Several years ago, I used to hear this familiar word being used in a foreign sense. The people in my vicinity would take this well-known word to describe others who were acting in a high-brow way, but in a high-brow moral way. The word sounded complimentary to me, but it was clear they were using it in a disparaging tone.
“He or she or it is a bit worthy, don’t you think,” they would say. Surely, behaving or communicating in a “worthy” way was a positive thing? How could someone’s good deeds or words have the power to aggravate anyone? And so I resented their botched use of the word “worthy”. But this week, I returned it to its proper use.
In imagining Lyra McKee the person, “worthy” was the only adjective that came to mind.
An idealist, a doer, a giver, someone who sent a few bob in the post to a single mother who she heard was going through a tough patch. A grafter, a hustler, a seeker of truth, but not a seeker of fame. A friend, an advocate, a journalist who was driven by the hope of justice, not by the allure of ego.
A young woman who had gone through her fair share of hardship, because of her sexuality, and as detailed in her letter to her 14-year-old self. But a young woman who had emerged from that hardship with empathy and compassion, in the true sense of both those words.
With every reason to be angry at the faith she was born into, for its rejection of her based on her sexuality, she instead was friendly with its clergymen.
In her own words, Lyra was to “reap the spoils of peace”, and benefit from the freedom of a new Ireland, one where peace and progress were now the expected the norm.
Coming out to her family just before her 21st birthday and being greeted with love and acceptance, Lyra went on to fall in love herself, finding her own sense of personal freedom — a freedom that saw her “emigrate” from Belfast to Derry, sign a two-book deal that would showcase her insightful and tender writing, and a freedom that was teeing her up to propose to Sara Canning, the love of her life. She had even bought the ring.
Lyra epitomised Irish freedom, her story is many people’s story. Unlike the generation that went before her, she had the opportunity to be her private self in public.
This act of being her true self attracted many friends, of all ages and backgrounds. She delighted in the company of others.
Another thing about Lyra — she seemed acquainted with “causes”, but she also seemed to have a light and easy sense of humour, a fortunate asset for anyone drawn to the gritty work of social justice.
While she was just four when the Provisional IRA ceasefire was called, and so, in her words, was “too young to remember the worst of the terror”, Lyra still went on to become a social activist. This is another way that she epitomised her generation, she needn’t have burdened herself with the social justice issues of the day, but she did, and tirelessly so.
From a country where begrudgery seems to be encoded into our DNA, I can’t imagine there is a single person who wouldn’t want to have seen what the already brilliant 29-year-old Lyra would go on to become. We could all be as proud of her soon-to-be-published books as she was of other Irish writers, particularly those who were from her neck of the woods.
She seemed like the kind of person who we could have easily let slip into that special cohort of ours, that set of national treasures, that small group of people who’ve done admirable things while behaving with decency and kindness. We’d celebrate her because she was the best parts of us in one person.
I didn’t know Lyra McKee, I wasn’t lucky enough to, but she was of my generation, more or less.
This is the generation that missed most of the Troubles, the one that, almost, takes peace and democracy for granted.
Peace, like trust, takes an inordinate amount of time to build, a split second to lose, and then twice as long to regain.
This generation is starting to realise that now.
The story of Mark Boyle, the Donegal man who rejected modernity, was doing the rounds this week. He built a house from wood and straw on a smallholding in Galway, he grows his own vegetables and catches his own fish, and he handwrites letters to communicate with friends and family.
He is not doing this to “save the world” but to “savour it”.
Despite the visible drudgery and despair of this world, Mark is right, there is so much to savour, and our democracy is a good place to start.
In a time where Twitter spats make headline news, and daily outbursts of unproductive outrage have become the norm, we could benefit from adopting Lyra McKee’s tried and tested personal philosophy.
It’s been the one request of her family.
Lyra, I wish I had known you, I’m probably not the only one.