Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: The world will be a far darker place without my friend Lyra

Lyra McKee
Lyra McKee
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Lyra's dead. Lyra's dead. Lyra's dead. That's not true. Lyra isn't dead. I spoke to her on the phone a few hours ago.

My brilliant, beautiful friend with the biggest heart and soul of anybody I know is brimming with life. She's not lying on a road in Derry with a bullet in the head. She's just moved there, for God's sake.

Lyra's not dead, don't be silly. She's addressing an Amnesty International event in a fortnight about journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria. And she's heading to New York after that. She's never been there before.

She's so excited. She doesn't have the money to stay in a hotel in Manhattan but she doesn't care. She's renting an Airbnb in Queens and she can't wait. She's going to propose to her girlfriend Sara. She's bought the ring.

Lyra's trending on Twitter. There are hundreds of thousands of people talking about her, condemning her killing.

There are statements from the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach and President Michael D Higgins. There are vigils for her in Belfast, Derry and Dublin.

Lyra's not dead because she has a book to finish, The Lost Boys.

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It's about children who disappeared during the Troubles. Children whose stories nobody else has bothered to investigate. But Lyra's doing it because Lyra cares.

She's not interested in money or glory or any of the trappings of conventional success. A rarity in the world of journalism, she is totally without ego. It's always about the story - first, middle, and last.

Lyra McKee came into my life five years ago. I was meeting Carrie Twomey, wife of ex-IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre, for coffee and Carrie invited her. I was annoyed. This cynical old hack didn't want anybody else, especially a cub reporter, tagging along. That feeling didn't last long. Lyra and I became the best of friends. Her empathy, wit, curiosity and compassion just blew me away. When people die, those who know them, and those who don't, always say nice things. In Lyra's case, there is no need to invent or exaggerate anything. We only need tell the truth.

Lyra was 29 years old, but she looked 12. She was regularly asked for ID when she went to pubs. She grew up in working-class nationalist north Belfast.

At school she was the gauche, gay nerdy kid. She was bullied. That made her instinctively always side with the underdog. She challenged a chain coffee shop for its treatment of a homeless man and took an online punishment beating from thousands of its customers.

Although hugely talented, she loathed the journalist and blogging in-crowd. She found them cliquey, smug and self-important. She chose to chart her own independent course.

Lyra had brains to burn. She had signed a two-book deal with Faber but you'd never have guessed it. Her unassuming appearance belied a fierce intellect which she wore so lightly.

She was a proud LGBT and social justice campaigner but she had Christian fundamentalist, Orange Order and Tory friends. She related to people, not the labels we impose on them.

In her journalism, I'd constantly advise her that she was spending far too long on research with interviewees which didn't make sense financially or professionally.

She never listened because it was talking to people, creating connections, that made Lyra tick. And those who mourn her come from right across the political spectrum - ex-loyalist and republican paramilitaries, victims, police officers. She didn't discard anyone after a story; a friendship was maintained.

The Facebook message at 1.15am on Thursday, when most sensible people were asleep, was typical. "RING ME," Lyra, a fellow night owl, wrote in capital letters.

We were on the phone for two hours but it seemed like two minutes. Because Lyra loved the world. And she brought passion and zest to everything.

She'd been invited to speak before an Amnesty International screening of a film on Colvin to mark World Press Freedom Day. She was also excited about making headway investigating reports that a local journalist had been arrested and questioned about the murder of an RUC man during the Troubles.

There was lots happening in her personal life, too. She had just moved from Belfast to live with her girlfriend of the past year, Sara Canning. She was planning a Donegal wedding.

She told me how much she loved Derry. It was more authentic and raw than Belfast, she enthused. People took to the streets or occupied a building in peaceful protest at an injustice.

We argued over the level of support for dissident republicans there. I thought it was significant and growing, she insisted it wasn't.

We chewed the fat over the coming council elections. That she was good friends with three candidates in her North Belfast home patch - the Greens' Malachai O'Hara, the SDLP's Paul McCusker and Sinn Fein's Mary Ellen Campbell - was typical of the breadth of Lyra's reach.

Later that night I followed the street violence in Derry on social media. I watched a video where a woman screams after dissident republicans open fire, and another where the person hit is lying on the ground.

Just after 1am, the BBC's Darragh MacIntyre rang to tell me it was Lyra. She had gone to observe the trouble in preparation for her Amnesty address.

I didn't really believe him. I still don't. I can't think of someone so alive in the past tense. I never told you that I loved you, Lyra. I'm old school about things like that, but I want to tell you now. The world will be a far, far darker place without you in it.

Belfast Telegraph


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