Belfast Telegraph

Applause, tears and laughter at a farewell like no other to Lyra McKee

Lyra’s partner Sara Canning
Lyra’s partner Sara Canning
Crowds outside St Anne’s Cathedral yesterday after the funeral of Lyra McKee
A mourner shows her emotion
Lyra’s coffin in the hearse
Jeremy Corbyn, Michael D Higgins and Arlene Foster after the funeral service
NUJ members form a guard of honour
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Seasoned observers of the Troubles admitted they had never seen a funeral quite like it.

Presidents and Prime Ministers came together in a Protestant church in Belfast with members of the LGBT community and mourners in Harry Potter scarves to give a standing ovation to a Catholic priest, who made an impassioned rallying call for peace and political progress in the name of murdered journalist Lyra McKee.

The sentiments in Fr Martin Magill's fervent plea have been heard repeatedly down the years, but there was a sense in St Anne's Cathedral that something was different yesterday.

The politicians he was begging to kick-start the Stormont Executive again were only feet away from him in the front pews of the church.

The leaders of Sinn Fein and the DUP, who were seated together, didn't look entirely comfortable as the priest threw down the gauntlet in their direction. But they also couldn't have missed the venting of pent-up anger and frustration from 'ordinary' people during the funeral at the political impasse of the past two years.

The Belfast priest, a friend of Lyra, didn't even have to finish a sentence before mourners erupted in applause as he asked why it had taken the New IRA's murder of the journalist to unite politicians.

Fr Magill took two attempts before he could complete the question: "Why in God's name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get to this point?"

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The coffin of journalist Lyra McKee is taken out of the church after her funeral at St Anne's Cathedral on April 24, 2019 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The coffin of journalist Lyra McKee is taken out of the church after her funeral at St Anne's Cathedral on April 24, 2019 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Theresa May pictured at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee
Irish Prime minister Leo Varadkar (R) and Prime Minister Theresa May (C) leave St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast on April 24, 2019, after attending the funeral service of journalist Lyra McKee (Photo by Paul Faith / AFP/Getty Images)
Irish President Michael D Higgins consoles Sara Canning, partner of the murdered journalist Lyra McKee as her funeral takes place at St. Anne's Cathedral (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Funeral and service of thanksgiving for journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn(centre) and Irish President Michael D Higgins(right) pictured at and at the funeral. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
Mourners and friends pictured at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast.
Mourners react as the coffin of journalist Lyra McKee, who was killed by a dissident republican paramilitary in Northern Ireland on April 18, is placed into a hearse following her funeral at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast on April 24, 2019. - Lyra McKee, 29, who chronicled the troubled history of Northern Ireland, was shot in the head on April 18, 2019, as rioters clashed with police in Londonderry, the second city of the British province. (Photo by Paul Faith / AFP)PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Funeral and service of thanksgiving for journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Mourners and friends pictured at the funeral. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye
DUP leader Arlene Foster at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee
Mourners listen to the funeral service of murdered journalist Lyra McKee outside St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday April 24, 2019. Miss McKee, 29, died as a result of injuries sustained when she was shot on the Creggan estate on April 18. See PA story FUNERAL McKee. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Mourners gesture as pallbearers carry the coffin of journalist Lyra McKee (29), who was killed by a dissident republican paramilitary in Northern Ireland on April 18, during the funeral service at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast on April 24, 2019.
The funeral of Journalist Lyra McKee takes place at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast on April 24th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
The funeral of Journalist Lyra McKee takes place at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast on April 24th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Mourners gather outside of St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast on April 24, 2019, during the funeral service of journalist Lyra McKee who was killed by a dissident republican paramilitary in Northern Ireland on April 18. - Lyra McKee, 29, who chronicled the troubled history of Northern Ireland, was shot in the head on April 18, 2019, as rioters clashed with police in Londonderry, the second city of the British province. (Photo by Paul Faith / AFP)PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
Mourners gesture as pallbearers carry the coffin of journalist Lyra McKee (29), who was killed by a dissident republican paramilitary in Northern Ireland on April 18, during the funeral service at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast on April 24, 2019. - Lyra McKee, 29, who chronicled the troubled history of Northern Ireland, was shot in the head on April 18, 2019, as rioters clashed with police in Londonderry, the second city of the British province. (Photo by Paul Faith / AFP)PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images
The coffin is carried into the funeral service of murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.
The coffin is carried into the funeral service of murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday April 24, 2019. Miss McKee, 29, died as a result of injuries sustained when she was shot on the Creggan estate on April 18. See PA story FUNERAL McKee. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
General view of the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St AnneÕs Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Picture Matt Mackey / Press Eye.
Prime Minister Theresa May paying her condolences to the family of Lyra McKee
Mourners listen to the funeral service of murdered journalist Lyra McKee outside St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar , Prime Mnister Theresa May and President Michael D Higgins before the funeral service for murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.
Mourners arrive for the funeral service of murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.
Mourners embrace ahead of the funeral of murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish President Michael D Higgins pictured at he funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St AnneÄôs Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Prime Minister Theresa May pictured at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne’s Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein leader Mary-Lou McDonald at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St AnneÄôs Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast.
President Michael D Higgins before the funeral service for murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.
A mourner arrives carrying a wreath for the funeral service of murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.
DUP leader Arlene Foster with Sin Fein's Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill before the funeral service for murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton. The funeral of Journalist Lyra McKee takes place at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast on April 24th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald arrives for the funeral service of murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.
Leo Varadkar arrives for the funeral service of journalist Lyra McKee at St Annes Cathedral on April 24, 2019 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND - APRIL 24: The congregation arrive for the funeral service of journalist Lyra McKee at St Annes Cathedral on April 24, 2019 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Journalist and campaigner for LGBT rights, Lyra McKee, 29, was shot dead last Thursday while observing the rioting in Londonderry. Her family gave a statement in which they said her "openness and her desire to bring people together made her totally apolitical". The New IRA have admitted responsibility for her killing. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Press Eye Northern Ireland Wednesday 24th April 2019 Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Sinn Fein leader Mary-Lou McDonald pictured at he funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St AnneÄôs Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
The hearse carrying the body of murdered journalist Lyra McKee arrives at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast.
Sinn Fein leader Michelle and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn pictured at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St AnneÄôs Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Press Eye Northern Ireland Wednesday 24th April 2019 Sinn Fein leader Michelle and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn pictured at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St AnneÄôs Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald before the funeral service for murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday April 24, 2019. Miss McKee, 29, died as a result of injuries sustained when she was shot on the Creggan estate on April 18. See PA story FUNERAL McKee. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
President Michael D Higgins before the funeral service for murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday April 24, 2019. Miss McKee, 29, died as a result of injuries sustained when she was shot on the Creggan estate on April 18. See PA story FUNERAL McKee. Photo credit should read: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Press Eye Northern Ireland Wednesday 24th April 2019 Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne’s Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Press Eye Northern Ireland Wednesday 24th April 2019 Simon Coveney TD at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St AnneÄôs Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Press Eye Northern Ireland Wednesday 24th April 2019 SDLP leader Colum Eastwood at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St AnneÄôs Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Press Eye Northern Ireland Wednesday 24th April 2019 Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn pictured at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St AnneÄôs Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Mike Nesbitt pictured at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Michelle O'Neill, Vice President of Sinn Fein arrives for the funeral service of journalist Lyra McKee at St Annes Cathedral on April 24, 2019 in Belfast
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald arrives for the funeral service of murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast. Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Naomi Long Alliance Party Leader at the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
General view of the funeral and service of thanksgiving for the life of journalist Lyra McKee at St AnneÄôs Cathedral, Donegall Street, Belfast. Lyra McKee was murdered in Creggan in Derry on Thursday 18th April. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
The funeral of Journalist Lyra McKee takes place at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast on April 24th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Mourners begin to gather for the funeral of Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast on April 24th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)

In a response redolent of what happened at Princess Diana's funeral in London in 1997, hundreds of people who had gathered outside the cathedral also clapped as they listened to a relay of the priest's words in Donegall Street, where from early morning it was obvious that Lyra's send-off was going to be a funeral like no other.

Young people dressed in the colourful garb of Harry Potter characters and comic book heroes came in their hundreds to say their painful farewells, but also to give thanks for their slain friend, who they called "a girl in a million".

Some mourners carried rainbow flags in honour of Lyra, a committed campaigner for LGBT rights.

Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn took time out from their fraught Brexit negotiations to join Irish President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to pay tribute to Lyra.

Few disputed the north Belfast author and journalist was destined to write herself into the annals of the great wordsmiths, but sadly she made headlines of horror and heartbreak across the globe after being killed by dissident republicans.

One friend said she hoped the message from yesterday's funeral that would go out around the world would be how the murder had crystallised the fact that there was for once at least a united Ireland - united in abhorrence of Lyra's murder by a New IRA gunman.

However, the tears of sorrow yesterday for Lyra were also fused with tears of laughter as her friends and family celebrated her remarkable life that, they said, was full of fun and joy. And compassion and love.

People from a myriad of backgrounds, from all generations, of all sexual orientations and from all religions and none, showed the world - which Lyra had at her talented feet - an unmistakable and unshakeable determination that they will not allow her death to have been in vain, and that as in her life, her passing must make a difference.

It was also a powerful message that the New IRA must listen to the demands that it should give up violence once and for all.

Even the choice of St Anne's Cathedral for the service was powerfully symbolic in itself, a recognition of an all-too-rare shared space in what has been a divided city.

Only pre-eminent churchmen, sports stars, business leaders and musicians are usually accorded funeral services in the historic building.

And normally they have been older men and women who have lived their lives, not a young woman who was still on the threshold of hers and who wasn't even born of the Protestant persuasion.

The service was broadcast live by the British-based 24 hour news channels and dozens of photographers and journalists from English newspapers were in attendance.

Lyra's murder may have catapulted her into the public domain, but at her funeral her love for her family was also underscored by inspiring addresses about the private side of the daughter who would phone her mother Joan 50 times a day to check that she was all right - "even when she was upstairs".

Lyra's sister Nichola Corner spoke on behalf of herself, her distraught mother, her sisters Joan and Mary and brothers Gary and David.

Nichola told mourners that Lyra had been buried with a flower in her hair in response to her love of the Scott McKenzie song San Francisco.

She said the family didn't have Dumbledore's time turner to change the past.

"But within each of us we have the power to create the kind of society that Lyra envisioned," she added.

"In the words of Lyra herself, we must change our own world, one piece at a time. Now let's get to work."

Lyra's friend Stephen Lusty - a self-avowed "middle-class, middle-aged Protestant heterosexual British male engineer" - told the congregation that she had told him just hours before she died that she was going to propose to her partner Sara Canning in New York.

"She showed me pictures of the ring she had bought for Sara and told me of the fabulous plans she had of her proposal in May," said Mr Lusty.

"She made me put a date in my diary for the wedding in Donegal in 2022 and gave me strict instructions to wear my kilt, which she always wanted to borrow, adorn it with some Harry Potter, and to find or refind my own version of Sara."

He laughingly referred to the questions she would ask him out of the blue about whether it was closer to drive to Derry or Londonderry, or why Protestants ate more vegetables than Catholics.

Mr Lusty said that after he introduced the indefatigable Lyra to the late southern politician Brian Lenihan, he described her as a "star".

But he added: "I would rather do 10 rounds in the boxing ring with Paisley than do that again."

He said that in her online journalistic work Lyra received "more than her fair share of cyber abuse and trolling, but she never hated anyone".

He said his generation had sung about an alternative Ulster - the words of a song by Belfast punk band Stiff Little Fingers - but added that people here should now build an alternative Ulster and make peace a lasting legacy of Lyra McKee.

Speaking at the beginning of the service, Dean Stephen Forde said: "Lyra was a person who broke down barriers and reached across boundaries, this was her hallmark in life, this is her legacy in death.

"As a journalist she pursued truth wherever it took her, never content with the sullen silence of unanswered questions.

"She was a child of the Good Friday Agreement.

"She was a primary school pupil in north Belfast when the Agreement was signed.

"She grew up to champion its hope for a society that was free from the prejudices of the past and open to the possibilities of a new future for the people of these islands."

In her short life Lyra had amassed an extensive network of friends and influential contacts, especially in the realms of crusading and investigative journalism.

And the esteem in which she was held was reflected in the fact that upwards of 70 writers and broadcasters formed a guard of honour for her as her coffin was carried out of the cathedral.

The size of the overall attendance underlined the reality that St Anne's was the only church big enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to pay their respects to the diminutive girl with the towering and prodigious spirit from a couple of miles up the road in Ardoyne.

For many of the people at the service it was their first ever visit to the Church of Ireland cathedral.

Lyra's family had requested that everyone should give her a dignified send-off but the 100-minute service wasn't all about solemnity and sadness. Lyra's partner Sara had said on Facebook that the "love of her life" would like it if people would wear Hufflepuff, Harry Potter or Marvel-related items at the service.

Her friends didn't let her down and Hufflepuff colours were everywhere on scarves and T-shirts emblazoned with #teamlyra.

No one was expecting to see DUP leader Arlene Foster or Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill wearing Hogwarts outfits.

But the fact that they were there at all was interpreted by many as a sign of hope.

However, that is what many commentators said when the same duo shook hands at the Requiem Mass for Martin McGuinness in the Bogside just over two years ago.

"And look what good that did us," one observer pointed out yesterday.

But she added: "The only difference today is that the calls at the funeral were so vociferous and so unanimous that it's hard to see how they can be ignored."

Famous faces voice support for family

As hundreds gathered at St Anne’s Cathedral yesterday for the funeral of Lyra McKee, many other prominent voices shared their support on social media.

Comedian Patrick Kielty posted: “Today Lyra McKee is laid to rest. She believed in peace, tolerance and equality. The exact opposite of those responsible. They will never win because Lyra will always be the future. And her truth will continue to be told.”

Actress Bronagh Waugh said: “Thinking of Lyra’s family and friends and partner Sara who have the unfathomable burden of laying her to rest today.

“Thinking of the people of Derry, of Belfast. But most of all I’m thinking about Lyra and what a bright and shining light she was.”

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