“How Derry Girls helped me connect to my heritage like never before”

Ahead of the season finale of beloved Channel 4 sitcom Derry Girls, one writer reflects on how the show has helped her connect to her heritage in ways she never could have imagined.

Before watching Derry Girls for the first time in 2018, I didn’t anticipate much more than a whimsical comedy set in Northern Ireland during the 90s. It is, without a doubt, all of this and more: between the comedic delight that is Sister Michael and the four lead actors’ undeniable chemistry, it’s of little surprise as to why the coming-of-age programme has garnered extensive critical acclaim. 

But what I hadn’t expected, however, was to find a series that taught me more about Ireland and my family’s history than I’d ever learned at school. And with the season three finale almost upon us, I’ve begun to consider how Derry Girls has helped me connect with my heritage in ways I’d never previously imagined. 

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Before watching the show, my perception of Ireland had been unabashedly romanticised. After my mum’s parents moved back in 2022, our yearly visits to Ireland had felt more like a holiday than anything else. My grandparents’ home in Enniscorthy, a place as magical as its portrayal in Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, was also only a short drive from coastal Wexford, which featured as a setting for Sally Rooney’s latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. I was also lucky enough to visit the country’s many beauty spots, such as Glendalough and Howth, on several occasions. 

The cast of the hit comedy series Derry Girls.

But beyond these visits, I felt more like a tourist than someone with any real connection to Ireland as my ancestral homeland. My parents, the children of Irish immigrants, had grown up in London during the 80s, a time when hostile signs were rife throughout the city. While my mum and I have had occasional conversations about this, I’d always been fairly uninformed about how the political turbulence of the Troubles had shaped my parents’ and their parents’ lives. 

But my ignorance wasn’t as wilful as it was born from a lack of education. Although I took Modern History as a GCSE and A-Level, England’s colonisation of Ireland wasn’t part of the curriculum. Any fleeting mentions of the Troubles only focused on attacks by the Irish Republican Army, which, in turn, played a huge part in unconsciously shaping my understanding of British and Irish history. 

Enter Derry Girls. A surprising source of inspiration, Lisa McGee’s show has taught me more about the significance of my citizenship and ethnic history than the British curriculum ever did.

Undoubtedly, exploring the Troubles through a comedic lens was a huge creative risk. Over a 30-year span, over 10,000 bomb attacks took place in Great Britain and Ireland, and while the conflict has “officially” ended, the Continuity and New IRA are still active in Northern Ireland. While the Troubles used Protestantism and Catholicism to refer to the two sides, the conflict wasn’t instigated by religious differences but political and nationalistic ones instead. And like many Brits, I’ve also been endlessly perplexed by the differences between Protestants and Catholics.

Derry Girls: the girls at Our Lady Immaculate College

Derry Girls, thank god, hasn’t shied away from this, and thanks to McGee’s impeccable comedic writing, I’m more convinced of the futility of religious secularity than ever. Across The Barricade features the girls’ (unsuccessful) attempts to bond with Protestants from a nearby boys’ school. Despite the ongoing conflicts, the girls are delighted, and Claire squeals with glee when her buddy responds that he’s a “full-blown Protestant”. 

When the students are asked to list their differences and similarities, neither group can muster up anything they have in common. Sister Michael quips that Catholics get “a buzz off a good statue”, and there’s a universal agreement that Protestants are richer. These arbitrary differences not only serve as the episode’s comedic highlights but also offer a much-needed jab at nationalism and loyalism. 

The cast of Derry Girls

While Derry Girls doesn’t shy away from its historical setting, its portrayal of the Troubles through the eyes of five teenagers feels oddly resonant amidst the pandemic. While the conflict has undoubtedly shaped much of their lives, a frustrated Michelle shouting that “peace is all anyone bangs on about” during an ongoing war feels eerily reminiscent of the cultural response to coronavirus restrictions. Our lives, as have those of the Derry Girls, have had to go on. While these seismic and life-changing events are still ongoing, teenage annoyance and irritation are arguably the most authentic response possible, and it’s this sentiment that lingers throughout the show without pandering to its audience. 

For all Derry Girls has taught me about my heritage, I’m not surprised how it’s been almost completely erased from the British curriculum. Born in 1998, the Troubles were still ongoing during my lifetime. The word “colonisation” itself conjures a multitude of horrific images, least of which are the impact it has had for Ireland and those belonging to the Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (GRT) community.

Sadly, I’m not surprised by the erasure of Ireland’s colonisation from British curriculums. 

The cast of Derry Girls

During my time as a doctoral researcher at Durham University, I’ve seen how the institution has faced an endless backlash from the press for its efforts to broaden its historical horizon. The proposed revised curriculums and workshops on offer at the university have been branded as “anti-white indoctrination”, even though I’ve only ever seen the prospect warmly welcomed by both other staff and students. 

“The media has portrayed it like it’s being forced upon students, when that’s not the case,” Declan Merrington, DSU’s postgraduate officer, explained to me when I wanted to learn more. “They weren’t only excited about the new training, but the students had been actually asking for it, too.”

Declan also suggests that contrary to the media’s suggestion, decolonisation isn’t about completely changing our understanding of history. Instead, it’s focused on adding other perspectives and expanding our historical knowledge. 

Now, the proposed Free Speech Bill has had unfathomable consequences for not only our historical curriculum but how young people like me understand British history. With the line between what’s classifiable as free speech and hate speech becoming ever more blurred, the field of history has become susceptible to uncritical views towards colonialism, and any critiques of British imperialist history are increasingly subjected to a reactionary backlash. At this point, my hopes for a more holistic British history, one that includes its colonial rule over Ireland, to be taught in schools feels futile. 

The cast of Derry Girls

As Derry Girls approaches its bittersweet conclusion, I’ve realised how much the show has helped educate a generation and taught me more about my own ethnic heritage than I’d ever learned before. It’s a brilliant comedy, no doubt, but it’s been much more than that for me. And while the future of history is becoming more and more uncertain, Lisa McGee’s masterpiece will forever stand as a story that had long needed to be told. 

Images: Channel 4

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