Derry Girls: Opening a state of mind
by Madison POULTER
26 April 2022
Murals sit at the heart of Northern Ireland’s cultural divide. Their iconography and symbols — often centering around balaclava-ed gunmen — both define the Troubles and embolden the national identities that both parties envision themselves fighting for. But in a striking departure from Northern Ireland’s mural tradition, the city of Derry/Londonderry, a hotbed for the Troubles, has a prominent mural depicting the titular characters of Derry Girls.
While the mural is dedicated to fictional characters — notably four teenage girls and an English boy — they are characters that divided communities in Northern Ireland identify with and make people — whether they are Protestant, Catholic, or completely removed from the ethno-sectarian conflict — proclaim that they too are Derry Girls. It is this innate identification with the series Derry Girls, now in its final season, that makes it not just a ratings success, but an unconscious catalyst shaping Northern Ireland’s cultural identities and shared histories.
Derry Girls is first and foremost a comedy — a comedy that did not set out ambitions to create a new cultural landscape. However, in an interview in the LA Times, Lisa McGee, Derry Girls creator, commented that she was “keen to make Derry Girls a show for everybody, because we don’t have many things that are for all of us.” In writing and producing a show for all of Northern Ireland, McGee created a shared story that all sides can engage with and relate to. Speaking with individuals across areas of Belfast that were centres for Troubles’ related violence and that continue to be divided by “peace walls”, a similar reason for loving Derry Girls was shared with me: “That was us.”
Derry Girls is a product of the sustained peace efforts from both sides; it could only have been made in a post-peace agreement world. But its influence on Northern Ireland’s future is palpable. Being a “Derry Girl” isn’t about who you are or where you come from, but it is, as Michelle says, “a fucking state of mind”. His “state of mind”, which many in Northern Ireland can relate to, opens up a new space for reflection, a new possible future. As audiences prepare to say goodbye to the Derry Girls and their “wee English fella”, it is worth asking: if both Protestants and Catholics proclaim to be Derry Girls, what else might be possible?
Image © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster