I. teach a module on Northern Irish literature called Alternative Ulster, which covers all the texts you expect, from the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Medba McGuccan and Kiaran Carson and fiction by Bernard McLaverty to new works such as Paul Madeline’s anthology by Cole Maderna and Caro . But in the last few years – at first just as a treat at the end of the course – we’ve also started talking about Derry Girls.
It soon became clear that this was the most powerful way to discuss the ideas I wanted to convey throughout the semester. I have students from all walks of life, but Derry Girls is an absolute hit for everyone. Especially at a time when Anglo-Irish relations are at the forefront of the information agenda, it allows us to talk about some other important things: the joy, resilience, music of the 90s and how Manchester is actually a bit like Derry.
The last episode of the show may air tonight, but it will remain a cultural touchstone in my life: a gif with Sister Michael rolling my eyes is one of the most used by me; the recent wardrobe crisis prompted a friend to send me a photo of these three men in identical blue-and-blue Dunnes suits; another sent me a greeting card featuring Michelle and one of her characteristically explicit exclamations.
I grew up in Portadown, Co-Armagh. I am a few years younger than the girls, but I largely identify with their adolescence, which is played out along with the peace process or, as Erin says, “It’s about the Troubles in the political sense, but also about my problems in the personal sense.” Almost after each episode I grow up another anecdote for my long-suffering English partner (“The day after this bomb destroyed my hometown, my friend’s mom took us skating and I lost my bag!”) The program is perfect a balance of broad, versatile humor and enough specific references for those of us who were brought up eating Tayto chips and sitting on a sticky disco floor while playing Rock the Boat.
Northern Ireland literature and art are not required to educate about the history of the Troubles – an unjust expectation placed on writers and artists, many of whom want to write what they know but do not necessarily want to be didactic with their work. In the best examples, it feels organic – it’s not simple about the Troubles. Rather, they are about the fullness of life lived, about the songs sung, the burning sambuca. Often, when people “here” hear your accent, they politely walk around the topic, imagining that they are one wrong word away from hearing the full historical monologue. But Lisa McGee, the Derry Girls writer, allowed us to show ourselves in all our stupid, chaotic, ridiculous fame – experiencing it, living for real.
My graduate student, who took an alternative Ulster course, has a brilliant chapter in her dissertation on the “little English guy”; and I have a number of undergraduate essays waiting to be noted about the use of humor in times of violence, teenagers in times of turmoil, taboo images of sexuality, and the role of pop music in times of conflict. One week we perform a cover of punk and the song Stiff Little Fingers Suspect Device, and the next Michelle talks about the soldier: “But do you think if I told him I had an incendiary device in my pants, he would look? ”
Last week, I showed my students a scene in which McGee intersperses news of a deadly explosion with the Eagles dance program in the song Like a Prayer. Like me, they were untied by Grandpa Joe’s hand on Jerry’s shoulder as they silently watched TV. These are the little moments they can connect with – to see a silent senior relative show emotion or be devastated at a school dance. This last season offered subtle commentaries on everything from police policy to inequality of opportunity along with rich experiments in genres and short stories. Politics is there, but it does not drive history. My students are invariably curious and respectful of the conflict and my own background, and Derry Girls allows us to combine it all with bloody laughter.
For those of us who have experienced turmoil or continue to struggle with the complex legacy of conflict, Derry Girls represents what many of us recognize – a combination of light and darkness. This is just one of many texts that tell the story of the conflict – and now so many good works come out, among others, from Jan Carson, Olivia Fitzsimans, Louise Kennedy, Bernie McGill, Michael McCann, Gail McConnell, Michael Nolan and Stephen Sexton, speaking of the Booker Prize laureate Anna Burns.
But along with rich literary works from the North, Derry Girls is introducing some kind of savagery to which my students have responded with unbridled enthusiasm. Suddenly they clearly presented themselves with all their hobbies and aspirations living their lives despite the rumble of chaos around them.
And I could find a way to tell them about myself what I had to convey, but couldn’t. Yes, it was cruel, yes, it was scary, but we danced, laughed, were stupid and horny, and often I cared more about my hair and wardrobe than about politics. Derry Girls will allow us to become teenagers again. After all, as Michelle reminds us: “Being a girl from Derry is a damn state of mind!”