Derry Girls’ portrayal of Northern Irish women is a breath of fresh air


An inaccurate — and extremely irritating — TV and film stereotype is doing a disservice to the women of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 

Often, in TV and films, female characters from the island of Ireland are portrayed as victims. But, Derry Girls — which returns to screens on March 5 — is turning that tired-out trope on its head. 

The TV show — the most-watched series in Northern Ireland since records began — tells the stories of Erin, Orla, Clare, and Michelle — four teenage girls at a convent school in Derry, Northern Ireland. It’s set in the ’90s during the Troubles — the three-decade sectarian conflict between nationalists and unionists. 

As the daughter of Northern Irish parents, I find it refreshing to see on-screen representations of Northern Irish women that are reflective of reality. The Northern Irish women in my immediate and extended family are strong, confident, and assertive women. Women who commanded respect (but who, I’ll admit, I was ever so slightly scared of when I was a kid). But these women all share one rather brilliant trait — their sharp sense of humour. That’s why it’s long been a frustrating thing to see on-screen depictions of Northern Irish women that don’t show this important aspect of their personalities. Like my mother Nancy, who’s from Larne, told me: “Norn Irish women are warriors.” 

“Don’t cross us,” my mother warned. “We won’t be put down by any skitter of a man! We are strong, resilient, and outspoken to the point that we are seen as opinionated and uncensored.” 

My auntie Lisa, who’s from Lisburn, told me she thinks Northern Irish women “don’t suffer fools” and they give their views “straight between the eyes at volume”.

Michelle, Dylan, Clare, Erin, Orla, and Sister Michael on their fateful "away day."

Michelle, Dylan, Clare, Erin, Orla, and Sister Michael on their fateful “away day.”

In Erin’s mother “Ma Mary,” I see many traits that are shared by the women in my life. She’s a woman with her hands full, who’s not to be trifled with, and who you can count on to speak her mind. Meanwhile our four Derry girls are navigating the rocky road of adolescence in a way that’s not unlike my own teenage years. They’re a bunch of loud-mouthed dreamers who can’t stay out of trouble and, because of that, they’re a real delight to watch. 

What’s so wonderful about Derry Girls is that we finally get to see strong, hilarious Northern Irish women on our screens. And, that’s all down to the spot-on, and downright hilarious writing of creator Lisa McGee, who’s from Derry. 

“It’s always, you’re someone’s sad girlfriend, or someone’s bereaved wife.”

At a Derry Girls screening and Q&A with the cast and creatives, Róisín Lanigan, junior editor at i-D magazine, remarked on the refreshing female characters McGee has created. Lanigan, who’s from west Belfast, said: “One of the things that really struck me when the first season came out was you never really get a chance to see Irish female characters that are funny, especially not in Troubles things.

“It’s always, you’re someone’s sad girlfriend, or someone’s bereaved wife,” she added, before asking McGee if she was conscious of this during the writing process. 

“Definitely,” said McGee. “That has always annoyed me so much because the women in Northern Ireland and Irish women are so funny.”

“They’re always victims, always victims of something to do with the political situation or the Catholic Church,” McGee continued. “Those stories are dead important and we need to see them and hear them, I just think there needs to be joy as well. 

“We need to be allowed to tell the stories that other people from around the world are allowed to tell.”

Northern Irish women contain multitudes. Thank goodness our TV screens are finally reflecting that.

Derry Girls returns on Channel 4 on March 5 at 9.15pm. Viewers in the U.S. can watch Season One on Netflix.

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