Personal Insights: Let Lyra McKee's anniversary be a catalyst for addressing the North's 'compulsion to repeat'

As violence returns to some areas of the North, pyschotherapist Nigel Mulligan, argues the second anniversary of Lyra McKee’s death should be an opportunity for us all to reflect on the significance of her life and where Northern Ireland finds itself today.
Personal Insights: Let Lyra McKee's anniversary be a catalyst for addressing the North's 'compulsion to repeat'

The late Lyra McKee. Picture: Chiho Tang/Oranga Creative/PA Wire

ON the 18th of April 2019, Lyra McKee (29) was fatally shot during rioting in the Creggan area of Derry on Easter's Holy Thursday.

A dissident Republican group admitted responsibility, stating that McKee was not the target, but was standing beside enemy forces.

McKee was an award-winning investigative journalist who wrote about the consequences of ‘the Troubles’, referring to herself as a ‘ceasefire baby’ born after the Good Friday Agreement. She was also an LGBTI campaigner and activist who championed equality in Northern Ireland and dreamed of seeing same-sex marriage legalised.

On Holy Thursday in 2019, she became another victim of a conflicted culture which has not quite made with peace with the trauma of its past.

 

 Loss, mourning and melancholia 

Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s paper entitled ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917) was beyond doubt inspired by events of the First World War and was published just before the Spanish Flu pandemic that killed millions.

In this classic text, Freud was concerned with how human beings respond to the experience of loss. He contrasted ‘mourning’ and ‘melancholia’ by detailing that they can present similar symptomatic expression of sadness, dejection and pain, but while the mourner knows more or less what has been lost, this is not always obvious to the melancholic.

Complex feelings for the deceased or hostility surrounding their death is a trauma that can be difficult to speak of, and making sense of the loss and letting go of the deceased may not be easy. This can be known in contemporary times as ‘complicated grief’.

If trauma is not properly symbolised, it may return in various guises. 

It was in Freud’s 1914 paper at the outset of the war, "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through", that is especially useful for understanding the nature of trauma and is of particular significance to the sectarian violence that continually haunts Northern Ireland at certain times of the year.

Freud (1914) proposed that remembering is not a straightforward process and does not always take the form of a memory, but might reside also in actions, in particular repetition of the past. The “compulsion to repeat" replaces the “impulsion to remember”.

Could the violence that we are seeing on the streets of Northern Ireland now be compared to the state of melancholia that Freud wrote about one hundred years ago: A traumatised community unable to properly process past trauma which manifests itself in the guise of proxy party war’s with some citizens and groups unconsciously propelled to take action.

Without unity, confusion about how to move forward persists and politically motivated violence is always ready to erupt.

 

DUP leader Arlene Foster with Sin Fein's Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill before the funeral service for murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
DUP leader Arlene Foster with Sin Fein's Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O'Neill before the funeral service for murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The name Lyra shoud be a unifying factor 

 As an LGBTI campaigner and equality activist, McKee’s killing could be understood as representing not only an attack on progress but an attack on the embodiment of change -  a violent expression of unconscious fear and resistance to the political and socio-cultural change that the North was experiencing.

Significantly, McKee was buried on the anniversary weekend of the 1916 Easter Rising and her funeral was attended and conducted by religious leaders from different denominations. She was eulogized by the presiding priest as ‘a person who broke down barriers and reached across boundaries, this was her hallmark in life, this is her legacy in death, a child of the Good Friday Agreement’.

As a child of the Good Friday Agreement, McKee’s death demanded cross-community re-engagement. Her funeral brought together religious and political factions: Catholic and Protestant ministers, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.

McKee’s funeral united a community in the manner of the original Good Friday Agreement.

It was an opportunity for conflicting parties to come together. The outpouring of feeling from the funeral symbolised the possibility of a more united future for communities in Northern Ireland in a way that demonstrated that, in a relatively short time, large sections of the community had made socio-political shifts that allowed the open commemoration of the death of a lesbian and LGBTI-rights activist.

 

The PSNI use a water cannon on youths on the Springfield road, during further unrest in Belfast. Picture : Liam McBurney/PA Wire
The PSNI use a water cannon on youths on the Springfield road, during further unrest in Belfast. Picture : Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Burying the Ghosts of the Past 

 We can see how anniversaries are essential not only to help us to remember, but also to prevent us from forgetting; they are opportunities to commemorate and transcend past traumas that haunt us from beyond the grave.

In a reflection of Freud's paper’s, anniversaries may play a key role in helping those who are mourning to represent the loss in new ways -  through the acts of speaking  - and for groups to enact symbolic rituals of togetherness.

 Lyra is now inscribed into the symbolic tapestry of Easter anniversary events. Events that not only remember and share a tragedy, but were all catalysts for significant cultural change.

The upcoming anniversary of Lyra’s death is an opportunity to remember in a unified way and mourn with a sense of peace and hope for the future.

For certain sections of the community who need some orientation for the future the name Lyra can function as a knitting of socio-political rupture and her anniversary can be an opportunity to transform pain, humiliation and hurt into new ideals of peace, tolerance and forgiveness. Ideals in which all citizens of Northern Ireland can share, believe and invest in equally.

I would like to suggest that the individual therapeutic process is also analogous to an anniversary event — essentially a putting into words and a naming of the unburied ghosts that can haunt. Identifying past trauma and fixing them with a name so they can be put to rest once and for all.

To properly remember - and properly forget - and allow the ghosts of the past to be buried with honour, at last.

Nigel Mulligan is a psychotherapist working with individuals, couples and groups who have experienced trauma, loss and addiction. He also lectures on the psychotherapy and psychology programmes in Dublin City University.


 

 

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