Lyra will air on Channel 4 in 2023.
Tim Hetherington Award Winner at Sheffield Doc Fest 2022
On Thursday, the 18th of April 2019, the world lost an emerging talent that rarely comes along in the world of journalism. Her last tweet would be “Derry tonight. Absolute madness,” alongside the picture of two police vans facing a series of burning cars on a residential street. Lyra McKee was there due to her passion for investigative journalism and her desire to help her country explore and heal past and present wounds. She didn’t need to be there, and she didn’t need to put her safety at risk, but like all the best journalists throughout history, Lyra never stopped asking, why? But that night, as the vehicles around her burnt and the police vans found themselves under attack, a shot would ring out in the crowd, followed by several more, and an unknown shooter would extinguish Lyra’s life at the tender age of twenty-nine.
Twenty-one years after the ceasefire, Lyra McKee would be the 160th person to have died in security-related murders and incidents since The Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Of course, Lyra understood the dangers that night, just as she understood the risks of her campaigning work and writing. Lyra was a proud gay woman who challenged the world around her and gave hope to thousands of young LGBTQ+ people in Northern Ireland through her words. She wasn’t afraid to explore the lasting legacy of the troubles and the generational trauma that passed through families like an unstoppable virus.
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But as someone born in 1990, Lyra was a ceasefire baby, a free child in a new Northern Ireland, right? Lyra also knew this to be a partial truth. She had grown up in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, where violence was slow to change no matter the delicate political consensus. Here poverty, segregation and a lack of opportunity would continue to haunt residents old and young. While essential and urgent, the peace process felt distant to many young people Lyra encountered growing up, with a sense that all the grand promises made by politicians had resulted in little change for working-class communities. Lyra not only understood this anger, but it also formed a core part of her work as she grew.
At sixteen, Lyra would win the Sky Young Journalist of the Year Award for an urgent investigation into suicide among young people in Belfast. Lyra would go on to write for BBC Blast, Mosaic, Private Eye, Buzzfeed, and the Atlantic. In 2014 she would publish “A letter to my 14-year-old self,” a beautiful exploration of her own coming out journey that would inspire countless young LGBTQ+ people. That article stated: “It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better,” and it was clear that sentence sat at the heart of Lyra’s work and beliefs.
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Directed by the BAFTA award-winning Alison Millar, who was Lyra’s close friend for many years, the documentary Lyra is a beautiful and intimate portrait of a shining talent, passionate campaigner and fearless journalist. But it is also an urgent exploration of a peace that remains delicate for many in a country where trauma continues to haunt new and old generations and poverty limits opportunities to break free. Or, as Lyra would put it, it’s the story of “a beautiful country strangled by the chains of its past.”
Lyra’s life story is wrapped in Northern Ireland’s complex and delicate peace process; her murder a reminder of how fragile it is. Here, the secrecy surrounding so many murders is still very much in place, something Lyra intended to further unpack in “The Lost Boys,” an investigation into the disappearance of young boys in the late sixties and early seventies. Of course, we will never know what Lyra would have uncovered given more time, her murder bringing to a close a career that was just beginning.
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Northern Ireland has come a long way since 1998; I remember my time there vividly as a student on placement in Belfast just weeks after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I remember the soldiers on the streets, the murals, the tension and the simmering sense of change. Lyra was eight years old when I walked the streets of Belfast for several days in 98 and was born into a generation who should have lived free from the violence of the past.
As Millar’s documentary closes, there is hope that Lyra McKee lit a spark that will go on to inspire a whole generation of new journalists in Northern Ireland. After all, despite all the troubles and conflict, this nation of hope, heart and talent can move toward a new future if politicians and community leaders allow it. Lyra’s voice is still a part of this call for change and healing, her writing eternal in its power.
Directed by the BAFTA award-winning Alison Millar, the documentary “Lyra” is a beautiful and intimate portrait of a shining talent, passionate campaigner and fearless journalist.