‘My future with Lyra was stolen from me’

Lyra McKee’s partner Sara Canning talks exclusively to Aoife Moore about how she is still struggling to come to terms with her death one year on.
‘My future with Lyra was stolen from me’
Sara Canning with her beloved partner Lyra McKee: ‘I still haven’t grieved properly, or processed what has happened.

Lyra McKee’s partner Sara Canning talks exclusively to Aoife Moore about how she is still struggling to come to terms with her death one year on.

It’s a year to the day since Belfast writer Lyra McKee was shot and killed on a street in Derry.

Lyra, just 29, was watching a riot that had broken out in the Creggan estate when a stray bullet cut short her important life.

Her girlfriend, Sara Canning, who witnessed Lyra’s final moments on that footpath in Creggan, has taken the day off work.

She works in Derry’s Altnagalvin Hospital, where she has been deployed to the Covid-19 testing unit, another frontline in another unwanted battle.

She has become an unexpected spokeswoman, a reluctant role model, and the living embodiment of what has been stolen from the Good Friday generation.

Sara has witnessed her girlfriend die twice, first as it happened, when those scattered shots rang out on Good Friday in 2019, and again in a BBC documentary which broadcast social media footage of Lyra’s final moments.

“Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like a day has passed, then in other ways, I look at the events of this year, how much has happened, it seems like so much longer than a year,” she says from her home in Derry, where she lives with her sister, and her sister’s partner.

“The footage was all over Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, but I hadn’t seen it until the documentary.

“I’d been told about it because one of Lyra’s older brothers had collected all of the videos and watched them, because he wasn’t there, he wanted to see them, to process what had happened.

“I think when we watch the news and see people in Gaza and Syria and different places being killed, to us that’s a dead body and we don’t ever think about the fact that it’s somebody’s loved one, a family member.

“Then that happens to you, and suddenly I was like; ‘Jesus Christ, that’s me’. I can hear myself screaming, I never wanted to go through that again, watching the most horrific moment of your life from a different angle.”

Derry’s tragic past is well documented, its unsteady future receives fewer headlines than it should. Northern Ireland’s second city, but often first when it comes to inopportunity, child poverty, and levels of debt.

The tightknit community reeled in the aftermath of Lyra’s death.

Speculators, both professional and otherwise, flocked to social and traditional media to offer opinions on the city, which locals refer to as “the town”, many maligning its “ignorant” population for “shooting each other”, without any wider examination into why someone would be persuaded pick up a gun in these days of ‘peace’.

This is a factor not lost on Sara Canning either.

“You have to speak out,” she says.

“I think when you look at what happened to Lyra, and the circumstances and the fact that it’s my community.

“I was raised in a republican family, in a nationalist, republican area.

My people took Lyra away from me, the people that did this see themselves as defenders of the people in the community that I live in, and the community where Lyra was murdered.

“This was not Derry’s fault and was not Creggan’s fault.

“A lot of the time, we’re afraid to speak out about stuff like this, but I just thought; ‘I’m not shutting my mouth’.

“If they had killed a police officer that night instead of Lyra, I still would’ve spoken out. Taking a life has never been justified.

“As angry as I am about what happened to Lyra, I wouldn’t kill the person who killed her.

“I would like five minutes alone with them in a dark room, but I wouldn’t want to kill them,” she laughs.

“Why should I not call these people out on what they’ve done? It could’ve been me, and Lyra would’ve spoken out for me. It could’ve been a child.

“No part of that would have been defending their community. All they’re doing is further demonising the nationalist and republican communities because it gives people that option to say; ‘There they are, at it again’.

“It was a massive step backwards in so many ways.”

Grief, they say, comes in waves, but Sara paints a picture of a life buoyed on the surface.

Sara Canning is comforted at Lyra’s funeral. Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Sara Canning is comforted at Lyra’s funeral. Picture: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

She has been unable to mourn properly, or attend consistent counselling, as the very nature of public grief keeps Lyra both front of mind, and memories far too distant.

Often asked to speak or write on her partner’s behalf, Sara says she talks about Lyra daily, to keep her memory alive.

In the 12 months since Lyra’s death, Sara has appeared on TV, radio, and spoken to many print journalists.

She says she turned down even more, including money for appearances.

“I felt I had to do it for Lyra,” she explains.

“It was almost like we became public property, it was insane, the volume of it.

“That started from day one, and didn’t end for months.

"There were things I did because I felt they were important and valuable, to portray the situation in the light that it deserved, but that peace, real peace, never came for months.

I still haven’t grieved properly for her, because the time when everything died down, I had to go back to work, I couldn’t stay off any longer and survive.

“It’s been so hard to process, and I still haven’t processed and accepted what has happened.”

Not before time, marriage equality was finally implemented in the North this year, another milestone which Sara marked on behalf of — and without — Lyra, who she had planned to marry next year, by releasing a statement to mark the occasion.

“There was a bit of me that was completely gutted,” she says.

“That’s normal, I’m always going to have the mentality of; ‘That should’ve been me’, but I’m happy for other people, it’s hard to do, but you’d have to be really bitter to not take joy from life.

“It does hit you, I’ve had a lot stolen from me, an entire future that I had planned, and it’s gone.

“Most of the time, I feel the feeling when it comes, and let it go, and take comfort in the fact that things are changing, and have changed for the better.”

The PSNI has issued a fresh appeal for anyone who may have information about Lyra’s murder to come forward.

Log onto mipp.police.uk from your mobile, tablet, laptop or other device.

Paul McIntyre, 52, from Kinnego Park in Derry has been charged with her murder, which he denies.

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