Why Derry Girls challenges the “very violent and very male” image of Northern Ireland during The Troubles

Creator Lisa McGee explains why she put the strong, warm women of Derry at the centre of a comedy set during Northern Ireland's darkest days

Sarah McCool (Kathy Clarke) Michelle Mallon (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell) and Erin Quinn (Saoirse Jackson) in Derry Girls - (C4, SD)

“When I was very young, watching TV and watching how where I was from was represented, I always thought it was very violent and it was very male,” says Derry Girls writer Lisa McGee.

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The woman behind Channel 4’s smash hit comedy about a troop of teenage girls (and a boy) growing up in the Northern Irish city is well used to seeing her hometown portrayed on screen. There have been countless films and TV shows about the conflict that raged there throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but when it came to writing her own coming-of-age tale McGee was determined to tell a new side of the story.

“I hadn’t seen anything, even within The Troubles films and things like that, that really gave an accurate representation of what a real woman was even like,” she tells RadioTimes.com. That’s why, when she set about writing the six-part comedy, she was determined to show the humour, warmth and strength of the city’s communities and represent the kind of “amazing women” who she felt had yet to be seen on screen.

“It’s so true. Derry is definitely a very female strong city,” adds the show’s leading lady, Saoirse Jackson. The Derry-born actress, who plays idealistic teenager Erin Quinn, says it’s thanks in no small part to the impact of the shirt factory industry that kept them in work throughout the Troubles. “A lot of men weren’t working and a lot of women were, so it sort of bled that mentality down through the next couple of generations.”

Jackson, who is currently starring in The Ferryman on London’s West End, thinks it’s “fantastic” to have a TV series that offers an alternative to the violent images and grim reports that dominated news packages about Northern Ireland in the past.

Derry Girls Cast
James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn), Erin Quinn (Saoirse Jackson), Michelle Mallon (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), Clare Devlin (NIcola Coughlan), Orla McCool (Louisa Harland) are the Derry Girls – and boy (C4)

“I had such a brilliant upbringing in Derry and it definitely has this culture where everybody, as it says at the start of episode one, in Derry everybody knows everybody and everybody knows everything about everybody,” she explains. “That really is true and as a teenager you can’t get away with anything, you’ll always be spotted and someone’s mammy will always get back to someone’s mammy. It’s great to tell that side of Derry.”

The actress – who was quite young during the early 90s – has some memories of army checkpoints and soldiers patrolling the streets during her early childhood, but she recalls her parents acting casually in situations that may have caused alarm to those who hadn’t grown up in the city.

“Being from Derry, when I first moved to England, people’s perception of my city, I couldn’t believe it,” she says, referring in particular to those who thought bomb threats, armed raids and army patrols on the streets were still everyday occurrences. “It just absolutely blew my mind so it’s great for Derry to get its own TV programme and it’s also great to celebrate on the back of that how far we’ve come now as a city and how much we have to offer. It’s brilliant, and also we remind ourselves of what it was like then.”

Derry Girls - Episode 5
Gerry Quinn (Tommy Tiernan) and Ma Mary (Tara Lynne O’Neill) – (C4, SD)

The political conflict does dominate the girls’ daily lives from time to time. Bomb scares put paid to sun bed appointments, a “wee Provo” sprays rifles on Mary’s good gable wall, and the girls find themselves stuck in the middle of an Orange Order march as they’re trying to escape Derry on July 12th, the annual Orange Order celebration of William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of The Boyne in 1690.

“We were in Belfast filming on July 12th and I’d never seen it before and I was so shocked,” says Louisa Harland. The actress, who plays cousin Orla, grew up in Dublin and says she learned a lot about the conflict that raged just across the border while making the series. “You know about it, you hear about it, but I, honestly, I couldn’t believe it. At the march, I was gobsmacked at the whole thing and how real it was. I feel like I learned so much more about the Troubles. Even though it doesn’t focus on it, I learned a lot.”

But the fact that McGee leaves the violence mostly on the periphery and gives the girls’ personal troubles priority in each episode has proven pivotal to the show’s success.

“I think it’s great to have a TV show just centred around young women and their thoughts and what’s important to them” says Jackson. “It’s not about chasing after boys, it’s not about the political element of The Troubles, it’s just about teenage girls and how they felt at the time, and what was important to them.”

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Derry Girls continues on Channel 4 on Thursday nights at 10pm