Even if you weren’t a teenager in the 1990s, and even if you don’t know anything much about Irish history, you might cry during the last episode of season one of Lisa McGee’s much-loved comedy television series Derry Girls. The final minutes cut between a high school talent show—where the eponymous girls perform with joyous abandon—and the shocked faces of their parents at home, watching the televised news of yet another mass-casualty bombing. Adult knowledge is poignantly contrasted with teenage innocence.
I was a teenager in the 1990s. I grew up in Irish-American contexts where the fight in Northern Ireland was often romanticized. It was David and Goliath, the fierce fighting Irish against the cruelty of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. It was glamorous to suggest that so-and-so was involved in running guns (or more likely, raising money for guns) destined for that bitter conflict. It was, in retrospect, incredibly irresponsible.
Derry Girls has absolutely no time for that kind of thing. It’s not trauma porn; it doesn’t try to use gritty realism to reach a complacent audience. The opening scene pokes fun at the dour solemnity of that very expectation. It starts with a voice-over as the camera pans the cityscape of Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland’s second largest city and a place so divided it goes by two names. We’re hearing the inner narrative, sincere and heartfelt, of a girl named Erin describing her life as a teenager living in a war-torn country. And then, the twist: we’re not hearing Erin at all; we’re hearing her cousin, Orla, who’s reading her diary out loud as a joke—to Erin’s great outrage. Here for a standard, romanticized, coming-of-age-in-hard-times tale? In the words of the principal of Erin’s school, Sister Michael: you might want to think about wising up. Derry Girls dabbles in the surreal and leans into the comic. A red sock bleeding in the wash, forcing the girls to go to school in light-pink shirts of shame, plays a far bigger role than anyone bleeding in the streets for the glory of Ireland or Britain. The result is a work of art that entertains but also carries a surprisingly grown-up message about taking responsibility for the state of our politics.
Two related collisions provide the energy that fuels the show. The first is the overlap between the ordinary trials of daily life and the extraordinary difficulties of life in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Between roughly 1968 and 1998, this small corner of the island of Ireland was convulsed by violent conflict over, basically, two things: how to fix decades of legalized discrimination against the region’s Catholic minority and whether Northern Ireland should remain within the United Kingdom or join the independent Republic of Ireland.
The Troubles—as they’re known, with possibly a bit too much ironic self-deprecation—saturated every aspect of life. The three-way armed conflict between the British Army and both nationalist and unionist paramilitary groups killed thousands of civilians and wounded many more. It remade geography with its checkpoints and so-called peace walls dividing nationalist from unionist communities. It tore the fabric of ordinary life; although, as Derry Girls testifies, ordinary life carried on, too.
That’s what I would call the historically specific collision. The second fuel for Derry Girls is more universal. It’s the collision between the worldview of children, and the worldview of adults—something we call, variously, adolescence, or disillusionment. The lead characters of Derry Girls confront the task of adolescents everywhere, which is decoding and joining the world of grown-ups. That task, they discover, is confusing, because it mainly consists of realizing that the grown-up world is haphazard and arbitrary—a muddle, in other words. It’s the realization crystallized in the famous scene in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy realizes that the wizard is just a small man operating a machine behind a curtain.
Despite being grounded in such a specific time and place, Derry Girls, I would argue, is much more about this universal experience. And it stages it in a way that’s much more original than the historically specific conflict, however moving the latter may be. It uses reality and unreality, and the blurry boundary between the real and the unbelievable, to cast growing up as the acceptance of the absurd state of affairs of the real world.
And that’s what allows the show to make a much more interesting point about the politics of Northern Ireland. We see the absurdity of a world where blowing up strangers is a way to make other people see your point of view. But we also see, ultimately, that hope lies in the equally absurd but boring grown-up work of things like trade agreements and treaties.
But let me step away from those politics to illustrate what I mean about the show using surrealism to capture the weirdness of the interface between the adult world and teenagers’ perspectives.
The title of the show is Derry Girls, and it focuses on a group of friends at a Catholic girls’ school in Derry. Four of them are, indeed, girls who have grown up in Derry: cousins Erin and Orla; and their friends, Michelle and Clare. The fifth member of the gang is James, Michelle’s cousin, who grew up in England but has been sent back to Ireland to live with his aunt. So a running gag of the show is that one of the five Derry Girls, attending the same Catholic all-girls’ school, is actually an Englishman.
Now, that’s funny in its own right. But as a queer person, I was struck by its relentless absurdity, and developed my own fan theory. What if James is actually a trans man? And is having the experience that a lot of trans folks have, whereby our friends see us more or less as we see ourselves, while the broader world of authority sees us completely differently. So, in the world of the show, Michelle and Clare and Orla and Erin all see James as boy, because he is a boy, as he says repeatedly. When he meets boys from the coeducational Protestant school, they also see him as a boy, although they’re bemused by how he overcompensates by embracing a sexist laddishness in his enthusiasm to fit in. (I’ll speak for myself in admitting that I found that relatable, if cringeworthy.) Meanwhile the grown-ups see no contradiction in James attending a girls’ school. They consistently call all five of them girls. They won’t even help James figure out where to use to bathroom at school—if that’s not a trans allegory, what is?
The show uses reality and unreality, the blurry boundary between the real and the unbelievable, to cast growing up as the acceptance of the absurd real world.
Ok, maybe it’s not a trans allegory at all—or rather, maybe the show’s writers had no such idea in mind when they created James, the English boy/Derry girl. I’ll hold onto my theory, and not just because it adds more queer representation to the show. (Just in case you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the other, less ambiguous element of queer representation, except to say that the reference to k.d. lang is pure 1990s gay realness.) The theory that James is trans, but that only the teenagers are willing to see him as the boy he is, also gives me a way to understand how the show thinks about the gap between the adult world and the world of young people. To be adult is to see James as a girl because it is only one of the many mind-boggling—and often violent and arbitrary—things you have to accept as an adult.
On its face, the romanticized version of the Troubles that I imbibed as an Irish American had a compelling logic. Two communities were locked in a timeless battle for dominance or justice. The problem is that it was merely a story, one that overlooked all the bizarre yet mundane decisions that had produced this specific conflict. As a historian of Britain and Ireland in the 20th century, I now realize these specific details are far too important to airbrush away with a good story. Northern Ireland exists as the product of the kind of compromise that no one really wants.
In the 19th century, the entire island of Ireland—all 32 counties—were part of the United Kingdom. The nationalists wanted more autonomy; the unionists wanted to stay within the United Kingdom. A lot of this was tinged by religion. Protestants in Ulster—the northeastern nine counties of the island—tended to be unionist, and they tended to express that view strongly and in religious terms. “Home Rule means Rome Rule” was their slogan, meaning that more autonomy in Ireland would give the Catholic Church more say.
Then, between 1919 and 1921, there was a war in Ireland, which led to an ironic result. The most Protestant six counties of Ulster were partitioned off as “Northern Ireland,” and were the first place ever to have “Home Rule” properly speaking—that is, a semiautonomous form of self-government within the United Kingdom, which began in 1920. The southern 26 counties, meanwhile, negotiated a treaty that led to independence from Britain in 1922. The border that separated them was imagined as a temporary fix, but instead this arbitrary line endured and facilitated the emergence of a divided, deeply unequal statelet. That’s another story—my point here is that Northern Ireland’s very existence was the product not of an eternal logic but a lot of happenstance and mixed-up compromises that looked like a good idea at the time.
By the 1960s, all of this was more or less untenable. A civil rights movement for Northern Ireland Catholics emerged, but after a brief hopeful start, the whole thing degenerated into a messy, bloody fight between the British state and a series of paramilitaries. That’s the world into which the Derry Girls were born. The British, Irish, and American governments were engaged in intensive negotiations to bring the conflict to an end by the time the girls were teenagers.
If Derry Girls romanticizes anything, it’s the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which was the result of those negotiations. The Good Friday Agreement is twenty-five years old this year. It was a cobbled-together compromise of its own which tackled some hard questions—like the release of paramilitary prisoners—and postponed others—like the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons. Fundamentally, it created a framework for a shared local government of Northern Ireland which ensured representation of both unionists and nationalists and promised to redress the systematic marginalization of Catholics. It was voted on by referendum both in Northern Ireland, where 71.1% voted yes on a turnout of 81%; and in the Republic of Ireland, where 94% voted yes on a turnout of 56%.
The finale of Derry Girls portrays the girls casting their first-ever votes in this referendum. It’s the ultimate twist of this show’s vision. Rather than opting for nostalgic escapism, and siding with the wisdom of the vision of youth as compared with the bankruptcy of adult compromise, the show lets the girls become adults. They take up responsibility, in their own turn, for the best-possible compromise, for a boring set of rules and frameworks that might, just possibly, make things a little bit better. Trailing wings of clarity (and glory), they nonetheless accept the muddled, vital work of being grown-up.
The Good Friday Agreement was never a perfect solution. In the 25 years that have passed, as the Derry Girls and I have gone from teenaged to middle-aged, the system of shared government in Northern Ireland has been suspended and reinstated multiple times. The moderate parties that the agreement was supposed to bolster have declined, and more hard-line parties have taken their place. Splinter paramilitaries have continued violent campaigns. But, for the most part, the Derry Girls will have been able to live ordinary adult lives. The border checkpoints were demolished; Northern Ireland’s laws became more like those in the rest of the UK. You can have an abortion in Northern Ireland now, and you can marry your partner regardless of their gender.
When the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016, it was clear that Northern Ireland would present a significant problem. In essence, would Brexit mean the reimposition of a hard border on the island of Ireland? Or, if not, would it place Northern Ireland outside the UK in an important sense? Having moved to Britain in 2016, I was struck by how uninterested most people were in these questions. In February, after years of uncertainty and foot-dragging, the European Commission and the UK government announced a new agreement, the Windsor Framework, providing a set of “joint solutions” to these issues. The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement passed with only a bit of fanfare and, among ordinary people in Northern Ireland, a palpable sense of worry about what the future will hold.
Derry Girls, it seems to me, amounted to a plea: this stuff matters. However byzantine, however boring. Ireland matters, and the work of figuring out a compromise matters. Growing up may be a process of disenchantment, but that’s no excuse for turning away from responsibility.