The Hope of the Irish
My name is Mary Devlin Millar.
Devlin, a family name and originally Dobhailéan in Irish, means “fierce courage.” It is a traditionally Catholic name in Ireland which is then followed by my traditionally Protestant surname of Millar.
My name, all 16 letters of it, contains so much history within it. A history of political and religious divide, one that is well known across the pond but often forgotten about here in the United States by those who tend to lay a strong claim to their ¼ of “Irish blood.”
What I am referring to, of course, is “The Troubles” (Na Trioblóidí in Irish); a decades-long conflict ranging from the late 1960s to 1998 primarily in Northern Ireland that defined generations with struggle and violence. The conflict mainly stemmed from the divide between those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom, and those who wanted to join the Republic of Ireland to form a united Ireland. Most often, these two sides were divided into Protestants and Catholics, although the actual fighting was not over a difference in religion. Unionists, due to historical events such as the Ulster Plantation were most often Protestants, while most Irish Republicans were Catholic and experienced a great amount of discrimination and brutality at the hands of the police force known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). This conflict came after hundreds of years of England whittling away at Ireland’s language and culture through colonization, after human rights disasters such as The Great Famine, events such as the infamous Bloody Sunday in 1972 when 26 unarmed Catholic civilians were shot by British soldiers, and an unwillingness to allow Ireland to operate as its own entity separate from the United Kingdom. In the decades that The Troubles took place, Northern Ireland (as well as some parts of England and the Republic of Ireland) saw a great deal of violence, even sometimes described as a low-level war.
The Troubles are also the backdrop to the popular Channel 4 series Derry Girls.
Derry Girls, set in the town of Derry, Northern Ireland (or Londonderry, depending on your persuasion) in the mid-to-late 1990s when violence in Northern Ireland was high but so were peace talks, centers around the friendship of five teenagers attempting to navigate the trials and tribulations of teenagerdom while living through the chaos of The Troubles. The friends, Erin Quinn, Orla McCool, Michelle Mallon, James Maguire, and Clare Devlin (hey cousin!), attend a Catholic all-girls high school in their home city. While the struggle and stress of the conflict exists right outside their doors, the characters seem to be mostly oblivious to anything happening outside of their realm of friendship as they seem to be constantly finding themselves in absurdly humorous situations.
In the first episode of the series, the five characters are on their normal morning bus ride to school when suddenly they arrive at a military checkpoint. A British soldier boards the bus and loudly announces that he is doing a routine check for explosives or any other weapons on board. The students, all very much accustomed to this procedure, are caught yawning and staring off into the distance, bored stiff. Michelle finds the soldier attractive and asks her friends if they believe he would check her out if she were to tell him she had an incendiary device on her. In another episode, the friends are on their way to school for an important exam when Erin spots a dog that is curiously identical to her own recently deceased pet. She and her friends follow the dog into a church, and while Erin runs upstairs to find it, Clare and the others begin praying to a statue of the Virgin Mary for help on the exam. Meanwhile, Erin corners the dog upstairs, only for the animal to begin taking a leak on the wooden floor boards…the urine then streaming down the face of the Holy Mother, giving the appearance of tears and sending Clare and the others into hysterics thinking their prayers will be answered.
This decision to use The Troubles as a backdrop to the story and not as the show’s main focus was deliberate on the part of the show’s creator Lisa McGee, whose own childhood memories the show is based on. McGee has said, “I always wanted to write about my friends, and the whole convent school thing, because I thought it was hilarious. The whole backdrop of the Troubles happened very naturally because that was just what was happening.” Indeed, Derry Girls is a beautiful time capsule of the 1990s, filled with top hits of the decade such as songs by Fatboy Slim, the Spice Girls, Right Said Fred, The Cranberries, and more. The fashion of the era is also evident through the characters’ outfits, with butterfly clips galore, velvet trousers, platforms, etc. In more than one episode, the characters are more concerned with going to parties hosted by the popular girls and dating boys than they are with the sectarian conflict happening in their backyards.
Herein lies the genius and heart of Derry Girls.
Over the last three years, the world at large experienced a collective trauma through COVID-19 and the political and social unrest that bubbled to the surface in the face of the pandemic. In this time, many began to feel as though the world had changed beyond recognition. Indeed, tools such as social media make it very difficult to ignore the day to day terrors of living in the 21st century. Unless you live under a rock, or have completely stripped yourself of an online presence, it is nearly impossible to not gain even a slight sense of doom. For the last 3 years or so, it has felt as if the entire world has been experiencing seemingly never ending conflict and struggle.
But what the hell does this have to do with a Netflix show about a group of teenagers in Northern Ireland in the 90s?
And the fact that life can still go on, even happily so, during times of great conflict and injustice.
The decision in Derry Girls to make The Troubles a backdrop and not the main focus of the story is not meant to disregard the history of the events or to diminish its impact on those who lived through it. Rather, it is meant to humanize the experiences of these people by showing that their entire lives were not in fact crushed by the overwhelming pressure of living during such historical events. They still laughed, still spent time with their families, still discovered new music, still felt excitement at the idea of seeing their favorite bands in person, still wept when their family dog died, still rejoiced in the birth of a new baby, still felt embarrassment at failing to impress a crush, and still retained their hope that there would be an end to their struggles.
On April 10th, 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was passed in Northern Ireland, which ended a majority of the violence of The Troubles. The agreement, made up of the paired Multi-Agreement and British-Irish Agreements, restored self-government to Northern Ireland. It was based on factors such as power-sharing, which is a type of conflict resolution used in negotiating settlements in armed conflicts, and the principle of consent, which acknowledged the legitimacy of those who wanted a United Ireland while also acknowledging the wishes of those who wished to remain a part of the United Kingdom. The Good Friday Agreement led to a commitment to civil rights, demilitarization, police reform, the early release of paramilitary prisoners, and much more that allowed for the beginnings of peace within Northern Ireland after so many years of struggle.
Now in the year 2023, we face many problems: climate change, social and racial injustice, poverty, hunger, war, pandemics, police brutality…just to name a few. It can be difficult to remember that your life can still exist happily despite these problems plaguing us. And if you don’t believe me, just check out an episode of Derry Girls on Netflix to see how Erin, Orla, Clare, James, and Michelle handled going to school and being searched by British soldiers for potential explosives on the same day. Or how Erin and Michelle handled differing opinions on the imprisonment of war criminals. I’m sure that it’ll give you a great big laugh, maybe make you cry, and then laugh again. But hey, that’s life. And it’s beautiful.
You can watch all three seasons of Derry Girls on Netflix.