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‘I don’t care much for a united Ireland or a stronger union, all I want is a better life’

Lyra McKee. Picture: Jess Lowe.

Alison Millar spoke to David Hennessy about her friend Lyra McKee, the promising journalist who was shot dead during a riot in Creggan five years ago this week ahead of a special screening of her award- winning documentary about her.

This week it is five years since the journalist Lyra McKee was killed by a believed New IRA gunman.

29-year-old Lyra was shot in the head during a riot in the Creggan area of Derry.

The killing was condemned on all sides for its senselessness.

Although we were meant to be living in an era of peace in Northern Ireland, one of its shining lights was extinguished.

To mark the occasion The Irish Cultural Centre will screen the film, Lyra to be followed by a Q and A with the film’s director and her friend/ mentor Alison Millar.

Alison Millar told The Irish World: “No matter how many times you watch it, you expect that it’s not real. That she’s gonna walk in the door and it’s all going to be something that didn’t really happen. But it did happen.

“I’ve made loads of films. It’s the film that you never expected or wanted to make because we want her to be alive and with us.

“It was a reaction. It wasn’t planned. It evolved.

“I think it evolved mainly because of her sister Nichola and her partner Sarah who said to me, ‘If anybody’s going to make a film about our lyra, it should be you because she loved you’.

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“We were close.”

Alison met Lyra when the journalist was still only 16 and would go on to become her friend and mentor.

“I was making a documentary about the Rape Crisis Centre in Belfast.

“She was trying to work out why the centre had lost its funding when it was the only centre in the north for survivors of sexual violence.

“She looked about 12 so I actually, quite patronisingly, said, ‘Look, if I’m filming, can you just stand over there? Are you on a school placement?’

“And she said to me, ‘I’m actually Lyra McKee. I’ve just won the Sky Young Journalist of the Year award’.

“I suddenly went, ‘Oh God’, then we literally clicked.

“We had loads of ideas.

“We’ve still got a little box on my laptop which is our joint little Dropbox of ideas.

“I often look at it in the corner and think, ‘God, there’s so many things that we were gonna do’.

“She was due to come to my house for dinner the next night so when I got the call that night from Sarah to say she’d been killed I thought they were ringing to say they were going to be a bit late coming for dinner.”

Lyra wrote about the legacy of the Troubles and this was something she was committed to asking hard questions about.

She was also concerned with giving those a voice who did not have a voice.

“She’d been writing about these issues for a long time.

“She liked to find people who hadn’t been heard and she liked to dig deep and think, ‘Well, why have they been silenced? And why has no one heard this?’

“She started writing about Ballymurphy way before the Ballymurphy Inquiry.

“She befriended Janet (Donnelly, whose father Joseph Murphy was called in Ballymurphy).

“She affected people so making the film was hard in one way because we didn’t want to get it wrong, because we wanted to get it the best we could for her, but it was easy in another way because anyone we called who’d met her just loved her so much.

“Every single person had a Lyra story because she’d helped so many.

“She was very honest with people and said, ‘I need to ask some hard questions. We might have to have a difficult conversation and I’m really sorry but I need to ask you some really tough things’.

“But she was really open and straightforward with her approach to people.

“I tried to be that way as well in my film.

“I think people who have come away from the film are really surprised at how much they enjoy it and how much they love her.

“One of the commissioners I work with in the film said, ‘You know if an alien landed in Ireland and said, ‘So what’s been going on in the north?’, I would just give them the Lyra McKee film’.

“There’s so much in the film through what Lyra writes about that gives someone a real snapshot and a real feeling of the troubles: The pain, the loss, the complex nature of the place, peace, problems with it.

“It’s lovely because actually the film has been going around festivals and been going around the world.

“She’s gathered loads of new fans of her work and she’s inspired lots of people.

“I’ve had letters and emails from India, Spain, Poland, South Carolina.

“I’ve had messages from people who have watched it and said, ‘I want to be more like Lyra. She’s inspired me to follow my dreams and write and do what I want to do’.

“So there’s a certain legacy in the sense that we wanted to give her a voice and not turn the volume up on the group who were involved in her killing.

“We didn’t want to turn the volume up on them because they don’t deserve any oxygen.

“They don’t represent anybody on the island of Ireland.

“Nobody wants to go back to that old stuff.”

Using archive footage filmed by herself, the film allows Lyra to tell her own story.

“It was very emotional hearing her voice every day.

“I felt like when I watched the news break, ‘Young woman killed in Derry…riot….’

“The world’s media got onto it but it’s also like, ‘Who was she?’ And, ‘Did anybody know anything about her really?’

“I guess the idea of allowing her to tell the audience who she was and grow up with her was to make you guys feel that you knew her more and that you understood about who she was and what she was doing and got to know her amazing work.

“You don’t get a two book deal with Faber and Faber easily.

“The Irish Times put her as one of the rising stars.

“She became one of Forbes’ 30 under 30.

“I mean, this was a wee girl from working class, war torn Ardoyne and a single parent mammy who had a prosthetic limb.

“She was her mother’s main carer but she grew up with loads of really amazing women who were like, ‘You can do anything you want to do. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t’.

“It was a real mantra.

“Her sister and her mum and Sarah, her partner, are really incredibly inspiring women.

“It’s often such strong female voices. It’s the mums, it’s the sisters who kept the show on the road (in Northern Ireland) and kept the family together and managed stuff that was really difficult.

“I think Lyra’s story is celebratory in that way of those incredible women who brought her up and who had resilience living in such a tough community as Ardoyne.

“We were all left in that position and thinking, ‘How did it happen?’

“But I think there is a real feelgood element even though it’s about someone who’s been killed or that we lost too soon.

“I love the fact that even though it’s been played in Polish and Spanish and Swedish and whatever, audiences who are not familiar with the North of Ireland or this woman have fallen in love with her.”

On 18 April 2019 rioting broke out in the Creggan area of Derry ahead of the Easter Rising commemorative events.

Lyra, who just happened to be there, was shot in the head.

“She was there that night observing a riot and people go, ‘Well, what was she doing there?’

“No one expected a gun to be pointed into the crowd that night.

“The crowd that night where she was stood was also made up of local people with children and kids from a youth club so it wasn’t just that that person fired at the police.

“They fired at the police with their own community so it could have been anyone killed.

“It just happened to be Lyra.

“Derry is a beautiful, beautiful place and Lyra embraced it.

“When we were filming in Creggan where it happened, I met so many amazing people who were absolutely devastated that this had happened to this wee girl.

“They just don’t want it.

“There’s people each side of the wall.

“If you took the wall down, they have the same problem with their heating bills or medical problems.

“There’s so much incredible cross community work that when you meet people they go, ‘Oh, no, we’ve been meeting for 15 years’.

“You suddenly realise whilst the politicians were snoozing, these communities were saying, ‘Let’s get together’.

“The people want jobs and health. They want money in their pockets, to feed their kids, pay their electric bills, not to deal with their cars being burnt out or ambushed.

“There’s very few people left that do believe in that old mantra that violence is gonna do something.

“People want good housing and they don’t want to be intimidated by anyone.

“They just want to have a better life.

“Lyra’s got a great quote in one of our books talking about a united Ireland.

“She goes, ‘I don’t care much for a united Ireland or a stronger union, all I want is a better life’.”

Political leaders from all sides attended Lyra’s funeral, united in their disgust of what had happened.

“It (Lyra’s death) made the whole island just stand up together and go, ‘No’.

“People were very, very shocked by her death and by what happened and I think that that galvanised people even more to say, ‘We just do not want this’.”

A difficult part of the documentary must have been when you were at the police station as they brought in a man accused of Lyra’s murder.

“I was angry.

“I was frustrated and angry.

“But it was the supporters who were there.

“I just saw these three women and I sort of thought, ‘What are you doing here?’

“So that’s when I asked..

“I was filming but my camera was soaking and the lens was really wet so I didn’t actually see when I said, ‘Oh, if your friend’s innocent, why don’t you help find out who did it? And then your friend walks free..’

“And then one girl went, ‘We don’t know who did it’ and I didn’t see her go (like this) and the smirk says it all.”

The family are unable to move on and really let Lyra rest until they get justice.

“They are in limbo. I think it’s really difficult for them, they need that justice. They need their day in court and when it plays, it has to play out fairly and properly.

“But they need that day.”

Three people have been arrested for Lyra’s murder but the gunman is still at large.

“Everybody knows.

“No one’s going to say anything because they’re too frightened of getting shot themselves.

“So it’s back to that old mantra of, ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’.

“People do know but they are too frightened.”

It was recently reported that one of the accused in Lyra’s murder, banged a drum in Saoradh’s Easter Parade through Dublin.

“I think it’s really shocking to me that one of the guys who’s on bail- I  understand innocent until proven guilty but one of the young men who is facing a murder charge was parading around and was in Dublin at one of those big parades.

“I don’t understand, how does that work?

“If you’re on bail for a murder charge, how can you gallivant to Dublin and play in a march?

“I mean, have they no shame?

“And it’s very painful for the family to read that.”

Had it been anyone else who had died, Lyra would have fought long and hard for justice, wouldn’t she?

“Completely. That was very much her mantra.

“If someone else had been killed besides her that night, you bet your bottom dollar she would have been trying to find out what happened.

“But also, I think she would want to know why there’s young people younger than her on the streets.

“She’d want to know why is that generation lauding and supporting violence?

“She would want to know who are the men in the shadows, directing the violence?

“She would have been digging into it because that would have been her.

“There’s a loss there too for communities and young people.

“She would have been giving those people a voice and trying to understand and trying to make things better.

“Her mantra was, ‘Let’s have difficult conversations’.

“She’d say, ‘Look, I may not agree with you but let’s have a difficult conversation’.”

The film has been honoured with multiple prestigious awards.

“It’ll be really special to show it on Friday night.

“I’m really looking forward to it because I love the audience’s questions as well.

“The first time we showed it, we showed it in Italy and at the end, we must have had a 15 minute standing ovation.

“And one little boy stood up and he said, ‘I have a question’.

“And when he told the interpreter the question in Italian, everyone went, ‘Ohhh’.

“And I, of course not knowing what’s been said just thought, ‘Oh God, what’s happened? What is it?’

“And she said, ‘He wants to know where Lyra is buried because he wants to go and pay his respects. He wants to go to her grave because she has inspired him so much’.

“And I was like, ‘Oh my God’.

“It was so sweet.

“It’s been a journey, a journey I never thought I’d be on.

“We just started filming stuff.

“And actually it became something for all of us to do to channel our grief and to channel our energy into something.

“It was very much made with everyone: Her family, her partner, her friends.

“It’s really humbling.

“I think it’s won something like 17 awards now.

“It’s been quite mad but it’s really lovely because that’s her.

“She deserves them all.

“She really does.”

Lyra screens at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith 8pm on Friday 19 April, followed by Q and A with Alison.

For more information and tickets, click here.

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