Lost, Found, Remembered, by Lyra McKee, Faber and Faber, 122 pp, £12.99, ISBN: 978-0571351442
It is difficult to comprehend that we lost Lyra McKee just over one year ago. The young journalist was a dynamic member of the vibrant “ceasefire generation” of writers in Northern Ireland. In the foreword to last year’s Angels with Blue Faces, McKee contends that despite the North being a “tiny” region, which “many on the mainland UK seem to forget exists”, “we disproportionately contribute talent to the rest of the world”. She was one such outstanding talent, and she is survived by an impressive body of work that demonstrates the international significance of Northern Irish literature. The memorial anthology Lost, Found, Remembered, published by Faber and Faber this April to commemorate the anniversary of McKee’s death, showcases the range and depth of her ability. It features well-known pieces such as her “Letter to My Fourteen-Year-Old Self,” about growing up queer in Belfast, alongside her career-defining reportage, as well as poetry and excerpts of unpublished work.
In the opening section, “In My Own Words”, she observes, “I know very well how the Troubles masked other crimes; how women and children and vulnerable people were harmed.” As an investigative journalist, McKee was particularly interested in covering marginalised groups whose suffering while “there [was] a war on” remains subsumed by the grand narrative of armed struggle. She was also dedicated to elucidating the “post-conflict” paradox of transgenerational trauma that permeates contemporary Northern society. Her incredibly moving piece “Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies”, which examines the alarming suicide rates in Northern Ireland since 1998, is a standout entry. McKee laments:
The Ceasefire Babies was what they called us. Those too young to remember the worst of the terror because we were either in nappies or just out of them when the Provisional IRA ceasefire was called. I was four, Jonny was three. We were the Good Friday Agreement generation, destined to never witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us.
The “Editor’s Note” to Lost, Found, Remembered points out that “Lyra was drawn to subjects that are usually met with silence”, and her work illuminating these unspoken and unresolved histories of violence represents an invaluable contribution to journalism. This book is a potent reminder of lost potential. Her assertion that “my own take matters” captures the assuredness of a writer who had found her voice. The arrival of this collection cements McKee’s global reputation, and it is an occasion for reflection a year after her tragic death.
Easter week 2019 was a tremendously emotional period for people in the North of Ireland. It marked the homecoming of McKee’s friend and fellow author Anna Burns after the latter made history as the first writer from the North to win the Booker Prize, for her phenomenal novel Milkman. That Monday, April 15th, Belfast’s Lyric Theatre hosted the event “In Conversation with Anna Burns”, which brought Burns together with Anne Enright, the first Irish woman ever to win the Booker. It was an extraordinary evening that featured two of Ireland’s most exceptional authors and culminated Burns’s ascent to fame.
The next day, Belfast held a reception at City Hall to honour Burns for her magnificent achievement. I attended both of these events, and the sense of jubilation and immense pride for one of Belfast’s own was palpable throughout the city. Just two days later, the city was brought to its knees by news that another one of its own was lost to sectarian violence. McKee was shot dead by the New IRA during rioting in Derry on Holy Thursday, April 18th, and her murder sent shockwaves through the North. In a horrifically surreal scenario, Burns found herself back at Belfast City Hall, speaking to the crowd at a vigil for the dear friend she had been meant to meet for dinner days earlier.
Burns told fellow mourners of McKee: “She was just so helpful and generous; her wee heart was always open.” Burns and McKee were both reared in nationalist enclaves in North Belfast during the Troubles, albeit a generation apart. McKee’s childhood home was off the Antrim Road, near a stretch of territory known as “Murder Mile” due to the high number of sectarian attacks that occurred there. McKee defied her upbringing in a closed-off, no-go area by greeting the world with a radical openness. She moved to Derry to be with her partner, Sara Canning, and wrote about how she looked forward to “better times ahead and saying goodbye to bombs and bullets once and for all”.
On the cover of Lost, Found, Remembered Burns praises McKee as “determined, tenacious, intelligent, and honest in her approach”. Through their writing, McKee and Burns sought to create a better world than the one they had grown up in ‑ one which Milkman describes as a “community under siege” located within a “statelet immersed long-term” in conflict. Enright lauded Milkman as “a great gift of a book,” and the same can be said of Lost, Found, Remembered. Despite its slim size, this volume is a monumental parting gift by McKee that tells us more about her and about Northern Ireland. It is a place for which she exhibited enormous love and hope, and her stance is one that we must follow to ensure that, as she predicted, “it’s going to get better”. Let this be her legacy, and ours.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is Visiting Research Fellow in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast. She has taught at Maynooth University, the University of Edinburgh, and the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School (SUISS). She is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). Dawn has also published in Irish Studies Review, Review of Irish Studies in Europe (RISE), Breac, Callaloo, Open Library of Humanities, The Stinging Fly, Sunday Business Post, the Political Studies Association Blog, Four Nations History, and Writing the Troubles. She is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books, The Honest Ulsterman, and The Irish Times. Follow her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda.