As It Happens

'She had the biggest heart,' friend says of journalist shot in Northern Ireland riot

Lyra McKee is being remembered as a compassionate reporter, a gay icon, an unabashed nerd and a wonderful friend.

Lyra McKee remembered as a compassionate reporter and an even better friend

Journalist Matt Hughes, left, and his close friend Lyra McKee, who was shot and killed Thursday night in Northern Ireland. (Submitted by Matt Hughes)
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Lyra McKee — the journalist who was fatally shot during a riot in Northern Ireland — is being remembered as a compassionate reporter, a gay icon, an unabashed nerd and a wonderful friend.

McKee was struck in the head by a bullet during a riot in the Creggan area of Londonderry overnight Thursday. Police said Friday they believe a member of the dissident republican group the New IRA is likely responsible for her death.

Matt Hughes, a technology reporter for The Next Web, was a close friend of McKee's and saw her as a mentor. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

How did you hear the news?

My wife got a phone call from Sara [Canning], Lyra McKee's partner, and it was without a doubt the worst phone call I've ever heard in my life. And she said that Lyra had been shot and she died.

And just the blood ran out of me. I just felt cold. It still doesn't feel real. It certainly didn't then.

Sara Canning, McKee's partner, speaks at a rally Friday near the scene of the journalist's shooting in Londonderry. (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

Do you know what happened?

She was stood behind a row of police vehicles, and someone in the crowd had a handgun and fired off 10 rounds towards the police vehicles. And one of them, unfortunately, hit Lyra in the head.

There's a video of it circulating on Twitter. And it's the most gut-wrenching, horrendous video. I wish I never watched it. I'll never be able to unsee it. You can hear the gunshots and you can hear this blood-curdling scream that was from Sara, Lyra's partner.

It's just so awful. Such a young woman, 29 years old. Do you know if she was possibly targeted?

No. It feels random. As understand it, it was the worst possible luck. You know, if she was stood like a foot to the left or the right, this probably wouldn't have happened. We wouldn't be having this conversation right now. 

Mckee ties Hughes' tie on his wedding day. She was one of his groomspeople. (Submitted by Matt Hughes)

Can you tell us a bit about her, first of all, as a journalist?

What made Lyra remarkable was her tenacity. She was cocky enough to think she could solve cases that, you know, had gone cold before she was born.

When our friendship started, she was working on a project uncovering the circumstances of the death of a gentleman called Rev. Robert Bradford, who was a British MP who was assassinated in the early '80s.

This was a case that had foiled the journalists of the time, had foiled the police, and she was determined to get to the bottom of it.

And people didn't just find that interesting, but they believed in her. So she was able to crowdfund her investigation. People paid monthly recurring sums just so that she could look into this case because people believed in Lyra. That was how magnificent her talents were.

She also covered the Northern Irish conflict and the repercussions in a way that I don't think anyone else could do.

One of the best pieces she ever wrote was for Mosaic and it was called "The Suicide of the Ceasefire Babies." It was syndicated. It was translated. And it was about: why are men in Northern Ireland killing themselves after the peace process?

She was able to tell stories of mental illness and fractured societies in a way that was ... human, it was compassionate. And that's because Lyra was a compassionate person. That was who she was. She had the biggest heart. And that was just the most useful asset she had in her journalism — this pure sense of compassion and love.

McKee, front, poses for a photo with Hughes, centre, during his wedding. (Submitted by Matt Hughes)

What was she like as a person?

She was one of my best mates.

I first met her when I was 23. I'd been doing journalism for a year. I was broke. I was perma-lancing. I was writing stuff that I wasn't proud of. Because, you know, when you start out in journalism, you know, you hate everything, right? You hate everything you do.

And she was two years older than me and she had already accomplished these amazing bylines and profiles and features that I could only dream of. She had this experience, and I kind of saw her as almost like a rock star. And I looked up to her, and she was a mentor and I kind of felt like I was a little kid learning to play guitar from Mick Jagger.

So our relationship started kind of on professional footing, but it became so much closer. I think as our friendship grew, she started to look upon me as almost like a younger brother. She was fiercely protective of me. She counselled me through heartbreak. She helped me with my career.

When I got married, it was last year, I insisted that she was one of my groomspeople. And she was there. She held my hand [in] the morning. She had a whiskey with me to calm my nerves. She tied my tie.

She was fun as well. She loved to go on adventures. She loved to travel.

We travelled together to Amsterdam and I booked us in the worst hotel in the city, which she described it as like a Thai prison. It was just this horrible austere affair. But even things that ostensibly should be stressful and annoying, she just made them fun.

She was a big nerd as well. She loved NASA. She loved space. She loved Harry Potter. She loved Marvel films. She loved Captain America.

She was just this bright personality.

McKee was killed while reporting from the scene of rioting in Derry's Creggan neighbourhood. (PSNI via Getty Images)

What I've read is that she wasn't just an inspiration to her friends and to other journalists and to young people, but she was an inspiration to a lot of young gay women and gay people who looked up to her.  Why is that?

I think you can't understate the fact that Northern Ireland is a very conservative place. It was the last part of the U.K. to legalize homosexuality and it still hasn't legalized gay marriage.

So I think part of it came from that she was unambiguously open, she was proud and she was successful.

She also spoke about her experiences of growing up as a gay woman in Northern Ireland in a very personal and candid way. I think that helped her become a leader.

I'm just wondering, finally, Matt, what is it that you miss the most about her?

I'll miss our hugs. She gave really good hugs.

I'll miss, you know, hanging out and eating junk food with her.

You know, we both love the same authors. We'd go see talks from Jon Ronson.

I'll miss speaking to her, to be honest. She was just this wonderful counsellor ... and she was this voice I could always turn to.

If I may, I just want to add one point?

Sure.

I have been speaking to a lot of Lyra's friends in the area. And in our conversations, one of the things that has come up is, you know, when there's a tragedy, you desperately search for a silver lining.

There's an optimism that this event could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. And there's a hope that people will see this event for the horror that it is.

And those that know something about the people who killed her, about the groups that are still operating, will speak to the authorities, will say something.

And we can hopefully get these guns off the street. We can hopefully get these people behind bars or in a position where they can't hurt anyone again.

And that is all we can hope for.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Matt Hughes produced by Morgan Passi.