Uppa Derry Girls: the Joy, Poignancy and Power of a Girl-Centric Northern Irish Sitcom
This piece contains spoilers for the whole first series of Derry Girls
A sitcom about four teenage girls, one wee English fella and an extended family in 1994 Derry doesn’t scream ‘instant hit’. This would perhaps explains why the first episode was sold as a sort of female 90s version of Channel 4’s iconic/infamous teen comedy, The Inbetweeners. Such a comparison fails to describe Derry Girls’ true merits.
Derry Girls is a comedy which manages to be savage, silly and emotionally honest about Northern Irish girlhood in the 90s, without pausing to explain to an external audience what the significance of a punt or a 12th July march is. If I had to draw comparisons, I would say that Derry Girls has the daftness of Father Ted mixed with the sweet teenage messiness of My Mad Fat Diary. The rest can only be attributed to the magic of casting and the writing of Derry’s own Lisa McGee. The reason for the popularity of Derry Girls (it was commissioned for a second series after one episode) within and beyond Northern Ireland isn’t that deep - it’s really fucking funny. Great humour will find a large audience, even if viewers in GB and the Republic who aren’t yet fluent in Derry Wan might require subtitles to catch all the jokes.
The show already feels like a significant piece of pop culture about Northern Ireland, in the sense that it portrays the humanity of Northern Irish people trying to lead normal lives against the backdrop of conflict. Derry Girls humanises us firstly to ourselves and secondly to external audiences whose knowledge of our lived experience of the Troubles and the twenty years since is based upon occasional news coverage. In contrast to typical depictions of Northern Irish people in British and Irish TV shows, the characterisation of Northern Irish people in Derry Girls goes beyond the trope of a middle-aged man, coded PUL (Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist) who is quite shouty and uncouth in comparison to all the softly-spoken English or Irish characters. (See: too many James Nesbitt roles to list.) Even the representation of Northern Irish people in Irish sitcoms fails to do justice to our complexity. We tend to pop up in the form of middle-aged men who unsettle the protagonists, although these men are usually CNR (Catholic/Nationalist/Republican) rather than PUL. (See: Gerard McSorley’s appearance in Father Ted and the Gerry Adams/Martin McGuinness parody episode of RTÉ’s Bridget & Eamon.)
While I am critical of the limitations of external representations of Northern Irish people in popular culture, this is not to say that the representation of us in local pop culture is necessarily more nuanced. Like many things in Northern Ireland, the range of original comedy on Northern Irish television is very limited and male-dominated. Both The Blame Game and Give My Head Peace have the feel of material that was mildly subversive decades ago, only to become increasingly irrelevant through repetition. Perhaps the success of Derry Girls will prompt Northern Irish television commissioners to be more daring.
Spoilers for Episode 6 (aired 8th February 2018) follow
For me and many other millennial and Gen X women who grew up in Northern Ireland, the most powerful aspect of Derry Girls is the affirmation of seeing ourselves in Erin, Orla, Clare and Michelle. During my angsty teenage years in Belfast, I read books about Australian girls and watched shows about teenagers in Bristol and California whose parents seemed very laissez faire compared to my own. I didn’t come across a single piece of media that I really saw my teenage self in until Derry Girls arrived this January. The group of school friends I grew up with were as sarcastic, irreverent and occasionally ride-fixated as the Derry girls (albeit a lot more focused on exams) but the socially conservative, abstinence-only teaching we received at school made it seem like girls like Michelle Mallon could only be accepted outside Northern Ireland. That feeling of shame stays with you. Watching a teenage character like Michelle discuss her sexuality and not be shamed for it probably doesn’t feel like a big deal elsewhere in Europe, but in Northern Ireland it is powerful. The scene in Episode 6 when Clare comes out to Erin (and Erin gives a realistically crap response) represents a meaningful pop culture moment for people who have grown up LGBTQ+ in Northern Ireland, where the closest thing we have had to an out gay icon is Julian Simmons.
The moment in Episode 6 when Erin and Clare lock eyes and get on stage with Michelle, James and Orla to perform a step-aerobics routine to Madonna’s Like A Prayer is the exact point when I started weeping. The juxtaposition of carefree teenage dancing with the adult Quinns watching news of a horrific bombing at home, illustrates the daily reality of The Troubles in ways that words alone cannot describe. Seeing the girls (and James) being temporarily oblivious to the outside world brought up memories of unfiltered joy with teenage friends, of helping each other unpack the baggage Northern Ireland has given us in early adulthood, of finding humour in the highs and lows of life and cheering each other on throughout. It made me want to text all my school friends to tell them that I love them and “you are a dick, but you’re my dick”.
On reflection, I decided that that reference will have to wait a few days until they’ve definitely seen the episode. Bring on Series 2 and uppa Derry Girls, both real and fictional.