My friend Lyra was killed by a terrorist's bullet. We'll never remember her as a victim

Matthew Hughes
Lyra McKee and Matthew Hughes

I want to tell you about my friend Lyra McKee. By now, you’ve probably read about her senseless murder on the streets of Derry on Thursday night during riots ahead of this weekend’s commemoration of Irish independence. Her death has drawn condemnation from all sides of Northern Ireland’s fractious political spectrum, and has left a gaping hole in the lives of everyone who knew her. She was just 29; a beloved friend, sister, aunt, daughter, and partner.

Lyra was a woman of unfathomable journalistic talent and tremendous compassion who loved Northern Ireland deeply, having moved from Belfast to Derry just a few months ago to be with her partner, Sara, a nurse at the Altnagelvin hospital where she would spend the end of her life. Certainly, the country’s politics and underlying sectarianism frustrated her, but it was still her home, and she championed it always.

She embodied the new Northern Ireland; defiantly optimistic and determined to make it a better place, free from the shackles of the Troubles. Losing her to a terrorist’s bullet, thought to be fired by dissident republican group the New IRA, somehow makes it even more unforgivable. Hearing the news via a phone call from Sara in the early hours of Friday morning broke my heart in two.

I was introduced to Lyra when I was 23, and in the very formative stages of my journalism career. She was a couple of years older than me and had already accomplished so much: I looked up to her, and she was always a helping hand and mentor. I felt a little bit like a novice musician being taught to play guitar by Keith Richards.

As the years went on, our friendship deepened and I think, upon reflection, she grew to look upon me as a younger brother figure. She was fiercely protective of me, counselling me through heartbreak, and acting as my constant consigliere.

A police officer lays down flowers at the site of Lyra McKee's murder Credit: JOE BOLAND/NORTH WEST NEWSPIX/EPA-EFE/REX 

When I told her I’d proposed to my now-wife, she insisted on using her investigative skills to thoroughly interrogate my bride-to-be. She wouldn’t let me marry just anyone, you see. My fiancée needed her unambiguous approval. Of course, she got it, and they immediately became the best of friends. A trip the three of us took around Northern Ireland, in which Lyra drove us across the country’s rugged North coast, from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, remains one of my most precious memories.

A tenacious reporter, Lyra exhibited the kind of bravery seldom seen. Measuring roughly 5-foot and vanishingly slim, she didn’t cut an imposing figure. And yet, she wasn’t afraid to dig into the turbulent parts of Northern Ireland’s past in her indefatigable search for the truth, just as she did on the streets of Derry on Thursday night amid petrol bombs being hurled; a scene she had described as ‘utter madness’ in a tweet posted just hours before her death. 

One of her proudest accomplishments was an investigation into the mysterious death of the Reverent Robert Bradford MP – a unionist politician who was assassinated in 1981. For most journalists, investigating a cold case that predates their birth would be non-starter. Lyra, on the other hand, relished the challenge, and she convinced dozens of other people to support her project through a highly successful crowdfunding campaign, myself included. People bought into her vision. People bought into Lyra. She inspired confidence.

'Everyone who knew Lyra has a stories like mine of her generosity'

Lyra was also a champion for LGBT+ rights. She spoke out about her experiences as a young girl, coming to terms with her sexuality, pleading with God not to send her to hell. Her blog post, “Letter to my 14 year old self” was turned into a short film and had a huge impact on LGBT+ folks and their families. Even when faced with hateful comments from religious figures, Lyra did not hate back, but tried to encourage a sense of understanding. 

Everyone who knew Lyra has a stories like mine of her generosity and unending compassion. In the months leading up to my wedding in 2017, I knew I wanted her to be a major part of it, so I asked her to be my groomswoman. She flew over from Belfast to Liverpool and spent the entire weekend with me, helping me prepare on the day, and holding my hand when the nerves got too much. She even tied my necktie – a skill that I’d long forgotten from my school days.

In the minutes leading up to the actual ceremony, the groom’s party stood outside Liverpool’s St George’s Hall sharing a bottle of scotch – I was a nervous wreck. My stomach felt heavy, as if lined with lead, and I could only breathe in quick shallow breaths. Lyra noticed, grabbed hold of my hand, poured me a glass of Jonnie Walker, and told me it would all be okay. And it was.

She won’t be remembered as Lyra the victim. She’ll be Lyra the journalist. Lyra the sister. Lyra the girlfriend, aunt and mentor. Lyra the friend. My friend.