It’s the mid-1990s, the Troubles that have ravaged Northern Ireland for decades are coming to an end, and a group of spirited teens from Our Lady Immaculate College are on a mission to change the world. Alright, not change the world exactly, but at least find a way to have a normal teen experience in spite of the chaos around them. This is Derry Girls.
The six-part first series follows sixteen-year-old Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), her cousin Orla (Louise Harland), and friends Clare (Nicola Coughlan) and Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) as they navigate the highs and lows of growing up.
Erin is an aspiring writer, with dreams of chasing success and fame but, whether she admits it or not, Derry is very much the centre of her universe. It’s lucky she feels such affection for her hometown, though, as in true Irish mammy fashion, her mother Mary (Tara Lynne O’Neill) is determined to keep Erin’s two feet firmly planted on the ground. “Look, I wanted to be an individual but my Ma wouldn’t let me!” Erin tells Clare. “Well, I’m not being an individual on my own!” Clare replies. If there was ever a quote that summed up being a teen, that would be it.
It’s this early exchange that hints at the brilliance to come, thanks to creator and writer Lisa McGee. McGee’s perfect blend of angst, heart and humour, with the undercurrent of political tension, is no doubt the result of her own experiences; she knows better than most what teenage life amidst the Troubles in Derry was like.
The day-to-day realities of political unrest play second fiddle to the antics of this foursome and family life, full of intergenerational misunderstandings and charm, which take centre stage. There are quotable one-liners aplenty and even the most sombre of circumstances can be defused with a quick-witted retort.
That’s the first thing to know about this series: try as you might to pick a favourite, McGee has created characters that make it an impossible task. Michelle is the rebel of the group, self-assured, boy obsessed and unapologetically crude, the complete opposite of Orla with all her endearing eccentricity and spacey naivety. Nicola Coughlan (Bridgerton) is laugh-out-loud hilarious as the clever and highly strung Clare, ready to burst the bubble of the dramatic, often self-centred Erin whenever the need arises. Add to the group Michelle’s newly arrived cousin, Brit and honorary Derry Girl James (Dylan Llewellyn), the only male pupil at Our Lady Immaculate College, and cue the inevitable madness.
School provides the setting for much of that madness, though nun and principal Sister Michael (Siobhán McSweeney) is on hand with some sage advice and words of encouragement to see her pupils through the challenges of their teen years. “If anyone is feeling anxious or worried or maybe you just want a chat, please, please, do not come crying to me,” she declares at the commencement of the new school year.
Taking charge of a few hundred teenage girls (and one unexpected boy) has a way of fuelling cynicism and apathy, it seems. On top of Sister Michael’s no nonsense approach, resident goody-two-shoes Jenny Joyce (Leah O’Rourke) is the group’s biggest headache, ready and waiting for an opportunity to catch them out whenever she can. Whether it’s finding a way to fund their school trip or pass their final exams, the stories of these Derry teenagers, and those they encounter, are heartwarmingly familiar.
It’s beyond the school gates, however, where the strength of these friendships really shines. Like all good friends, the group experiences many important firsts together, with varying levels of trouble and success. From a brush with the divine to retrieving drug-laced scones at a family wake, each new situation, complete with a healthy dose of nineties nostalgia, will only have you wishing all the more that you could be part of their gang.
And therein lies the genius of Derry Girls. It deals with the often complex issues of religion, gender, sexuality and coming of age from the perspective of these optimistic teens, balancing hilarity with genuine emotion at every turn.
Even in the most challenging of circumstances, an unparalleled sense of fun is never far away. It’s properly Irish, properly funny and comfort viewing at its finest, that will see even the most unlikely viewer coming back for more.
See double episodes of Derry Girls Monday nights on SBS VICELAND, with season 2 following hot on the heels of season 1. Episodes will be available at SBS On Demand for 14 days after they air. Start with episode 1: