At 29, investigative reporter Lyra McKee was already known for giving voice to the powerless. Her journalism was a form of activism aimed to mold the world into a more tolerant place by exposing the horrors and atrocities more easily ignored.
And McKee was killed doing this work. On Thursday night, McKee was covering militant protests in Northern Ireland, where police had suspected that extremists had been stockpiling firearms and explosives; they told the New York Times that, after the searches, a riot erupted and more than 50 gasoline bombs were thrown. McKee was shot and killed by a alleged gunman who’d been firing at police.
Many Catholics in Northern Ireland identify as republicans, meaning they want Northern Ireland to secede from the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland. Police believe a fringe group of extremist republicans are behind the attacks. “We are treating this as a terrorist incident, and we have launched a murder inquiry,” assistant chief constable Mark Hamilton told the New York Times. “At this stage, we believe her murder was carried out by a violent dissident republican.”
McKee’s last tweet reportedly described the chaotic scene:
Journalist Leona O’Neill tweeted that she was standing beside McKee when she fell. “I called an ambulance for her but police put her in the back of their vehicle and rushed her to hospital where she died,” O’Neill tweeted. “Just 29 years old. Sick to my stomach tonight.”
McKee, who was born in Belfast, was a rising star in her field. In 2016, Forbes featured her on the “30 Under 30" list for investigating “topics that others don’t care about.” Her book Angels With Blue Faces reports on the 1981 murder of former British parliament member Rev. Robert Bradford, and she was due next year to release a book about the unsolved disappearances of young men in Belfast during the 1960s and 1970s.
Though her investigations encompassed a broad spectrum of political and historical identities, this focus stemmed from a deeply personal pain. She wrote about struggling as a gay teen in Northern Ireland in “Letter to my 14 year old self,” which was widely shared and later turned into a short film. “Life is so hard right now. Every day, you wake up wondering who else will find out your secret and hate you,” she wrote. “It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better.”
For McKee, it did seem to get better. But understanding violence personally imbued her journalism with the kind of power that stems from empathy. In a talk about LGBTQ rights, she described visiting a mosque and hearing about a Muslim boy who committed suicide because of his identity. “I realized that day,” she says, “it gets better for some of us. It gets better for those of us who love long enough to see it get better.”
Where others might have turned away from religion, as McKee once had, instead, the experience empowered her to implore religious leaders to make their communities more tolerant.
In a brief tribute, writer Eoin McNamee described how McKee’s own pain and rage infused the topics she covered with vitality. “A young writer who could reach into the eerie spaces of what had happened to us before she was born,” he wrote. “It wasn’t an accident. Prejudice forces you into self-knowledge and clear intellect and Lyra McKee had written about the pain and fear of her own early life.”
It’s rare to hold such versatile talent; McKee produced writing that both probed internal worlds and exposed impenetrable power structures. There is a cruel irony in losing a young person who was dedicated to creating the kind of work so vitally needed in journalism. Like her subjects, McKee will not be forgotten.