ANA G. Valdes
Meet Erin Quinn, Orla McCool, Michelle Mallon, Clare Devlin, and James Maguire, the characters that populate Derry Girls. This show is not only about death, bombs, or violence, it’s also about friendship, being a teenager, and growing up.
Derry Girls is a straightforward coming-of-age story that follows 16-year-old Erin and her friends as they grow up in a world of armed police in armored Land Rovers and British Army checkpoints in the 1990s of Northern Ireland. The story is set during the time of The Troubles– the conflict between the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland between the late 1960s and the late 1990s. It was a violent struggle that engulfed Northern Ireland. Shootings, bombings, and assassinations were commonplace as people—divided along religious and political lines—battled over the future of the region and whether it would remain part of the United Kingdom or split away and reunite with the Republic of Ireland.
Despite the clear violence around them, Derry Girls focuses on the characters’ lives: they go to school, they have crushes on people and they feel anxious about exams. Their adventures and misadventures throughout the series include sneaking into school to see their test results and ending up in police custody, playing with a dead nun’s body, convincing a hot priest that a statue of the Virgin Mary cried real tears (spoiler: it was dog piss), and sneaking out to a concert and running into a polar bear (not necessarily). You get the gist.
More than 3,500 people died during those decades of conflict. And though this period largely ended with a peace deal in 1998, many of Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants continue to live mostly separate lives. More than 90 percent of children go to schools segregated by religion, and some neighborhoods remain physically divided. In the show, The girls and James actually go to an all-catholic school. Now, begins the understanding, tensions, and conflict between Catholics and Protestants, many Catholic Irish believed Ireland should have its own government, independent of England and the British Crown. They were known as nationalists. In contrast, Irish Protestants generally supported British rule of Ireland. They were known as loyalists. While Ireland was fully independent, Northern Ireland remained under British rule, and the Catholic communities in cities like Belfast and Derry (legally called Londonderry) complained of discrimination and unfair treatment by the Protestant-controlled government and police forces. So yes, that’s one of the many reasons the Irish hate the British.
Each episode has implied a historical event that has happened in Northern Ireland.
One episode that I really enjoyed was The Prom episode, In which Jenny (a very annoying and loaded side character) organizes a 1950s-style prom at the school. Sister Michael introduces a new pupil, Mae, a teenage girl from Donegal who is of East Asian descent and has a hostile attitude. Clare and Michelle encourage Mae to join their group but are discouraged from wanting her as a friend when another pupil from her old school in Donegal warns them that Mae had to leave her last school due to being a bully. Mae takes a disliking to Jenny after Jenny buys a dress that Mae wanted. Clare wants to go to the prom with James, but he decides not to go because he intends to attend a Doctor Who convention that evening. Erin offers to go to the prom with Clare to break down the “stereotypes”. Erin changes her mind very soon after when she sees John Paul, whom she is attracted to, splitting from his girlfriend, Cara. Erin invites him to the prom. After Mae hears Erin has ditched Clare as a date, Mae asks Clare to go with her instead. Erin assumes that John Paul will arrive at the house to take her to the prom. When he does not arrive, Mary calls James, who takes Erin with him instead of going to the convention, which she is pleased with. Orla takes Joe because he is the man she likes the most. Michelle invites two dates thinking that she can alternate between them, but they meet each other and go to the pub together. A band at the prom play 1990s songs in a 1950s style. Mae takes revenge on Jenny by pouring three buckets of tomato juice over her when she is crowned prom queen on stage as if done with the pig’s blood like in the movie Carrie. Clare tries to stop Mae from pulling the rope. Erin, Michelle, and James try to move Jenny off the stage, along with Aisling are instead covered in tomato juice along with Jenny as the buckets are tipped. The song “ Zombie” by the Cranberries starts playing in the background, which was a song in response to the death of two children in an IRA bombing in the Cheshire town of Warrington. Meanwhile, the adults watch a TV news report of the IRA’s ceasefire, as people celebrate it in the street. The IRA ceasefire of 1994 is celebrated by the townsfolks in the penultimate episode of season 2. For years, The provisional IRA was resorting to military violence to meet its means. However, On August 31, 1994, marked the first two cease-fires on their part as they committed themselves to enhance the democratic process and restoring peace. As Erin’s family watches a new report explaining the ceasefire they head out to the streets to find the town celebrating the declaration of peace.
Another Episode, that I also enjoyed was actually the last episode of the show, it goes in-depth on the conflict and its cost, Orla and Erin turning 18 and the decision all the characters have to make on whether to vote “yes” on the Good Friday Agreement aka “The Belfast Agreement”. It is also the only episode in the series that doesn’t feature a lot of comedy. The episode featured serious conversations, moral conflicts, and the possible fallout of the agreement. But the characters don’t yet know what we as an audience do: In 1998, shortly before the Derry Girls would go to university, the Good Friday referendum passed with over 71.12% of the votes. Northern Ireland voted “yes” for peace. “There’s a part of me that doesn’t really want to grow up. I’m not sure I’m ready for it, I’m not sure I’m ready for the world. But things can’t stay the same, and they shouldn’t,” said Erin at the end of the series finale. “No matter how scary it is we have to move on and we have to grow up because things, well they might just change for the better.” In the end, James, the girls, and their families are seen leaving the voting polls, with Erin’s little sister, Anna, jumping behind them, holding Grandpa Joe’s hand. Most of the characters had lived in conflict for most or all of their lives but Anna would grow up in peace. The country has just taken its first step into the future.
Lisa McGee based the show on her own experience of growing up in Derry. I grew up with the privilege of not being a child of the crossfire. I try to educate myself about what’s going on around me, sometimes it gets overwhelming intaking information on things that I don’t have control over and can’t help people with. I never grew up in the middle of a war. Although it was something that just shifted in me, I remember in 2016 when T*ump got elected, it was chaos in my community. I worried about the threats to undocumented people, the ICE Raids, and the detention centers, but I also had to keep going on, just being a teenager.
With only 19 episodes in the series, it’s disappointing there aren’t more hijinks to watch Comedy is always intertwined with the seriousness of the political and historical setting, which was true then and still true to life for teens today who need to balance just being kids with their sometimes very serious surroundings. So what is a Derry Girl? It’s not just a girl from the town they won’t call Londonderry, it’s being able to roll with the punches and carry on. Being a Derry Girl is a state of mind.