Derry Girls: A comedic view into the recent past

Lisa McGee’s sitcom Derry Girls is a great binge-worthy series, especially if you are looking for something light-hearted which also has an element of history. Set during the 1990s, the latter years of ‘The Troubles,’ in the city of Derry, Northern Ireland, Derry Girls provides an introductory insight into such events. McGee herself hails from Derry, and the complex nature of the city is handled impressively due to this personal experience and understanding. Importantly, the choice of Derry as the location for this series offers an important, yet also comedic, view into what it was like to be a Catholic in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.

The use of comedy to present a complex and, for many, distressing time, is beneficial in several ways. This is similar to the first films made about the German Democratic Republic (GDR) after the fall of the Berlin Wall. These initial films including Sonnenallee (1999) and Good Bye, Lenin! (2003) approach the complex times of the GDR through the medium of comedy, facilitating the exploration of ideas without having to worry about the serious nature of a drama film or a documentary series. It was not until a few years later that unified Germany became able to explore the GDR in more serious film genres, an example of such being Das Leben der Anderen (2007). I view Derry Girls through this same lens, the comedic aspect offers an initial method for the events of ‘The Troubles’ to be explored in the popular media, especially when these dynamics still resonate in living memory for many. In addition to this, the plots that shape Derry Girls are a reminder that despite the events of ‘The Troubles,’ life still continued for the citizens. We see this in Derry Girls through the depiction of family life, as well as the girls and James’ youthful unawareness of external affairs juxtaposed with their parents’ concerns. An example of this is shown in the fifth episode of the second series when archive news footage is used to announce the IRA calling the ceasefire. For the girls, they are attending their school prom that evening and remain unaware of the monumental moment occurring at the same time.

Another added layer to Derry Girls is the use of archive footage throughout both series. Most often, the programme utilises news footage to ground the episodes in the context of the time. Often when the characters are shown in their everyday family setting, the use of this material serves as a reminder to both the character and the viewer of the fragility of Ireland. An awareness of the contemporary history of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is not necessary to appreciate the comedic elements of the series, however, a knowledge of events does help the viewer to appreciate the nuances and subtleties of the programme. Derry Girls also uses archival footage in more playful ways, this is highlighted in the third episode of series two, when the girls are going to attend a Take That concert in Belfast. This sets the series within the wider context of the 1990s youth culture whilst demonstrating how it manifested itself in Northern Ireland. As the main character, Erin says, ‘The fact that this one’s happening is a miracle. Nobody good ever comes here ‘cos we keep killing each other!’ While in the context of the episode this moment is humorous in tone, it does offer a moment to reflect on the realities of the lived experience as a young person during ‘The Troubles.’

Overall, Derry Girls has received a positive response amongst critics and ordinary viewers alike. What has made it so popular is how relatable it has been for those who grew up in 1990s Northern Ireland, it is a nostalgic experience for many. Despite the traumatic nature of events, family life continued during ‘The Troubles’ and we see that represented in Derry Girls. Even without the personal experience in Ireland during this period, Derry Girls remains a very enjoyable watch and one that can simply be viewed through the comedy it portrays.

Series 1 and 2 of Derry Girls are available to watch on All 4 On Demand, with Series 1 also being available on Netflix. The next series has already been commissioned.

Written by Mhairi Ferrier

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