Lisa McGee’s comedy, set amid the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is coming to an end after its third season – but its reverence to teenage challenges and joy amid a living conflict leaves a strong legacy
Since its premiere in 2018, Derry Girls has taken the world by storm. Revolving around the lives of five teenagers living during the 1990s Troubles of Northern Ireland, the smash hit Channel 4 comedy is an incredibly hilarious and wholesome addition to our lives.
As creator Lisa McGee confirms that the forthcoming third series is set to be the last, it seems only fitting that we should look back on why Derry Girls took off in quite the way it did. In my opinion, it’s because it completely changed the narrative of how the Troubles of Northern Ireland were portrayed in the media. In the first minutes of the show, 16-year-old Erin Quinn’s (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) dramatised internal monologue of her struggles in Northern Ireland are immediately dashed when she wakes up to the realisation that her cousin Orla McCool (Louisa Harland) is merely reading her diary. This scene, and Derry Girls as a whole, brings the narrative of the Troubles away from the overarching horror that has unfolded for – at that time – over 25 years.
Instead, we see the normality of the lives of those caught in the middle. Bombs on the bridge of Derry are not seen as major security threats, instead as a nuisance obstructing the daily school route and Aunt Sarah’s (Kathy Kiera Clarke) trip to the tanning salon. When the teenagers’ parents are called to the school after the ‘detention incident’ – when the main five characters are found in detention with the deceased elderly nun who was overseeing the punishment – the discussions are initially around the army’s and “the wee robot”’s failure to clear the bridge in time.
Those watching in Northern Ireland can relate to living during and after the conflict. They know where they were when Bill Clinton came to Derry, when the IRA ceasefire was announced. They also remember the wave machine in the Lisnagelvin swimming pool, where Erin and Orla suggest taking Chelsea Clinton. They remember the soldiers on the streets, while having conversations about school exams and their daily lives. They have seen atrocities bring their streets and cities to their knees, and grieved for those they have lost. However, they kept on living. Teenagers were still worried about passing their school exams; women were still tanning and getting their hair and nails done; people still looked forward to their Friday night takeaway; weddings and school proms went on, all the while as chaos ensued.
At the same time, while these threats to life are seen as everyday inconveniences, the show’s sole English character, James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn), brings viewers not native to Northern Ireland into the scene, questioning everything that he sees, stating that sometimes he feels like he’s gone through the looking glass. Always slightly bewildered and not entirely sure why these things are happening, a global audience has someone to latch onto – someone asking the same questions as they would be. They are brought to Derry, and get to see the humour and love that Derry people have.
Derry Girls reframes the conflict of the Troubles and the two communities at the centre. We do not see the religious-political intricacies of the conflict, rather in the first episode of season two, we are sent along on a cross-community school trip with the all-girls Catholic school and the all-boys Protestant school. On this trip, the differences between Catholics and Protestants are boiled down to the everyday, often ridiculous statements that the students provide in a classroom exercise to help bring the schools together. It is clear that a lot of thought went into this scene, as the statements given by students that fill the chalkboard of “differences” (while the “similarities” chalkboard remains empty) all ring true. From “Catholics love JFK” to “Protestants love brooches” to differences in holiday destinations: Catholics go to Bundoran and Protestants go to Newcastle. These students do live entirely separate lives and cultures, but there is no malice in their differences.
“Derry Girls does not deny the tragedy that unfolded in Northern Ireland, but it shows that life still went on”
Derry Girls is led by a number of strong, women characters. Outside of the five teenagers – including Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan) and Michelle Mallon (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) – the show has a number of outstanding leads, like Ma Mary (Tara Lynne O'Neill), Aunt Sarah, and Sister Michael (Siobhán McSweeney). These women represent Derry women as we know them. They were often the breadwinners of the family, particularly when Derry was the centre of the shirt factory industry. In an inherently masculine setting of the Northern Irish Troubles, we see these women emerge as the strong, sometimes feared characters. This is encapsulated in the first episode where Clare’s dad tells her, “You wait ‘til your mother hears about this”, after the aforementioned dead nun incident. Derry Girls gives us a completely new glimpse into life during the Troubles. For a teenager, it was not the army you worried about daily, it was your mother and the punishment of the wooden spoon.
The filming of Derry Girls season three is currently underway. As the cast reassembles, we can only speculate about the send-off the show will receive. It has become a credit to its city; after it was released, telling people abroad that you come from Derry was worn as a badge of pride, and its turbulent history no longer overshadowed it.
Derry Girls’ mix of poignant moments alongside hilarious comedy is why it rings true to so many. The final scene of the first season sums it up perfectly. The teenagers are on stage during their school’s annual talent show, enjoying being in their friends’ company and defending each other against their school bullies, while the adults witness devastation unfolding on their television screen. Derry Girls does not deny the tragedy that unfolded in Northern Ireland, but it shows that life still went on.
As many are sad to see the end of Derry Girls, the people of Derry and Northern Ireland can go on with their heads held high. We became redefined in the wider world – we became a place of community and comedy, rather than a place of fear. At a time when the media continues to misrepresent politics and the social landscape in Northern Ireland, we need more shows like Derry Girls – but this time set in the present day, exploring the breadth of life in a post-Brexit, Irish question-shadowed Northern Ireland. In the meantime, I know that Lisa McGee and her outstanding cast will give this show the final moments it deserves.