The most successful comedy series on Channel 4 since Father Ted in 1995, Derry Girls has won numerous awards. The luck of the Irish might have something to do with it, but a lively, dark sense of humour is its irreverent heart. Northern Ireland’s most-watched show, Derry has commemorated it with a giant mural where tourists can take photos. It recently received the ultimate pop culture accolade with a reference in The Simpsons, where an ice-cream parlour was named Dairy Girls.
Derry – officially Londonderry – is the second-largest city in Northern Ireland, and close to the border of the Irish republic. Set in the mid-1990s, The Troubles and attempts to negotiate peace are woven into the fabric of Derry Girls in a matter-of-fact way, demonstrating how the “civil war, sectarian conflict carry on” was part of daily life.
The Derry girls – including the one who’s actually a “wee English fella” – have an eventful few years of it, what with the big bowl mystery, misadventures with alleged apparitions and dog urine, and seeing Take That in concert despite a polar bear escaping from Belfast Zoo. They’ve also met Protestants, hosted a “child of Chernobyl” and jostled over Bill Clinton, who visited in 1995.
The girls – Orla, Erin, Michelle and Clare – are the central characters, along with James, Michelle’s English cousin. He attends the all-female Our Lady Immaculate College because the boys’ school is deemed too dangerous, what with the strange noises the wee fella makes courtesy of his Blighty accent.
We meet Erin first, or we think we do. What sounds like an earnest voiceover about the state of her “troubled little corner in the northwest of Ireland” is actually cousin Orla, reading aloud from Erin’s diary, that she’s stolen and about to use for a book report. For those who know nothing of Derry, it’s useful to learn that this is a place where everybody knows everybody and anything that anybody might be doing. We’re drawn quickly into a world where the threat of bombings is ever-present, and how they can wreak havoc with school bus routes and sun-bed sessions.
Erin is a fan of Murder She Wrote, has writerly aspirations and thinks giving a personal revelation tabloid treatment in the school newspaper constitutes “ground-breaking journalism”. Batty Orla carries a lighter, not to light cigarettes, but because she likes melting things. Feisty, debauchery-ready Michelle, thinks William Wallace in Braveheart is a Scottish drag queen taking on the English army, and nerdy Clare, who doesn’t want to be an individual on her own, melts like scalded butter in the face of authority while teetering perennially on the brink of nervous implosion.
Abandoned by his mercurial mother, James is Michelle’s cousin, a polite, kind boy who finds life in Northern Ireland justifiably bewildering and provides the outsider’s perspective. At the end of the second season, James has a chance to flee but decides he’s a Derry girl instead, a moving moment indicating how much he’s embraced life in Derry and how it’s embraced him right back.
If the girls – and boy – are the programme’s frenetic and slightly feral nucleus, there are a number of secondary but compelling characters to expand their close-knit atomic cloud. Matriarch Mary dreams of her own wheelie bin, sister Sarah appreciates a well-groomed eyebrow and their curmudgeonly father Joe stokes his simmering feud with son-in-law Gerry. Then there’s Uncle Colm, the world’s most dreary man, whose talent for boring all into a state of catatonia comes in handy when the girls get into a scrape with the law.
The characters are bold, opinionated, and driven by strong emotions that operate on a scale that begins at overwrought and escalates to certifiably hysterical. Considering they live in a relatively small place where opportunities for mayhem under the all-seeing eyes of family, school and community are limited, the girls find maximum outlets for mischief, from setting fire to a flat above a chip shop and distributing illicit scones at a wake.
One of the funniest characters is the perpetually disdainful headteacher Sister Michael who maintains she became a nun partly for the free accommodation. A fan of judo and the western series Rawhide, she’s seen enough teenage drama to irritate a thousand lifetimes and her default setting for adolescent hijinks is feck off and just keep going.
After the Holy Smirk incident – which can be commemorated in your own home with a grand poster – Father Peter enters their circle and immediately unleashes much swooning thanks to being blessed with really great hair. His prestige is eroded after unfortunate flings with a coiffeuse and a ponytail, but his appearances are certainly welcome if only because Sister Michael’s dislike of priests generates some spectacular eye-rolling.
To be sure the dialogue is full of delightful wee Irishisms like ‘lovely altogether’ and ‘it’s yourself!’ along with gems like: “Das are just Ma enablers.” There are some stellar cultural insights into the religious divide too, such as “Catholics really buzz off statues” and “Protestants hate ABBA”.
Derry Girls was created by playwright Lisa McGee, herself a real live Derry girl, who says her identity was shaped by her Northern Irish origins. Growing up, she was used to soldiers in the streets while dreaming of writing Murder She Wrote, or better still, becoming Jessica Fletcher and leisurely solving crimes while living in a lovely house. For this comedy, however, she’s drawn on material closer to home. As the writer behind each episode, she has an attuned ear to teenage blarney and banter, and the way multi-generational families talk at and over each other.
The only problem with Derry Girls is that there isn’t enough of it. After three short but memorable seasons, the last episode aired on May 17. As the best ‘90s bands that feature on the show’s soundtrack always did an encore, Derry Girls gets an encore too, in the form of an extended 45-minute episode based around the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
See Derry Girls on Channel 4. Stream it on All 4 and Netflix
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A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.