh the way he had."
Jonathan rejoined their friends for a while that night and the next day ni Dochartaigh says they tried to convince themselves he would turn up safe, having crashed out at one of the other's houses. They talked about "how much he'd laugh (what a contagious, living laugh) when he caught us all out looking for him like on some dodgy crime series on TV. How he'd secretly be really upset with himself for putting us all through the worry - especially his wee mam."
But later that day his clothes were found near his home and soon after, ni Dochartaigh writes, "the bloodied, battered, utterly broken shell of a body" belonging to "that blond-haired, joyful, cheeky young man, the funniest person I had ever met" was unearthed.
The fact that the man jailed for disposing of the body was a neighbour who has "never shared the details that we begged for, never admitted who murdered our friend, his neighbour" is galling.
"It broke something in us, that murder of one of the best people we knew. It broke something in me so huge that it has taken two decades to try to fix it, to forgive the world for taking such a beautiful thing and beating it back down into the soil," she writes. "To forgive humanity for allowing the neighbour of someone I loved to carry his broken body in a car - up to an ancient forest that I loved - and to bury him, without ever explaining what happened, who did it, or why."
Ni Dochartaigh was left devastated by Jonathan's murder but in truth her own young life had been splintering for years. At just six years old, ni Dochartaigh saw the shooting dead of a soldier and though she never glimpsed his face she dreamt about him for years, "always superimposing a face and trying to see him as human".
By the age of 13, her family had already twice fled their home in fear of their lives from sectarian thugs. Her parents were teenage sweethearts who had settled in a Protestant housing estate in Derry's Waterside. Despite witnessing the soldier's murder, ni Dochartaigh and her younger brother were otherwise largely oblivious to sectarian tensions but that changed when her mother and father split up.
"Until I was nine we were very protected," she tells me. "We were living in a Protestant housing estate and my dad was a Protestant and we went to a Protestant primary school. Religion was in the background - dad's family were religious and we occasionally went to Sunday School but it was never a fixed thing."
With her father gone, however, "we were not Protestant" but "we were not Catholic either... our mum had lost the right to that in the eyes of many after marrying a Protestant".
Ni Dochartaigh was 11 when three teenage thugs lobbed a homemade petrol bomb at their home, setting it on fire. The family cat, trying to wake her in the smoke-filled bedroom, left deep scratch marks on her cheek. She had vivid, recurring nightmares about their burning house for years afterwards.
The family was rehomed "on an equally sectarian housing estate, except this one was a Catholic housing estate" in Derry's Cityside. Their stay there also ended abruptly when the youth club leader at her granny's church turned up to collect her in a bus covered in blue writing that read "Clooney Hall Methodist Church Londonderry". Ni Dochartaigh writes: "This was the sign that said that we were - in the words of the lad in the house opposite from us - 'dirty Orange bastards that needed put the f*** out.'"
This time they moved out before being attacked, escaping to Ballykelly, near Limavady, a village with harmonious cross-community relations. For ni Dochartaigh, it provided a brief haven from the Troubles but after a few years her world imploded again, first when her stepfather started drinking and left home, and then with her friend Jonathan's shocking murder.
What follows in the book is an unflinching account of ni Dochartaigh slowly unravelling. New pressures pile on - "repeated invasive surgery" from cervical health scares, an abusive friendship, the struggle to make ends meet at university and an unhappy relationship. There are suicide attempts, anti-depressants, panic attacks and alcohol abuse.
Yet this is not a memoir of unrelenting misery - far from it. In wonderfully evocative, lyrical prose, ni Dochartaigh repeatedly heads into the countryside, to the river, to the shoreline, seeking solace in the natural beauty of the world around her. Whether in Ireland, Scotland or England, she finds comfort in the "thin places that make us feel larger than ourselves, as though we are held in a place between worlds".
Her astonishingly beautiful writing, always with her personal story at its centre, sweeps across politics, history, Brexit, identity and the beauty of the Irish language, in profoundly moving meditations.
Remarkably, through all her struggles, ni Dochartaigh was a high achiever. After graduating from Trinity College Dublin, she determinedly left Ireland, moving to Edinburgh, then Bristol, building a career as a Steiner teacher and making good friends.
Five years into her new life in Scotland, just when she thought she may be "through the worst of it", she suffered a breakdown. A fortnight after the death of her grandfather, a flatmate returned home to find her shaking uncontrollably, weeping and clutching her mobile phone.
She cried for days and realised she wasn't only mourning her grandfather, but also all the tragedies and sorrows that life had thrown at her. "I'd a good job, amazing friends, I loved it there, but I couldn't work out why I was so upset. The reality was I hadn't fixed things, I was still blaming myself for things that happened to me."
Again she ran away, hoping a new start in Bristol, would herald better times. It didn't - but a near-death experience and a dangerous encounter proved an epiphany.
Ni Dochartaigh was sitting on the doorstep, reading, when her mobile beeped indoors. She went inside to see who the text was from. Seconds later a rotted window frame fell from an upstairs flat being renovated, showering the spot where she'd been sitting in broken glass.
"That was the turning point of my life," says ni Dochartaigh, who realised in the moment that she could have been killed, how very much she wanted to live. "I found that section hard to write. I didn't want it to seem wishy washy or mystical. I wanted it to be very rooted... a visceral, literal sense that I am still here no matter what, and that now it is my desire to remain here. I felt like I had woken up or that I had been underwater and was back up."
Shortly afterwards, walking home alone from a bar late at night, she realises a man is following her and glimpses a knife in his hand. Suddenly a squealing sound pierces the darkness and her would-be assailant runs off. The noise was the cries of two foxes mating.
Just as the family cat had scratched her awake during the petrol bombing, ni Dochartaigh had "once again been saved by nature, quite literally". (The empathetic presence of animals is a recurring theme - her brother brings home " a beautiful warm water rat" to their bleak council estate; for two years after Jonathan's death, he comes to her in dreams as a white bird).
In 2015, ni Dochartaigh finally began to confront her past. She returned home to Derry and moved in with a partner, identified only as M and 22 years her senior. She would lash out at him, telling him that if she ever took her own life, it would be his fault, but his support never faltered.
A year of therapy helped enormously, as did quitting alcohol. "I wasn't one of those people who went out and got hammered but I did drink every day. I used it as a crutch.
"I hated myself and couldn't face thinking about things. Some people are better not drinking and I'm one of them.
"I prefer letting my emotions come to the surface and dealing with them. I blamed myself for everything that was wrong in my life since I was a child and it has taken me years to undo that. But I'm proof that you can move forward from self-hatred into a space of openness with yourself, to forgiveness and light and hope really."
Working on Thin Places helped too. "Writing about trauma encourages you to be gentle with yourself," she says.
She began the memoir seven years ago as a series of fragments but her editor encouraged her to give it a linear narrative and "to be more upfront with the reader" about personal details, something ni Dochartaigh initially shied away and, one senses, still doesn't feel entirely comfortable discussing in an interview.
Life is good. She lives with M "in a cottage in the heart of Ireland. It's a life I never imagined living. I'm very grateful." The teenager who grappled with a feeling of not belonging, now "views my identity as being of this land mass, rather than Northern Ireland or Southern Ireland". It's important though that people suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from living through the Troubles are able to talk about it, she says.
She still thinks about a young man on the cusp of life who walked her home one night more than 20 years ago.
"During the pandemic so many people have been getting in touch with teenage friends they lost touch with. If Jonathan hadn't died there is a chance we'd have lost touch too, but if that had happened and then we'd have got back in touch, I know he'd be just the same good person he was then. A lot of people change but Jonathan wouldn't have. He was one of the good guys."
Thin Places by Kerri ni Dochartaigh, published by Canongate, £14.99