Teenage girls are reshaping the narrative of The Troubles
The teenage girl has long been marginalised, abused and forgotten in Northern Irish culture. That changed with two major success stories in the past year, with Anna Burns’s Man Booker Prize winning novel Milkman and Lisa McGee’s Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls both featuring female adolescent protagonists.
It is reductive to say that these are the only successful cultural products to emerge from the North in recent years however. We have also had the phenomenal Jan Carson, Lucy Caldwell and Ciarán McMenamin writing stories set in the North that have become both critically acclaimed and enjoyed amongst the general public. But I found myself increasingly drawn to Milkman and Derry Girls having just entered my 20s, the memories and mistakes of being a teenager still clearly etched in my mind.
It was the deliberate choice for Burns and McGee to focus on a teenage girl that drew me into these works of art. The female adolescent is a source of constant ridicule for the media and society but Milkman and Derry Girls empower these voices and make their experiences valid amongst a canon filled with male experiences.
The voice of the teenage girl is encountered in both works with two teenage girls controlling the narrative and the stories are told from their perspective. We encounter this voice immediately in Milkman with its fateful opening sentence, “The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died.”
The unnamed girl at the centre of Burns’s narrative of sexual harassment set to the backdrop of the Troubles tells a troubling but eerily familiar tale. An unnamed girl harassed because she does something different - in this case reading books while walking. However, it is not the milkman who got the kickback from the harassment. In a telling reflection of Irish society, instead of seeing the male instigator of the harassment getting the blame it is his victim who is vilified by those around her. Being a teenage girl is difficult in Burn’s fictionalised version of the Ardoyne and it speaks to the universal struggle women face in a world of rampant misogyny.
One of the most enduring things about Lisa McGee’s world is the portrayal of the Derry Girls themselves and how relatable they are. They are brazen, loud and completely unashamed. They smuggle vodka on to a bus to Belfast and they use cross-community days out an all-boys school to “try to get a piece of that fine Protestant ass” as a product of single-sex education. I will willingly admit that I signed myself up to plenty of bizarre schemes in order to get near the opposite sex, we live a very sheltered life in Fermanagh…
McGee presents a stark reminder of the trials and tribulations of youth and being a young woman in particular. I thoroughly enjoyed the frantic searching for dates as the girls prepared for Prom and thought about which outfit best suited them. I wept as Erin waited for her date that never showed, and leapt out of my seat when James turned up at the Quinns’ door and said “Your mum rang me.”
Derry Girls endures because we see ourselves in it. I realised this after S2E3 when the viewer catches for just a few seconds the mixture of worry, confusion, and joy on Gerry’s face when he spots the girls at the Take That concert… on television. He doesn’t rat them out to the angry mob of mammies behind him, as Daddies would do anything for their girls. Tommy Tiernan perfectly captures a father’s love, fear and pride in just a few facial expressions.
One of the most intriguing comments surrounding Milkman has been the comparison of the text to the works of Samuel Beckett, an Irish avant-garde absurdist who is frequently criticised and panned off by readers due to the difficulty of approaching his work. This is dismissive at best as Beckett is widely seen as one of the few writers who possessed the ability to place the entire human condition on the stage. Milkman is largely indebted to Beckett whether it be through Burns’s use of the stream of consciousness technique, famously used in Beckett’s 1973 play Not I, or the Beckettian black humour present within the text.
Black Humour is one of the strange absurdities present within Northern Irish writing, perhaps this is due to growing up amidst the background of a civil war, and it is something that also translate into Derry Girls. When I asked Twitter for a few thoughts on the show, one of the things that stood out to those who responded was the comedy, with one person saying “it captures our unique sense of humour which kept us going in the darkest of days.”
The use of humour to cover this period of history is deeply fascinating and it’s a reminder that despite the civil war outside, life continued as normal on the inside. It is perfectly captured in S2E5 of Derry Girls when we watch Gerry, Mary and Sarah tune into Donna Traynor on the BBC evening news announcing the IRA ceasefire of 1994. All the while, the girls are fighting over the crowning of prom queen and The Cranberries’ Zombie is playing over the action as the Free Derry corner is graffitied with a peace sign and there is tea on the streets. Traynor repeats John Major’s statement, “We are beyond beginning but we are not yet in sight of the end.” It is a timely reminder as the future of the North is deliberated and debated in regards to Brexit and Irish Unity of how hard-fought peace was in this country.
A cynic would say that Burns and McGee are capitalising on an already bursting cannon of Troubles related art but I disagree. These women have added a new layer to the narratives that surround the conflict. Not only have they added a teenage voice, but the voice of a teenage girl.
They’ve reshaped the narratives. Burns’s shows the collateral damage a young woman faces as becomes subject to unwanted advances from a paramilitary member. McGee shows that in spite of the collective horrors that The Troubles brought, the people of the North persisted.
The landscape may have changed all around us, but by God we weren’t letting a security alert get in the way of our sun-bed sessions.