The hilarity of Derry Girls is so powerful that it transcends language. The Irish sitcom, currently streaming on Netflix, follows four girls (and their teen guy accomplice) who are growing up in Northern Ireland during the last years of the Troubles. A good 74 percent of any given episode is likely unintelligible to anyone who didn’t grow up hearing an Irish accent; it took me a few episodes to admit defeat and finally switch on the subtitles. But subtitles or not, and my cursory knowledge of the Troubles notwithstanding, I still found myself cackling at one of my favorite new shows and falling in love with Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle, and James.
Derry Girls focuses on that part of life when, as a teen, everything feels urgent. Crushes, concerts, detention, gossip, and cliques dominate its characters’ lives — as is the norm for many teens. The difference here is that the Derry girls of the show’s title are dealing with these staples of adolescence against the backdrop of a 30-year ethnoreligious clash.
The Troubles is the long period of conflict in Northern Ireland that lasted from the 1960s through the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. “The war claimed nearly 3,600 lives, was largely fought by paramilitary groups representing nationalists, a largely Catholic population who sought a united Ireland, and paramilitary groups representing unionists, who sought to preserve British rule,” my colleague Jen Kirby explained for Vox.
Derry Girls takes place as that conflict is starting to come to a close in the ’90s, and its second season, which recently debuted on Netflix, coincides with the prospect of the Good Friday Agreement.
Not being able to see a boy band or pop star because your parents don’t approve is something anyone who’s been a teen can probably relate to. But not being able to attend a Take That concert because your parents fear a terrorist attack or a polar bear on the loose (which actually did happen in 1972)? That’s something specifically Derry Girls.
But the beauty of the series is that amid all the chaos, amid all these events that are written in history books, showrunner Lisa McGee never loses sight of what’s important: her girls growing up, and, of course, being able to see Take That live.
Derry Girls finds the joy of living in a moment
At the heart of Derry Girls is a specific girl from Londonderry, a.k.a. Derry — the second-largest city in Northern Ireland — named Erin. Had Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) been born in any other lifetime, or appeared on any other show, she’d probably move to New York City armed with just her dreams of becoming a writer or a poet. But because she’s on Derry Girls, she’s living in Derry, in a too-crowded house with her mom, dad, and baby sister Anna as well as her cousin Orla and Orla’s family, plus their grandfather.
In her writing — which we experience on the show via voiceover — Erin lays a YA veil on top of Derry, presenting it as complicated, romantic, wistful place. Though Orla (Louisa Harland), a space cadet with a lack of understanding when it comes to privacy, is always quick to put that image to rest by, say interrupting Erin’s voiceover while barging in on her as she’s taking a bath or reading her diary.
Erin and Orla go to the same Catholic girls’ school, Our Lady Immaculate, as the other two girls in their friend group, Michelle and Clare.
Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) is a raunchy, raven-haired rebel who just wants to smooch boys; Clare (Nicola Coughlan) — my favorite of the posse — is a goody-two-shoes who might also be part paranoid, skittish woodland creature.
And then there’s James (Dylan Llewellyn), Michelle’s cousin, who is English and attends the girls’ school because his family fears that sending him to the local boys’ school would sentence him to daily mockery and/or beatings. He’s allowed to enroll at the girls’ school, though he finds it difficult because of the absence of men’s restrooms.
James’s situation underscores the reality of the situation these girls are in. Beneath the scrim of more routine teen fare — detentions, the snitch at school known as Jenny Joyce (Leah O’Rourke), the slightly dreamy Protestant boys from a rival school, the prom, etc. — is the real religious and ethnic tension that Ireland is going through.
McGee never lets the Troubles dominate the story, though; Derry Girls is the girls’ story first and foremost.
My favorite episode of the second season introduces a new English teacher, Ms. De Brún. She’s the coolest person the Derry girls have ever met, a dark force of a woman who has mastered making her midnight black eyeliner look both smudged and winged. She has a Dead Poet’s Society effect on the girls, reaching into their souls and lighting a spark to live their lives boldly.
During a writing exercise, she pitches the girls (and James) a ball each, goading them to share whatever it is they hate most.
“Mass,” Michelle grunts.
“My own socks!” Orla shouts.
“Being late for school!” one of their classmates screams.
“Piano lessons!” another yells.
“People here use the word ‘wee’ to describe things that aren’t even that small,” says James.
You might expect the girls — and some of them do allude to injustice and prejudice — to say something about the war since it impacts their everyday lives. But the Derry girls are just like any other teens who don’t want to take piano lessons or go to church every Sunday. The tension the Troubles causes is present, but it’s mostly played for laughs (the National Guard detonating the girls’ suitcase full of booze in a scene where, in an attempt to avoid getting into trouble, the girls pretend the suitcase isn’t theirs and proceed to set off a bomb scare).
At its best, Derry Girls hits the emotional intersection of cringe, earnestness, and slapstick.
The icing on the show is Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney), the woman of God who runs the girls’ school. Cynical and brimming with existential dread, Sister Michael truly needs God to help her get through the day and dealing with these Jesus statue-breaking teens — what might truly be her own private hell.
There’s a sense that Sister Michael knows the girls are living in surreal times, that there’s something bigger at hand looming beyond them that will end up defining their lives. But if you look closely, there are moments when Sister Michael — along with the girls’ parents, who are the supporting roles in the series — lets slip a small sense of humanity toward the girls she is tasked with preparing for the years beyond.
There’s something special about Derry Girls — exactly the kind of stuff that Erin waxes poetic about in her diaries and her swooning voiceovers. It just so happens that life doesn’t look like how Erin imagined it. The magic of this show is in the way it allows its teenage girls (and James) to experience the embarrassing indignities and awkwardness of being teens, through its story of growing up in extraordinary times and trying to not let those extraordinary times negate a teenager’s right to live a hilariously ordinary life.
Derry Girls’ two seasons — a total of 12 episodes — are available to stream on Netflix.