The keys to ‘Derry Girls’ success: Northern Ireland, Catholicism and ordinary teenage life


In the first episode of the final season of the Netflix series “Derry Girls”, Clare (Nicola Coughlin), one of the titular heroines of the series, shouts to her friends: “We are girls. We are poor. We come of Northern Ireland and we are Catholic, for God’s sake! Clare states this to make the case for their lack of prospects and hope for their future. But Clare’s proclamation also identifies the key ingredients that have made of the show a great comedy and a significant television.

The series is a semi-autobiographical account of its creator Lisa McGee’s teenage years in the titular Northern Ireland city, which is perhaps best known for the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 1972, when British soldiers fired and killed 14 unarmed civilians during a protest march in the Bogside. Derry area. Although the series is set approximately two decades after the events of Bloody Sunday, it is still set in the historical period commonly referred to as The Troubles.

The third season of “Derry Girls” has plenty of laughs to offer and goes deeper with all of its main characters.

The Troubles were a period of around 30 years of violent paramilitary conflict in Northern Ireland between mainly Protestant Unionists, who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, and Catholic Republican factions, who wanted a united Irish Republic. What “Derry Girls” did so well in its three brief seasons was use The Troubles as a horizon to tell the stories of the lives of four ordinary teenage girls: Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), Michelle ( Jamie-Lee O’ Donnell), Clare (Nicola Coughlin), Orla (Louisa Harland) and a boy, James (Dylan Llewellyn) in the 1990s. The juxtaposition of the ever heightened reality of their mundane teenage existence with the potential ever-escalating paramilitary violence makes for a wonderful comedy in the deft hands of writer/creator McGee.

It’s fitting that the final season of “Derry Girls” takes place on the eve of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which seemingly ended the Troubles. The third season of the show, while perhaps not as funny and sharp as the previous two seasons, still has plenty of laughs to offer and goes deeper with all of its main characters, providing a cathartic closure for fans of the show. The final season includes appearances from Northern Ireland’s ‘favorite son’ Liam Neeson, as well as former American first daughter Chelsea Clinton, whose cameo appearance serves, in part, as a sweet nod to his father’s role in the Northern Irish peace process.

As is always the case with great television, there’s never enough time given to the viewer’s favorite character, and that’s especially true in the case of “Derry Girls.” I longed for more of Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney), the girls’ high school principal, and the singular, oh so dry voice of reason. Alas, the show isn’t titled “Derry Nuns,” so we can’t expect every episode to revolve around TV’s coolest nun, a portrayal that’s long overdue. Still, Sister Michael has her moment in the final episode as she once again takes on her main foil, the vain, ponytail-wearing, guitar-playing Father Peter (Peter Campion) before the two arrive. at a place of agreement over a glass of whiskey.

The show’s final word on the cleric, who is really, really sweet, talks about his overall treatment of Catholicism.

The show’s final word on the cleric, which is really, really sweet, talks about his overall treatment of Catholicism, that is, of an institution made up, like any other, of imperfect individuals, some better, others worse, most of them trying to do the best they can. And it’s this relatively agenda-free perspective, born, no doubt, of McGee’s upbringing in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, that allows the series to be so much more than a teenage sitcom.

As the eponymous characters of “Derry Girls” emerge from their cocoons of self-obsessed teenagers, the series itself also seems to be growing in its awareness of the sociohistorical context in which it is set. This is particularly evident in its latest episode, which chronicles the days leading up to the vote on the referendum approving the Good Friday Agreement, the passage of which will include not only an end to (most) sectarian violence in the North, but also the release of all paramilitary prisoners. The series’ protagonist, Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), is ambivalent about the emancipation of prisoners, leading to conflict with Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), whose older brother, it is revealed, is purging a sentence for paramilitary violence. When the two friends finally reconcile, Michelle’s comments to Erin express the messiness of The Troubles and echo the messiness of our contemporary situation: “You weren’t wrong. You weren’t right either. I don’t think there is an answer to any of this.

The blessing and the curse of most shows made in Ireland and the UK is that they’re rare, the seasons are much shorter, and they’re usually not squeezed out for the last drop of financial gain, like so are American broadcasts. This allows you to love the characters without ever getting tired of them. Conversely, we are forced to let go of them much faster than we would like, and so we say goodbye to the “Derry Girls” too soon.

The show’s latest episode shows the titular heroines, now 18, voting for the first time. Indeed, their first act of agency as adults is to choose a very different future from the one they had been prepared for. As young women entering 21st century Ireland, they are no longer girls, about to live in a much more peaceful and liberalized world, for better or for worse.


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