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‘It’s better to go down fighting’: the extraordinary life of murdered journalist Lyra McKee | Documentary films

There is a scene in Alison Millar’s film about Lyra McKee, the murdered Northern Irish journalist, where she interviews supporters of a man charged with involvement in the killing. They cluster outside a courthouse shouting insults at police. It is cold and wet. Some men in the crowd shield their faces but two women speak openly to the camera.

Like a daughter … Alison Millar and Lyra McKee. Photograph: Courtesy of Alison Millar

The suspect is innocent, they insist. Millar tells them Lyra, who was shot during a riot in Derry on 18 April 2019, was like a daughter to her. The women express condolences. Millar suggests they could help their accused friend by identifying those who did kill Lyra. “We can’t comment on that – we don’t know who done it,” says one. She looks away from the camera. The younger one chimes in. “We don’t know who did it.” She too turns her head away, with what could be a half-suppressed smile.

Millar has no way of knowing what was going through the woman’s mind. It’s possible she was just nervous. Yet the film-maker froze when she reviewed the footage later that day. “I had my hand on my mouth. It’s horrible, it was horrific.”

The scene is all the more jarring because the rest of Lyra, a remarkable 90-minute documentary released on 4 November, blazes with its subject’s life force. Millar, a Bafta-winning current affairs film-maker who was a friend and mentor to McKee, brings an intimacy to the portrait. We see McKee as a toddler arranging toys in her working-class Belfast home, as a young girl chafing at her communion frock, as a precocious teenager winning a Sky News young journalist award and as a young woman embracing the fact that she was gay and had a vocation as a writer.

Drawing on a trove of video and audio recordings on McKee’s mobile phone, computer and voice recorder, it’s not just a film about her but narrated by her. McKee is funny, eloquent, driven, idiosyncratic, forever chasing stories and enlisting friends, priests, politicians, police officers and others in her quest for truth about Troubles-era crimes and Northern Ireland’s social problems.

Families of people who were killed at Ballymurphy arrive the International Convention Centre (ICC) in Belfast where the Nightingale Lagan court is sitting. Findings will be published later following fresh inquests into the fatal shooting of 10 people in disputed circumstances involving the Army in west Belfast 50 years ago. A mother of eight and a Catholic priest were among those who died in August 1971 in events which have become known locally as the Ballymurphy Massacre. Picture date: Tuesday May 11, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story ULSTER Ballymurphy. Photo credit should read: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Families of people who were killed at Ballymurphy outside the inquest in Belfast in 2021. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

“She had so many stories on the go,” says Millar, who produced and directed the film. “She got to speak to a lot of people because they found her unassuming – a young girl with a bag knocking on the door. She found stories in the past that no one else was really looking at. She was writing about Ballymurphy way before it was really broken.” An inquest in 2021 belatedly confirmed that 10 people killed in the Belfast neighbourhood during a British army operation in 1971 were unarmed civilians.

McKee fell down a rabbit hole seeking links between a child abuse ring and the 1981 murder of a unionist politician – she uncovered no compelling evidence. She was on firmer ground probing the disappearance of children during the Troubles and shocking contemporary suicide rates. “She could see people in her community just dying,” says Millar. “I couldn’t believe some of the stuff she was writing.”

Investigators at the scene of the shooting of Lyra McKee in April 2019.
Investigators at the scene of the shooting of Lyra McKee in April 2019. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The film shows McKee’s mother, Joan, and sister Nichola, and her partner Sara Canning, sharing a tight, loving bond with the writer until the fateful evening McKee went to the Creggan area of Derry on Holy Thursday in 2019 to observe a riot. Youths egged on by republican dissidents of the New IRA hurled rocks and petrol bombs. A masked gunman opened fire at police Land Rovers. A bullet hit McKee in the head. She was 29.

Her death made headlines around the world. It was just after the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. Northern Ireland was supposed to be at peace. McKee was called the voice of the generation of so-called “ceasefire babies”.

Although she was from Ardoyne, a republican part of Belfast, McKee had disdained sectarian tribalism and advocated social justice. She had chronicled growing up gay in an essay, “A letter to my 14-year-old self”, that went viral. She had given a Ted talk and signed a two-book deal. She had chosen an engagement ring and planned to propose to her partner. And now she was dead. “Lyra wanted to look at the shadows and the debris of the past and present,” says Millar. “She wanted to find answers. In her own death it’s almost as if she became what she wrote about.”

The then Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Theresa May and Irish president Michael D Higgins at the funeral of Lyra McKee in Belfast in 2019.
The then Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Theresa May and Irish president Michael D Higgins at the funeral of Lyra McKee in Belfast in 2019. Photograph: Brian Lawless/AFP/Getty Images

The documentary captures the raw emotion at what felt like a state funeral. The British prime minister, Theresa May, Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and president, Michael D Higgins, joined Northern Ireland’s party leaders in the pews at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. Loudspeakers relayed the service to crowds outside. The political gathering was all the more striking because Northern Ireland’s power-sharing institutions were mothballed – mummified by yet another impasse between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) that left a vacuum for the likes of the New IRA.

Fr Martin Magill challenged the politicians to act. “Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?” The congregation stood and applauded, a spontaneous, thunderous ovation that forced the party leaders to their feet.

The mural of Lyra McKee that appeared in Belfast after her murder, in the film Lyra.
The mural of Lyra McKee that appeared in Belfast after her murder, in the film Lyra.

A mural of a smiling Lyra appeared in Belfast, with a quote from her essay to a younger self: “It won’t always be like this. It’s going to get better.” In January 2020, the exhortation seemed to work: a deal revived the Stormont assembly and executive.

It did not last. Another dispute – this one over the protocol – halted power-sharing in February 2022. The stalemate continues, draining optimism in the run-up to the Good Friday agreement’s 25th anniversary next year. Loyalist paramilitaries this week warned of a possible return to violence. Hope that McKee’s death would not be in vain seems forlorn. “It’s all gone out the window again,” says Millar. “We don’t need any more deaths. How could we ever keep going back to it?”

Three men have been charged with McKee’s murder and are awaiting trial. The police investigation continues and there are still regular appeals from police and McKee’s family for people to come forward with information. It remains unclear whether the family will get justice or whether Northern Ireland will escape its history.

Millar at first did not want to make the documentary, feeling too tangled with a subject who had been her friend since 2008. “She was just 16 and looked about 12. She was absolutely hilarious. She was amazing.” Besieged with media requests, the family decided that if anyone should make a documentary, it should be Millar.

Lyra McKee’s glasses, a still from Lyra.
Lyra McKee’s glasses, a still from Lyra. Photograph: PR

Millar, who is from rural County Antrim, had trained in London and won awards for her work, including a Prix Italia and Bafta, and remained close to McKee. Hours before the fatal shooting they had exchanged texts about dinner, with Millar agreeing to a request to make lasagne and chips. McKee’s last message to her: “You’re the best.”

The pandemic and the death of McKee’s mother in 2020 – killed by a broken heart, said the family – slowed production of the film. Many, however, wanted to help. Liam Neeson, Bono, business groups and others made donations. Others volunteered services for free, including the composer David Holmes, who wrote the music. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s HiddenLight Productions is to distribute the film in the US.

Eloquence from those who mourn McKee power the film. “They killed my mum the day they killed my Lyra,” says her sister Nichola. “I hope it stops here, I hope that bullet stops here. I hope it does not travel any further. We’ve all been through enough.”

Lyra McKee outside the Sunflower Bar on Union Street in Belfast, in May 2017, two years before her death.
Lyra McKee outside the Sunflower Bar on Union Street in Belfast, in May 2017, two years before her death. Photograph: Jess Lowe/EPA

The film won the Tim Hetherington award at Sheffield’s documentary festival and the audience award at the Cork film festival. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw gave it five stars. Young people have packed screenings. In Italy, a 10-year-old boy asked afterwards where Lyra was buried so he could visit and thank her.

The film ends with an audio clip, a slice of typical McKee: bold, defiant, upbeat. “It’s better to go down fighting. Do not fucking listen to bullshitters and naysayers. See if you want to do it? You go do it. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.”

Lyra is in UK and Irish cinemas from 4 November and will be broadcast on Channel 4 next year

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