‘Derry Girls’ Teaches Us More About Ireland Than School Did

Derry Girls has been on my watch list for months, and after finally getting round to watching it, I can’t stop – it’s my new obsession. Created by Lisa McGee, Derry Girls follows Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), Orla (Louisa Harland), Clare (Nicola Coughlan),  and James (Dylan Llewellyn) as they grow up in Derry, Northern Ireland during the 90s. Packed full of comedy, great music and touching family moments, Derry Girls has made me think about how much (or how little) I know about the Irish Troubles. 

McGee had set out on her writing career never wanting to write about The Troubles. It was years later that she began to reflect on “how strange it was to grow up during that time. I realised it was probably very rich territory.”

At the heart of Derry Girls is the friendship between Erin, Michelle, Orla, Clare, and James. The Troubles are in the background of their lives, and most of the series focuses on their hilarious antics. None of them are perfect teenagers, as McGee puts it “I wanted my characters to be complete disasters because I think that’s what most teenage girls feel like”. It’s why Derry Girls works so well – the good, bad and ugly are all there. 

The first episode opens with the adults in the show complaining about how long it takes to diffuse a bomb. This event which seems so scary and abnormal to some viewers is treated as an everyday inconvenience, like missing a bus. Only James, who has recently been left in Derry by his mum to stay with his cousin Michelle, is shocked when the army boards the school bus for routine inspection. The inclusion of an English character is genius, showing that even though the history of Ireland and England is intertwined, something has gone horribly wrong in the teaching of said history.

My own knowledge of The Troubles is limited, despite studying history all the way to A Levels. What I know I learnt from an Irish teacher and family, both of which were Catholic perspectives. My Grandad left Ireland to join the RAF, not wanting to take over the family farm, and though I never met him, he apparently rarely spoke about why he left – only vaguely about his childhood. As such, I’ve always wanted, and still want, to know more about the Ireland my Grandad left.

“I will always be grateful for Derry Girls for teaching me more about Irish history than the English education system. Now I want to see a change in how England teaches Irish history.”

Even though Derry Girls is similarly from a Catholic perspective, it’s still able to portray both sides of the conflict. In the opening episode of series two, the gang go to a ‘friends across the barricade’ outdoor retreat. Here, they meet a group of Protestant boys and try to make friends, the episode perfectly capturing the similarities between the Protestant boys and the Derry girls themselves, which acts as a wider view of the Northern Irish divide. 

Whilst Derry Girls can’t show me the exact Ireland my Grandad left, it does present a side to Northern Ireland that has never been shown before on mainstream television. Northern Irish representation in the rest of the UK is scarce, and I’m ashamed that I hadn’t realised this until watching the show. Derry Girls portrays the state of Northern Ireland as separate from the conflict happening within it. The core five all have normal teenage problems: friendships, crushes, school. Of course, The Troubles are still a part of their lives, but it doesn’t consume them.

McGee contrasts The Troubles with the highs and lows of teenage lives. At the end of series one, the group are dancing, blissfully unaware, at the school talent show, as the adults are at home watching a news report on what is one of the worst atrocities of The Troubles. This contrast lets viewers from outside of Ireland see that both Ireland and Northern Ireland are more than the conflict.

Derry Girls has taught me so much about Ireland. It has started conversations within my own family, including lot of nights talking to my dad about Ireland and learning more about my Grandad and his family (a lot of whom still live in Ireland). I will always be grateful for Derry Girls for teaching me more about Irish history than the English education system. Now I want to see a change in how England teaches Irish history. Ireland is our next door neighbour, it’s disgraceful that we don’t learn more about their history in school. 

Everyone needs to watch Derry Girls. It is full of heart, humour (sometimes very dark!) and an amazing 90s soundtrack. Most importantly, however, is that Derry Girls makes you think and question what you have been taught, and that is truly incredible. I also happen to share a name with the best character in the series, which obviously doesn’t make me biased in the slightest…

Words by Orla McAndrew

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1 Comment

  • An absolute gem of a series. Indeed, I learned much and fell in love with the eccentricities and similarities all over the world. Oh and I’ve adopted boke and dose into my vocabulary.
    Wish I could pull off “Catch yourself on.”, but I’m not a Derry Girl.

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