When I was studying abroad in 2014, a film called ’71 was released. In it, Jack O’Connell plays a young British soldier sent to Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. My international friends were fascinated by the film, most of them having no idea that the Troubles were a “thing”, and I was inundated with questions:
Wait, so are the Irish the bad guys? Did you grow up in a warzone? Is it still like that? Why is everyone so angry and what, for the love of God, is anyone saying?
There’s a reason why those of us who grew up in Northern Ireland lack enthusiasm when new films and television shows set in the north of the island are released.
Most, like ’71 and Steve McQueen’s Hunger, are set in the Troubles and are grim depictions of violence made by British filmmakers. If you go by what films have been made about Northern Ireland in the last 30 years, you could be forgiven for thinking the country is still stuck in the Seventies.
That’s why when Derry Girls hit TVs last year, it felt like finally – finally – here was a representation of Northern Ireland that felt true to my own upbringing. Created by Lisa McGee, the show follows a teenage girl, Erin, and her schoolmates, in a “place called Derry or Londonderry, depending on your persuasion”.
Set in the Nineties, before ceasefire and the peace agreement, the show is a coming-of-age story, told with the backdrop of everyday violence. In the first episode, Erin’s parents argue about how the girls are to going to get to school because a bomb threat has closed the bridge – nonchalant about the danger and scundered with the extra hassle (for those not totally up on Northern Irish slang, scundered = annoyed, or fed up).
This irreverent comedy is what Derry Girls gets so right about the Northern Irish attitude: sure, things might be going to shit, but there’s still craic to be had.
The other thing Derry Girls gets so right is its universality. At its heart, the show is about four girls – and a wee English fella – coming of age in the Nineties, whether it’s dancing to Madonna at the school’s end-of-year show, negotiating boys for the first time, coming out or going to your first party. It’s this mixture of cultural specificity and universality that has made Derry Girls an instant smash-hit of British (and Irish) comedy.
During the first series, it immediately garnered the kind of word-of-mouth gushing usually reserved for the likes of Game of Thrones. The first episode of the second series, which aired this week, was watched by 1.8 million people and was the first time Channel 4 has aired a comedy on its 9.15 slot. A release on Netflix has also opened the show up to an international audience with Americans often commenting that they love the show – no idea what anyone’s saying – but they love it.
Closer to home, Derry Girls has become somewhat emblematic of modern Northern Ireland. Last year, a mural of the girls was painted on the side of a bar in Derry.
If you know anything about Northern Ireland, you know we love a mural, elevating a group of teenage girls to the status of freedom fighters, politicians, and that George Best is the highest honour the Northern Irish can bestow. These Derry girls are also modern women; last month, two of its stars took part in a demonstration demanding access to abortion services be extended to Northern Ireland.
The show has become a handy guide for the British who are becoming increasingly curious about their island neighbour, what with all the chat of hard and soft borders. Now, when well-meaning Brits ask me about the situation in Northern Ireland, I point them to Derry Girls which takes on the tricky task of explaining the country’s politics to a British audience without ever pandering.
In the latest episode, a genius scene had the Catholic girls, along with a group of Protestant boys, list the differences between the two “sides” on a blackboard resulting in sectarian one-liners: Protestants “keep toasters in the cupboard” and “hate Abba”, while Catholics “like bingo” and are “well into statues.”
During the last year, Derry Girls has been a much-needed balm to British politics and as 29 March inches closer, its return to our small screens is well timed.
Nothing better could sum up Northern Ireland’s attitude to politics than the final moments of the last series: as the girls dance their heart outs, their parents stand around a television set watching, with horror, the news of fatal bombing. Joyous and anxiety-riddled, in a country like no other where the domestic is the political, Derry Girls gets it.
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