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Irish at Heart:

Irish at Heart: The Derry Girl State of Mind
By Natalie Keller

Shortly before I moved to Ireland, my friend Siobhan gave me a homework assignment: watch the show Derry Girls on Netflix. She told me it would be a good launching pad for understanding the modern history of the country and, most particularly, the ethno-nationalist conflict known as The Troubles, which plagued Ireland from 1968 to 1998. She also informed me that it would make me laugh like hell.

But how could I laugh at a show set in such a dark time in Irish history, rife with murder, bombings, and violence? It was an uncomfortable thought. However, as I quickly learned, the beauty of Derry Girls is not that you are laughing at The Troubles – it is that you are laughing despite The Troubles.

Derry Girls
Derry Girls is a dark comedy set in Derry, Northern Ireland in the nineties.  It follows the lives of five teenagers navigating a Catholic secondary school in an era of low-level war. The female-led cast is joined by James Maguire, a British cousin who grew up in London but is abandoned in Derry by his eccentric mother.

Much of the show’s humor lies in the playful (or is it hateful?) dynamic between the Irish girls and the British counterpart they eventually — after much bullying — come to love. The show is written by Lisa McGee and is based on her own experiences growing up in Derry during the final years of The Troubles.

The show walks a tightrope between seriousness and silliness that can be epitomized by this interaction between Erin and her cousin Orla, who reads aloud from Erin’s diary, “The thing is, life isn’t fair. You see, injustice is something I’ve become accustomed to. I am, after all, a child of the crossfire, surrounded by conflict. But I choose to rise above it. The path to peace is paved with tolerance and understanding. Violence is never the answer.”

Erin is so furious at this invasion of her privacy that she threatens Orla, “I am going to ram that so far up your arse!”

Though classified as “black comedy” for its lighthearted approach to tragic, deadly events, Derry Girls inspires feelings of resilience and defiant hope in the face of violence. The Troubles form the backdrop — not the forefront — of the show, where a ticking bomb is seen as a minor inconvenience to a family going about their daily lives.

While a bomb squad defuses the threat, which shuts down a major bridge in Derry and disrupts the day’s travel, Aunt Sarah muses, “I don’t know about you, but I’m not enjoying this bomb. I’ve an appointment at Tropicana at 12.”

Her niece then replies, “I’m pretty sure interfering with your sunbed sessions isn’t very high up on anyone’s political agenda.”

There is something endearing about a human being’s insistence on normality in situations of chaos, and Derry Girls riffs on the business-as-usual attitude that can be so humorous and heartwarming in scary times. Despite being an indie show with a seemingly niche audience, Derry Girls surprised everyone — including its creator — by becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

Irish Accents
This is even more surprising considering the regional slang and thick Irish accents of the characters, which many international viewers may struggle to understand. Streaming services recognized this barrier: when Netflix purchased the rights to the show, it included subtitles everywhere the show aired. However, The Guardian reported that “sustained word of mouth has led to an average audience of 2.5 million an episode.” Clearly, the distinct Irish atmosphere and dialect of the show was not a deterrent, but a draw.

McGee describes the challenge of creating Derry Girls as “getting a balance between making it recognizable to the people of Derry, and understandable for everyone else.” Despite its specific — some might say alienating — time and location, Derry Girls manages to strike universal chords while remaining authentic to Derry life and culture, inviting global audiences into Northern Irish life while instilling Irish citizens with cultural pride, even prompting residents to paint a wall mural in honor of the sitcom’s characters.

Americans may find some scenes utterly foreign, for example, when police stop and search buses for dissidents at Army Checkpoints. However, everyone can relate to the timeless struggle between rebellious teens and their parents, empathizing with the main character when she declares, “Look, I wanted to be an individual, but my ma wouldn’t let me.”

Squid Game
McGee seamlessly combines regional specificity with universal appeal, and by doing so, has created a smash hit appreciated by audiences the world over. A similar example that comes to mind is the South Korean show Squid Game, which premiered in the fall of 2021.

There is something exciting about a show that transcends the borders of its country and dominates the world stage, entertaining global viewers while exposing them to the values, economics, politics, and ideas of a specific culture. It is a beautiful kind of cultural exchange, proving that stories are one of the most important tools we have for understanding each other across states, countries, and continents.

I’m embarrassed to admit that, when I first watched this show, I didn’t know much, if anything, about The Troubles. Perhaps it was mentioned briefly in my European history textbook during my school years, but if asked, I wouldn’t be able to explain the cause or sides of the war.

The wonderful thing about Derry Girls is that it is accessible to all viewers, regardless of background knowledge. In fact, for a comedy sitcom, it will teach you a fair bit.

At the end of Season 2, when James is faced with a choice to stay in Derry or return to London, his cousin Michelle declares, “It doesn’t matter that you’ve got that stupid accent, or that [you’re a boy], because being a Derry Girl, well, it’s a state of mind. And you’re one of us.” This show makes you feel that you, too, are an honorary Derry Girl.

War tends to fuel binary thinking. We figure there are usually two sides, be it the British and the Irish, the Catholic and the Protestant, the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” us and them. But there is a third group, often ignored but far larger: the people who simply want to buy groceries, attend school, get jobs, fall in love, fall out of love, use a tanning bed, and get by. This is a show for those people — for you, and for me.

*Natalie Keller is a former resident of Galway, Ireland and works in the world of libraries. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in various online platforms. She is currently editing a novel, much of which is set in the Emerald Isle. Email: nataliekeller.writer@gmail.com.

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