Derry Girls - Substance under silliness
Recently, I stumbled upon a fairly popular, Netflix series, Derry Girls.
I’d seen it come up in my Netflix queue, but it looked silly and for teenagers, and I like deep, dark, disturbing shows for grown-ass women. Then a few days ago, after getting my fill of deep, dark, disturbing REALITY TV (a.k.a. “Pillage and Plunder the Capitol Building with Chewbacca the Viking Man”),
I clicked on Derry Girls.
It is silly. It focuses on a group of friends growing up in [London]Derry, Ireland in the 1990s, while attending a Catholic school for girls. At times, their brogues are so thick I have to turn on the captioning. (What language are they speaking?!) While the characters deal with typical high school shenanigans, the backdrop is the "Trouble” times in Ireland. British soldiers with rifles patrol the streets and “man” security check points. In the first episode, an IRA bomb is found on a bridge, and the girls’ school bus is delayed. It's treated as no big deal, just a nuisance. The Derry girls are growing up in a war zone, but in spite of it they are still preoccupied by typical adolescent issues, like finding ways to alter their school uniform in order to express their individuality.
When one of the girls introduces her cousin to her girlfriends, she informs them that he’s English, something that “turns her stomach”. The girls scrunch up their nose at the sight of him. He is attending their Catholic girls’ school because he’ll get beat up at the public school because he’s English.
In one episode, the Quinn family and friends plan to get out of Derry during the Ulster parades that will take over the city. The parades celebrate William of Orange's victory in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, which secured the Protestant Ascendancy and British rule in Ireland. The parades last for days, tying up traffic, and the banging of drums reminds everyone who is in charge. A rebel (IRA?) stows away in the "boot" of their car and the family is divided about allowing him to stay there. It's funny. Trust me.
Due to the humor in Derry Girls, it’s easy to miss that their generation is growing up during the Troubles, 1969-99. Irish-Catholic nationalists were pushing back against hundreds of years, nay thousands of years, of British Protestant rule, demanding Irish sovereignty, largely because they felt discriminated against by the Protestant run government. (Remember: They're all Irish. This will be important for the test later.)
I’ve only watched the first season of Derry Girls (there are 2 on Netflix, with a confirmed 3rd to come), but the lightness of the plots belies the fact that these are the Troubled times. Romance, parties, social acceptance fill the group’s days while in the background “peace walls” separate Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods. IRA graffiti can be seen as the girls traipse around town.
In doing some research, I came across the true story of two 17-year olds in 1972 who wandered onto a Protestant-controlled road in Belfast. The two were stopped by Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) gunmen, a Loyalist paramilitary group. Accused of being members of the IRA, the teens were shot at point-blank range, leaving Aaron Short paralyzed and his friend—shot through the face. This was the real world the Derry girls and boys would have contended with as they tried to figure out who they were and where they wanted to go.
Why write about Derry Girls now? Because there is much to learn from the Troubles in Northern Ireland. We are more than 2 weeks into 2021, yet it still feels like 2020. (Remember our giddy optimism on New Year's eve?) Covid is still ravaging the world. Donald Trump and his supporters are still claiming that he won the election. “Truth” is elusive. “Facts” are treated as opinion. I fear we are in our own Troubled times in the U.S.. It is clear that the turning of the calendar is not going to make the division in our country magically go away.
While watching Derry Girls, I remembered a morning in the 1970s when my mother opened the newspaper. It may have been the morning after "Bloody Sunday," Jan. 30, 1972, when
British soldiers killed 13 civilians and wounded 15 others in Derry during a civil rights march. Mom tssked before saying, “It’ll never end until they all kill each other.” She didn’t think peace was possible in Northern Ireland. Many agreed with her. In fact, the Troubles lasted 30 years. More than 3,000 people were killed. Children were killed. Homes were bombed. People were displaced, lost jobs and family members. And then – it did end.
Not when the year changed. Not when a new president was inaugurated. When leaders – real leaders, who were less about posturing and more about peace -- came together and talked instead of shouted. Arms were laid down and a fragile truce was struck, known as the Good Friday Agreement, 1998.
A generation after the Derry Girls, things are better. However, reports are coming out that the peace is threatening to collapse. Brexit did not helped, but the New IRA, Saoradh, and other dissident groups have gotten a hold in areas of poverty like the Creggan housing estate. Pro-IRA graffiti on a wall reads: "The police will forget about you. We won't." In 2019, journalist Lyra McKee was shot during a riot in Creggan following a police raid on dissidents who were purported to have munitions (none were found). (Watch the 22-minute BBC's Real Derry Girls documentary HERE).
Peace is like a flame in the wind. It has to be tended or it can easily be extinguished. It's hard to get it going again once it's out. We, in America, need to figure out how to kindle a flame of peace in this country. We cannot be the United States when the country is split in two. We must find common ground. We must "keep a civil tongue". We must shame our leaders when they do not. When they put party before people. Strong, compassionate, intelligent leadership will help us navigate the troubled times ahead, but each of us can do our part in our community to stoke the flame of peace.
Jan. 6 was the Day of Epiphany. In 2021, we all had an epiphany. The chasm in the U.S. will not disappear on Jan. 20th. It’s deeper and more dangerous than some of us realized. Chaos played across our screens like the latest Netflix action movie The Capitol wasn't being attacked by foreign terrorists but by American ones. It wasn’t Northern Ireland in the ‘90s. It was America in 2021. Change can happen. But it will take work -- not wishes.
Writing Challenge: Some research has come out that there was an increase in alcoholism, drug use, divorce, and "out of wedlock" births among teens and young adults who grew up in the "Troubled Times" in Northern Ireland. How do you think the era of your formative years shaped your behavior and ways of thinking?