On Wednesday the 18th of May, at around 10pm, you could have found me sat on my sofa experiencing a growing sense of numbness. This was because I’d just completed the final episode of Lisa McGee’s brilliantly crafted sitcom Derry Girls, and the post-tv-finale grief had already kicked in. While the conclusion was fantastic and perfectly timed, avoiding overkill and maintaining its heart by limiting production to just three seasons, I still craved more, purely because of the way McGee’s writing created such a memorable and iconic series.
Derry Girls is a comedy which explores the life of a group of Catholic teenagers in 90s Derry, Northern Ireland, during the Troubles. This backdrop is a constant presence, and continually interwoven with the plot while never overshadowing it. This directorial method is truly immersive in that the frequency of small reminders of the reality of Northern Ireland’s situation serves to normalise it and thus sights of soldiers and roadblocks become expected by the viewer, as if we too are citizens of Derry. Furthermore, the sensitive way in which the Troubles are presented allows viewers to learn about the events and how they affected Northern Ireland’s population- especially young viewers who perhaps previously had no knowledge of the situation. Personally, I was surprised by the true extent and terror caused in this period and can honestly say I learnt more about the Troubles from watching this comedy series than from 12 years in formal education. What Derry Girls also accomplishes with expertise is demonstrating the idea that, despite their position in a turbulent and divided country, the main characters are able to navigate situations relatable to anyone who’s experienced teenagedom; whether that be the journey of the ‘wee lesbian’ Clare (played by Nicola Coughlan) towards acceptance by her peers and comfort within her identity, or Erin’s (Saoirse Monica-Jackson) eagerness to create something meaningful and make her mark on the world. This highlights a universal fact of humanity; that life goes on, no matter the circumstances.
The show’s brilliant cast is a clear highlight, and the five lead actors’ ages range from 28-35, a factor which in certain teen shows is off-putting and noticeable especially when the writing has characters behaving as adults. However, Derry Girls does not suffer from this curse, with stellar performances combined with McGee’s impressive writing creating characters with distinctly teenaged mannerisms and reactions. It is refreshing to see such an accurate yet comedic portrayal of young adults, and as the show progressed it became harder to pick a favourite character as each stood out so distinctly. The character of Orla (Louisa Harland) for example, delivers some of my favourite lines in the show such as her insistence that swearing makes ‘our lady in heaven cry... and that makes rain’, while Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) accelerates the plot to amusing effect by demonstrating her continuous capability to get the group into risky situations. Dylan Llewelyn’s portrayal of ‘the wee English fella’ James is equally amusing. His position as an outsider, being both the only English person and the only male at the Catholic All-Girls School, at first makes him the butt of the Girls’ jokes but later these facts become inconsequential to their friendship. This holds, within the show’s typical layers of irony and humour, the heartfelt message that belonging and acceptance can be found in unlikely places and despite one’s initial feelings of alienation. After all, ‘being a Derry Girl, well, it’s a state of mind.’
Derry Girls has a carefully chosen soundtrack which reflects the spirit and energy of adolescence, as well as being confined to the show’s time frame to create something both immersive and nostalgic for those who grew up in the 1990s. Party classics such as Whigfield’s Saturday Night serve to highlight the Girls’ bond as they enthusiastically take to the dancefloor and launch into a routine, because ‘it’s our song!.’ This demonstrates McGee’s capacity to represent the lighthearted moments of connection within friendships using something so arguably trivial as a song – but the scene in its simplicity is relatable, and a subtle way to show how the Girls retain a sense of connection with one another despite their differences. However, I found that the most poignant use of music was the series’ repetition of the song ‘Dreams’ by The Cranberries. The band’s Irish background and mainstream success in the 90s makes them the perfect inclusion, with 5 of their songs on the show’s soundtrack, but none more effectively integrated to the heart of Derry Girls’ story than Dreams. It plays at the start of the first episode and sets a lighthearted and uplifting tone from the first scene. Its reappearance, however, elevates its emotional punch, as it returns at the end of the first series when scenes of the Girls dancing are interspersed with their parents reacting to the news of a recent bombing. Suddenly the soaring melody bridges the gap between the despair of powerlessness and the Girls’ youthful joy, and the words become all the more significant- ‘All my life is changing every day, in every possible way.’
I can safely say that I found Derry Girls unforgettable, and know that I will rewatch it until it loses its charm (in other words, endlessly.) While I can never recapture the experience of watching it for the first time again, I plan to recommend it to everyone I know and live vicariously through them. The message of acceptance and friendship has taught me something very important- in spirit, as James so aptly puts it: ‘I am a Derry Girl!’
Derry Girls is streaming on All4 and Netflix.