Derry Girls Reveals the Subversive Power of Teenage Apathy

In the midst of political turmoil, not giving a crap is a potent protest.

A group of teens in '90s Ireland wearing "Friends Across the Barricade" T-shirts, in a scene from Derry Girls.
Dylan Llewellyn, Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, Nicola Coughlan, and Louisa Harland in Derry Girls.

Derry Girls is a refreshingly buoyant celebration of working-class life in a beleaguered corner of the United Kingdom in the early ’90s. The sitcom’s provocative tone is set when, in the opening scene, the word London is erased by vandals on a street sign in the shadow of a British armored car. Soldiers are battle ready, as are the jokes, which come packed with the lacerating wit of Northern Irish slang. By the end of the uproarious six episodes, you’ll likely be shouting “Catch yourself on” like it’s the most natural way to call someone an asshole. That’s if your subtitles are working (the accents can sound like garbled Van Morrison to the American ear).

The show’s boisterous ensemble, composed of four teenage girls and one fish-out-of-water English boy, navigates the trials of a Catholic high school and the encroaching presence of a militarized British state. Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) ostensibly leads the group, jotting quirky observations in her diary, while her shyish cousin Orla, played by a riotously adorkable Louisa Harland, is lost to an obsession with aerobics. There’s closeted lesbian Clare (Nicola Coughlan), intent on raising money for her Ethiopian sponsor child, and Pernod-drinking Michelle—an outstanding performance by Jamie-Lee O’Donnell—who sports the best hoop earrings since Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. The “wee English fella” James (Dylan Llewellyn), whose hard luck has him attending the all-girls school, becomes the constant whipping boy for the group, blamed for any perceived slight simply because he’s English, i.e., the Enemy. What I love about the show is that it feels like a corrective to the pomp and tedium of Downton Abbey and The Crown. It presents the messy futility of being a teenager as an ongoing skirmish between dubious parental authority and impossible friends. What to do when trapped in a small town with little prospects? Paint it—with jokes.

In an episode where the group plans a seemingly implausible trip to Paris, they are informed by the school’s chief do-gooder Jenny (Leah O’Rourke), replete with braces and a shoulder braid, that despite the high cost, everything will be fine when it comes to finances. “Just dip into your trust fund,” she says. “I do it all the time.” What follows is a devastating scene where Erin questions her mother: “Are you telling me I don’t have a trust fund?” Not only are there no trust funds, there is no cash, period. Reeling from the news that their lives are mired in poverty, a defiant Clare suggests they get jobs, only to be slapped down by Michelle. “There are no jobs in Derry.”

The Troubles—best understood as a cocktail of terrorism, British oppression, and virulent ethno-nationalism—is so often portrayed through the lens of men. From Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda to Steve McQueen’s breakout Hunger and the more recent ’71, the emphasis is on men at the front lines, as paramilitaries, soldiers, police, and spies. This is what makes Derry Girls so original. Rather than being compelled by car bombs or kneecapping, we are allowed a window into the lives of young girls caught up in the smoke. Their unwillingness to give a shit about the war becomes subversive. More concerned about the vagaries of high school popularity, the complications that attend ordering fast food, and what it might be like to “shag” a British soldier, they are coming of age as ordinary teenagers in a world of inordinate obstacles.

The show feels especially timely with the impending apocalypse of Brexit, which is already opening up old sectarian wounds among Derry’s Catholic nationalists and British loyalists. Since 1999, as a result of the historic Good Friday agreement that saw paramilitaries give up their arms, the city of Derry and the rest of Northern Ireland has largely been at peace. But if the so-called Irish backstop—the assurance that Northern Ireland’s border remains open—cannot be resolved by Britain or the EU as part of a Brexit deal, that peace is likely to become ever more fragile. The power-sharing government already collapsed in 2017, leading to dire predictions.

Creator Lisa McGee has hinted that the show’s second season will be set against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s much-lauded visit to Derry in 1995. If so, let’s hope the show won’t lose its irreverence toward the powerful. We need more dogs urinating on the head of the Virgin Mary, more misanthropic nuns with pictures of topless men on their desks, and more beta English boys following slavishly behind girls who just want to have fun.

Derry Girls is not simply a charming romp. It echoes the revolutionary James Connolly’s famous line, “For Ireland, I care little. For the Irish people, I would give my life.” With its stress on the foibles of teenagers in the midst of hell, it reveals the purpose of a lasting peace: laughter.