I teach a module on Northern Irish literature called Alternative Ulster, which covers all the texts you would expect, from the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson and the fiction of Bernard MacLaverty to more recent writings such as the anthology Queering the Green by Paul Maddern and short fiction by Lucy Caldwell. But in recent years – first just as a treat at the end of class – we’ve also started talking about the Derry Girls.
It soon became apparent that this was the most powerful way to discuss the ideas I had wanted to convey throughout the semester. My students come from a variety of backgrounds, but Derry Girls is an absolute hit for all of them. Especially at a time when Anglo-Irish relations are in the forefront of the news, it allows us to talk about other important things: joy, resilience, 90s music and how Manchester feels a bit like Derry.
The show’s final episode may air tonight, but it will remain a cultural touchstone in my life: a gif of Sister Michael rolling her eyes is among my most used; a recent wardrobe crisis prompted a friend to send me a photo of these three men in identical baby blue Dunnes suits; another sent me a congratulatory card featuring Michelle and one of her typically explicit exclamations.
I grew up at Portadown, County Armagh. I’m a few years younger than the girls, but I strongly identify with their adolescence which happened alongside the peace process or, as Erin puts it, “It’s about The Troubles in a political sense, but also of my own Troubles in a personal sense”. After almost every episode, I dig up another anecdote for my long-suffering English partner (“The day after the bomb razed my hometown, my friend’s mother took us ice skating and I lost my fanny pack!”) The program is the perfect balance of broad, universal humor and just enough specific references for those of us who grew up eating Tayto chips and sitting on sticky disco floors while Rock the Boat was playing.
Literature and art set in Northern Ireland have no duty to provide education about the history of the Troubles – it is an unfair expectation placed on writers and artists, many of whom want to write what they know, but don’t necessarily do it. want to be didactic with their creativity. In the best examples it looks organic – they are not only on Troubles. It’s more about the fullness of lives lived, songs sung, sambucas burned. Often when people “over here” hear your accent, they politely sidestep the subject, imagining they’re one word away from having to hear a full historical monologue. But Lisa McGee, the writer of Derry Girls, allowed us to be shown in all of our silly, messy, funny glory – living while living.
My PhD student, who took the Alternative Ulster course, has a brilliant chapter in her thesis on “the little English guy”; and I have a series of undergraduate essays waiting to be graded on the use of humor in times of violence, adolescents during the Troubles, taboo representations of sexuality and the role of pop music during conflicts. One week we’re covering punk and the Stiff Little Fingers song Suspect Device, the next Michelle says of a soldier, “But do you think if I told him I had an incendiary device in my pants, he take a look? ”
Last week, I showed my students the scene in which McGee interweaves the news of a fatal bombing with Orla’s dance routine to Like a Prayer. Like me, they were undone by Grandpa Joe’s hand on Gerry’s shoulder as they silently watched television. It’s those little moments they can relate to — seeing a taciturn older parent show emotion or being devastated at a school dance. This final season offered subtle commentary on everything from police politics and unequal opportunity to rich genre and storytelling experiences. The politics is there, but it’s not the driving force of the story. My students are unfailingly curious and respectful of the conflict and my own background, and Derry Girls allows us to combine all of that with a good laugh.
For those of us who have lived through the Troubles or are still struggling with the complicated legacy of the conflict, Derry Girls presents something that many of us recognize – this combination of light and dark. This is just one of many writings that tell the story of the conflict – and there is so much good writing coming out right now, from Jan Carson, Olivia Fitzsimons, Louise Kennedy, Bernie McGill, Mícheál McCann and others. , Gail McConnell, Michael Nolan and Stephen Sexton, not to mention Anna Burns’ Booker Milkman Prize winner.
But alongside the North’s rich literary output, Derry Girls injects a kind of savagery to which my students responded with unbridled enthusiasm. Suddenly, they could clearly imagine themselves, with all their hobbies and aspirations, living their lives despite the hum of chaos around them.
And I could find a way to tell them the things about themselves that I needed to convey but couldn’t. Yes it was violent, yes it was scary, but we danced, we laughed, we were stupid and excited and often I cared more about my hair and my wardrobe than politics. Derry Girls made us feel like teenagers again. After all, as Michelle reminds us, “Being a Derry Girl is a fucking state of mind!