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Derry Girls: Exploring conflict in Northern Ireland through comedy

Written By Christian MacManus

Derry Girls, touching, Proudly Irish, and undoubtedly hilarious.

The show has evolved to become a cornerstone of both Irish and British comedy. Displaying the best of Irish talent through a largely Irish cast and ingenious writer Lisa McGee. It’s careful and masterful portrayal of life in Northern Ireland for the Irish catholic community during The Troubles, A period between 1968 to 1998.

The troubles were an ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland, known as a “low-level war”. Despite being known as a religious war, that is not entirely the case, rather it was one of a dispute regarding the national identity of the territory, with religious undertones due to the varying religious statuses of both Unionist and nationalist communities. Throughout the article, the terms of protestant/unionist and catholic/nationalist will be used; Protestant/unionist standing for the faction of Northern Irish communities that believed in the union between The United Kingdom and Northern Ireland originating from loyalist factions who often refer to Northern Ireland as Ulster. Alternatively, the Catholic/Nationalist faction refers to the community of people who believe that Northern Ireland should leave the United Kingdom and form a United Ireland, it is worth noting many within the community come from Irish heritage.

The show follows the lives of Catholic teenagers in the famously violent and divided Derry, (known to unionists as London-Derry). What is most touching is the appreciation of the characters as normal teenagers, like any other group across the United Kingdom, yet having to live their lives against the backdrop of an ethno-nationalist war. Erin Quinn, played by astounding actor Saoirse Monica-Jackson is the sometimes gullible, yet undoubtedly charismatic young Irish girl growing up in Derry. Her relative, Orla McCool, is the truly enigmatic and comedically un-aware member of the friendship group. Their close friend, known for her fierce sense of humour and cut-throat wit, Michelle Mallon, played brilliantly by Jaime Lee O’Donnell. Her, “English” cousin, James Maguire, whose character captures the rarity of an English-Irish individual living in a Nationalist community. And finally, their feeble, timid, and clearly academically conscious friend, Clare Devlin, played by Nicola Coughlan, renowned actor, who has appeared in Bridgerton and other highly-regarded TV shows. Together, the group explores the harsh terrain of a conflicted Northern Ireland, displaying that whilst there is fear, there is also hope for a brighter future.

Northern Ireland is a British territory known as the fourth nation in The United Kingdom. The nation has remained in a fragile state of peace since the successful union of unionists and nationalists under the power-sharing protocol of the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998, known for bringing about an end to the Troubles. Meaning, neither faction can be in full control of the nation, unless the other is involved in all aspects of governing. The two main political parties are the Nationalist Republican Party, Sinn Féin, known for its leftist stance on many social issues, such as LGBT+ Rights, standing primarily for a united Ireland and the departure of Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom and representation of the Irish community of Northern Ireland. On the other side of the divide is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), an ulster unionist party, who are known for their right-wing stance on many social issues, and support of the union of Northern Ireland and the UK, mainly representing Protestant communities in Northern Ireland.

Currently, the two parties share control in the Northern Irish Assembly, a parliament for Northern Ireland running off a proportional representation system of democracy. The DUP have control of the position of First Minister, under Jeffrey Donaldson. The party have recently had a treacherous series of political events due to the DUP’s commitment to Brexit in 2016, and its recent disagreements with the policy of Boris Johnson’s Brexit policy. This meant that previous leader Arlene Foster was ousted as leader from the party, with Edwin Poots being elected leader of the party only to step down from the role just three weeks later, due to problematic previous statements on women, abortion, and LGBT+ Rights. Sinn Féin is currently in control of the position of Deputy First Minister, with Northern Irish leader of the party Michelle O’Neill. Whilst the roles imply varying levels of governing power, that is not accurate, both roles have the same power (Under the Good Friday Agreement) and currently have exactly 26 seats each in the NI Assembly. The assembly will be in re-election in May this year, with Sinn Féin predicted to take a higher share of the vote, this does not necessarily mean that they will be able to effectively govern Northern Ireland, as it takes the agreement of power-sharing with the DUP for the Northern Irish Assembly to govern, which in the past has not happened, due to disputes over power-sharing. Nonetheless the result of the election will be one in which each party will have equal rights as the other, under a system of proportional representation.

Whilst this is both a brief context of both historical and current issues in Northern Ireland, this is masterfully covered by Lisa McGee. Rather than purely focusing on political issues in Northern Ireland, she has chosen to follow closely the lives the group of friends, with delicate mentions of issues in Northern Ireland. The comedy is most generated through a very thick northern Irish accent, varying characterisations, and Irish wit.

So, why is Derry Girls, culturally significant? To put it simply, Derry Girls has transcended the boundaries of regional divisions being popular in England, Ireland, and Northern Ireland. There is an understanding generated by the programme of both difference but tolerance. This is seen in the iconic “you’re a derry girl now James” scene. In which James, tells the girls he is leaving Derry to go back to London. Michelle storms after James, telling him to wise “the fuck up” and understand how he belongs in Derry. The most touching line is “it doesn’t matter that you’ve got that stupid accent, or that your bits are different to my bits, because being a Derry girl, being a Derry Girl, it’s a fucking state of mind”. This is a rare sensitivity of Michelle, not seen before. By the end of the episode, James is proudly telling strangers he is a “derry girl”. This scene for many people from the English-Irish community, is a really emotional moment. For me, personally, coming from an English and Irish heritage, I was moved to tears. What I found is a sense of accepting both elements of my heritage, and being proud to be the person I am, understanding my own personal history, my family’s history is mine too.

I think what we can all take from this a lot; From all the news reports suggesting that Derry is the most divided place in the United Kingdom; the people are tolerant, they accept based on personality, actions, and beliefs. Being Irish, or English is not the “end-all-be-all” of a life in Northern Ireland. This is not to belittle the intense sense of division in Northern Ireland, but rather to show that after all national identity and personal belief, the people of Northern Ireland, Ireland and Great Britain can gain more from accepting one another for our difference, but also our common-sense of humanity and community. We all have our histories, but Derry Girls has found a truly sensitive way of expressing a bright future for all be that in Derry, Belfast, Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh, or London. These lands we inhabit are our own, our own land, our own history, our own culture, and our own identities. From land to sea, it is ours. We are one people: Irish, or English, Nationalist or Unionist, Catholic or protestant we share this land, and we must try to live in harmony. Lisa McGee has achieved this expression of normal people trying to live normal lives, with a sense of wit and comedy, bringing viewers attention to the humanity of all the characters, and themselves.

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