The Young Offenders: ‘A Cork accent is a bizarre noise to come out of a mouth’
With a new series about to hit screens, thanks to streaming services – and subtitles – the show’s cult following has spread globally
Characters Jock O’Keeffe (Chris Walley), Star O’Keeffe (Penny and Nola Richardson), Conor MacSweeney (Alex Murphy) are back from a third season of the show. Photographer: Miki Barlok
For all of Normal People’s talking points, the breakout star from this year’s biggest drama appears to be the chain worn by its male lead Connell – it even has its own Twitter account and emoji. But back when Connell was but a twinkle in Sally Rooney’s eye, two other Irish lads were making the same fashion statement – albeit in inner-city Cork, with matching buzzcuts and bumfluff, while stealing bikes. They’re Jock (the tall one, played by Chris Walley) and Conor (the short one, played by Alex Murphy), whose teen delinquency takes centre stage in The Young Offenders, a sitcom about male adolescence that picks up where The Inbetweeners left off.
The show presents a tight-knit world dense with comedic potential: when not carrying out harebrained schemes, the duo tug at our heart strings (see Conor’s “I heart me mam” tattoo), sprinkle in unique life lessons (“Working is for dickheads”) and ponder big questions (“D’ya ever have an argument in the car and then need to fart?”). They find their match in the show’s supporting cast: “Irish terminator” Sgt Healy (Dominic MacHale) and school principal Walsh (comedian PJ Gallagher), who is dead set against the pair, making it tricky for them to romance his daughters. At home, Conor’s sharp-shooting mother Mairéad, played by Hilary Rose, does her best to raise the two troublemakers.
Inspiration for the original feature film, released in 2016, came from a news story about one-and-a-half tonnes of cocaine washing up on a beach in west Cork. Director and writer Peter Foott dreamed up two treasure hunters who’d make their way to search for the bales, and so began Jock, Conor and their life of crime.
In 2018, the film evolved into a TV series, which earned praise from Peaky Blinders star and Cork local Cillian Murphy (“they’re brilliant lads and brilliant actors and I love the series”), and nominations from the Irish Film and Television Academy awards in Ireland and the RTS Programme awards in the UK.
Still, four years on, The Young Offenders remains relatively under the radar: despite the the last series averaging 377,000; a 42 per cent share among 15 to 34 year olds; and 1.14 million streams on the RTÉ Player and the 25 million episode streams cited by the BBC, Jock and Conor’s antisocial antics haven’t quite received the broad attention of Derry Girls, set on the other side of the island, nor the critical acclaim of Normal People. But the third series, which starts on Friday, might change all that.
“It was a test of stamina, with long days,” says Murphy of the new series. “But it was a treat of a project. We were on new adventures every day for 17 weeks straight.”
Walley and Rose appear on Zoom from Cork; Murphy is in Dublin. They are full of chat about their newfound pastimes: Murphy has taken up the guitar; Walley, an Olivier award-winning stage actor, has co-written a feature film; Rose, who’s married to Foott and is mother to their two children, is starting a blog. Throughout our conversation, each knows when to bow out and step in, like a ballet of banter.
The new series ratchets up the comedy and the drama, with Jock now a teenage dad. Fatherhood has not curbed the pair’s schemes, though. “They’re still doing the same thing but just now with the baby,” says Walley. And so they open the six-episode run stealing TVs, using baby Star as an accomplice. Later in the series, they take a road trip to Dublin to see a family psychologist (Pauline McLynn, aka Mrs Doyle from Father Ted), and gear up for the Debs ball in their final year of secondary school.
So lovable are these rogues that it is easy to gloss over Jock and Conor’s criminality, especially as it’s played for laughs. While they’re no heroes, “the characters have such good intentions,” says Murphy.
“There’s almost a moral code they have,” adds Rose. “If they steal a bike off somebody, they’d give the bus money home.”
“And it’s raising awareness that these people do exist, and you should lock your bike up safely, with a U-bar,” says Walley. “That’s the best lock. I’ve done my research.”
In depicting these inner-city teens, Foott isn’t necessarily making a grand political statement. “He doesn’t write thinking of class,” says Murphy. “He doesn’t write thinking of gender – he writes thinking of people. Just because Jock and Conor are inner-city lads, that’s not their whole being. That’s just where they’re from.”
The credits at the end of each episode include a nod to the people of Cork – unsurprising given the pride felt in a region also known as the Rebel County. The show has deep roots there, from the scenes filmed on location to the melodic brogue. “For a lot of people it’s the first time hearing strong Cork accents, and it’s such a bizarre noise to come out of a mouth,” says Walley, laughing.
While bike thieves might not be the obvious choice of poster boys for Cork, they have done the city proud. The English Market arcade, where Mairéad grafts as a fishmonger, has fans visiting on a daily basis. Young Offenders bike tours are being mooted to visit more locations (a fitting tribute, given the boys’ preferred mode of transport). “For so long it was stories about Dublin,” says Murphy, “which is great, but I think people are starting to realise smaller towns have so much heart to them. Hot Fuzz is an example – it’s such a cult classic because it’s a specific part of the UK, so everyone in it feels real.”
Thanks to streaming services, subtitles and the BBC’s backing, these Corkonians’ cult following has spread globally. The film appears on Netflix worldwide, the series is streamed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and Murphy has noticed a flurry of messages from Japan in particular. “I get a lot of attention from the lads. Chris gets more of a female following. What about you, Hilary, what following do you get?”
“It’s a mix between this really weird, young teenage boy following, and older gentlemen,” Rose replies. “I’ve cornered that market.”
It is a rare show that teens and parents can view together – in stark contrast to Normal People, as Walley can attest. “Alex and I are close friends with Paul Mescal [who played Connell]. So my parents asked if I wanted to watch it with them. I was like: ‘As much as I love you, I don’t want to watch my friend have sex on TV with you’.”
Nevertheless, Normal People’s success is nicely timed for The Young Offenders – and Irish TV more generally. “Sometimes it’s hard to pay attention to a tiny country, but now we have the Kardashians watching a show based in Sligo,” says Murphy. “It’s so strange, but it’s good news for the country.” And as the original chain-wearers, it’s also good news for Jock and Conor’s trendsetting credentials. Expect a buzzcut and bumfluff revolution next. – Guardian
The Young Offenders series three will air Fridays from July 24th, 9.35pm, on RTÉ One and BBC One