Getting Catholicism, the Troubles and 90s nostalgia right in ‘Derry Girls’
Tanks of soldiers carrying heavy artillery circle the wall surrounding the city of Derry in Northern Ireland. While the local news reports that another bomb was found attached to a bridge and has brought the city to a standstill, 16-year-old Erin Quinn is inconsolable because her cousin Orla has been reading her diary.
Such is the life of a teenager. Such is life in wartime. It’s just another day for Derry girls.
“Derry Girls” is creator, writer and producer Lisa McGee’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age sitcom following Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), Orla (Louisa Harland), along with pals Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), Clare (Nicola Coughlan) and James (Dylan Llewellyn) as they navigate their way through Catholic high school during the the Troubles. (“Derry Girls” is currently airing on Channel 4 in Ireland; no word yet when it will be available for a U.S. audience.)
The Troubles was a three-decade conflict in Northern Ireland between the Unionists (the predominantly Protestant majority who wanted to remain within the United Kingdom) and the Nationalists (the predominantly Catholic minority who desired to consolidate with the Republic to the south so as to create a unified Irish state). The conflict began in the late 1960s and are generally thought to have ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
It is the girls’ aggressively typical teenage experience held in relief with the interminable tension of living in an environment of sporadic but unceasing warfare that gives the humor of “Derry Girls” its snap.
Derry is one of the few cities in Northern Ireland with a Catholic majority and wound up figuring prominently in the historical narrative of the Troubles. The city’s notoriety from this era is due in no small part to the events of Bloody Sunday on Jan. 30, 1972, when, during a protest march in Derry, British soldiers shot at 26 unarmed civilian protesters, killing 13.
It is in this war-torn landscape that we encounter Erin and her pals, undeterred and seemingly oblivious to the tensions surrounding them as they enthusiastically go about their teenage existence. Indeed, it is the girls’ aggressively typical teenage experience held in relief with the interminable tension of living in an environment of sporadic but unceasing warfare that gives the humor of “Derry Girls” its snap. The viewer sees the absurdity of their teenage obliviousness, but we also see the bigger picture.
Their focus on boys, exams and music really has nothing to do with the heedlessness of youth: We see Erin’s Aunt Sarah (Kathy Kiera Clarke) up in arms about the bomb on the bridge because it interferes with her time at the tanning bed, while Erin’s mother (Tara Lynne O’Neill) is simultaneously upset because she cannot spend another moment in the house with her teenage daughter. This is all terrific fodder for comedy, but it is more than that. The very reason it is funny is the same reason it penetrates: It is true. Erin, her friends and family get on with living their lives, the big and the small, the loving and hating, the major and the minor. They do what they can do because that is all they can do.
However tragic or unwieldy the bigger picture is, we live in the smaller picture. Our world is an immediate one, with its ungrateful, self-obsessed teenagers, cranky fathers-in-law, wacky aunts, sullen clerks and family dinners. This is life in wartime; this is life in our times. You get on with it.
The Catholicism of the show is neither reverent nor hostile but instead—as it is in most predominantly Catholic communities—a ubiquitous entity whose presence waxes and wanes depending upon the situation.
And then there is faith, both here and now, and in the world of mid-1990s Northern Ireland, when the show is set. The Catholicism of the show is neither reverent nor hostile but instead—as it is in most predominantly Catholic communities—a ubiquitous entity whose presence waxes and wanes depending upon the situation. There’s the huge shrine to the Virgin right off the dining room as we watch Erin and her family eat take-out from the local “chipper” (fish and chips restaurant) on Friday nights. There’s the level-headed, no-nonsense school principal, Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney), savvy enough to have the full measure of Erin and her companions but tender enough to recognize their shenanigans within the context of being teenagers. There’s the handsome but dim young priest (Peter Campion) with the vocational crisis, whom the girls convince they’ve seen apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to get out of taking an exam.
Having yet to visit Derry myself, I have been told by my Irish colleagues that one of the best parts of the show is that it has captured the up-front tone of Derry’s inhabitants, as well as its distinctive dialect. The young actors give their characters the high-energy cartoonish quality that befits their teenage alter-egos; but it is the adult characters—in particular, Tommy Tiernan as Erin’s Da Gerry—who provide the show with the solid foundation on which the girls can spring off of. McGee’s writing is well crafted and structurally pristine, though at times some of the smaller comedic bits can feel a bit strained.
“Derry Girls” has been one of the biggest success stories of this still-young television year, a success that McGee has attributed in an interview with The Irish Times primarily to nostalgia. On the contrary, it would seem that nostalgia has little to do with the show’s power, and in truth, “Derry Girls” is not of another time but very much of this time. It teaches us how to live through the chaos of the bigger picture by navigating our way through our many smaller pictures.