I teach a module about 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 through to newer writing such as Paul Maddern’s anthology Queering the Green and the short fiction of Lucy Caldwell. But in the last few years – initially just as a treat at the end of the course – we also started talking about Derry Girls.
It soon became clear that this was the most powerful way to discuss the ideas I had wanted to convey all semester. My students are from a range of backgrounds, but Derry Girls is an absolute hit for all of them. Especially at a time where British-Irish relations are at the forefront of the news agenda, it allows us to talk about some other important things: joy, resilience, 90s music and how Manchester is actually a bit like Derry.
The show’s final episode may be airing 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 those three men in identical baby-blue Dunnes suits; another sent me a congratulations card featuring Michelle and one of her characteristically explicit exclamations.
I grew up in Portadown, Co Armagh. I am a few years younger than the girls, but identify heavily with their adolescence played out alongside the peace process or, as Erin says, “It’s about the Troubles in a political sense, but also about my own Troubles in a personal sense.” After nearly every episode, I dredge up another anecdote for my long-suffering English partner (“The day after that bomb flattened my home town, my friend’s mum took us ice skating and I lost my bumbag!”) The programme is the perfect balance of broad, universal humour and just enough specific references for those of us raised eating Tayto crisps and sitting on sticky disco floors as Rock the Boat played.
Literature and art set in Northern Ireland doesn’t have a duty to provide an education about the history of the Troubles – this is an unfair expectation placed on writers and artists, many of whom want to write what they know, but don’t necessarily want to be didactic with their creativity. In the best examples, it feels organic – they aren’t just about the Troubles. Rather, they are about the fullness of lives lived, the songs sung, the sambucas set on fire. Often, when people “over here” hear your accent, they politely edge around the subject, imagining that they are one wrong word away from having to hear a full historical monologue. But Lisa McGee, the writer of Derry Girls, has allowed us to be shown in all our silly, messy, funny glory – living through it while actually living.
My PhD student, who took the Alternative Ulster course, has a brilliant chapter in her thesis on “the wee English fella”; and I have a range of undergraduate essays waiting to be marked on the use of humour in violent times, teenagers during the Troubles, taboo depictions of sexuality and the role of pop music during conflict. One week, we cover punk and the Stiff Little Fingers song Suspect Device, the next we have Michelle saying of a soldier, “But do you think if I told him I had an incendiary device down my knickers, he’d have a look?”
Last week, I showed my students the scene in which McGee intersperses the news of a deadly bomb blast 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 watch the TV. It’s those little moments that they can relate to – seeing a taciturn older relative show emotion or being devastated at a school dance. This final season has offered subtle commentary on everything from the politics of policing to inequality of opportunity alongside rich experiments in genre and storytelling. The politics is there, but it’s not driving the story. My students are unfailingly curious and respectful of the conflict and my own background, and Derry Girls allows us to combine all that with a bloody good laugh.
For those of us who’ve lived through the Troubles or continue to grapple with the complicated legacy of the conflict, Derry Girls presents something many of us recognise – that combination of light and dark. It is only one of many texts that tells the story of the conflict – and there is so much good writing coming out right now from, among others, Jan Carson, Olivia Fitzsimons, Louise Kennedy, Bernie McGill, Mícheál McCann, Gail McConnell, Michael Nolan and Stephen Sexton, not to mention the Booker prize-winning Milkman by Anna Burns.
But, alongside the rich literary output from the North, Derry Girls injects a kind of wildness that my students responded to with unbridled enthusiasm. All of a sudden, they could clearly imagine themselves, with all their hobbies and aspirations, living their lives in spite of 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 horny and often I cared more about my hair and wardrobe than I did about politics. Derry Girls let us all be teenagers again. After all, as Michelle reminds us: “Being a Derry Girl is a fucking state of mind!”