The biggest TV show about teens in the US at the moment is Euphoria: a sex and drug fuelled Alice in Wonderland-style combo of style, beauty, and death. The second season just finished and a third is on the way.
The biggest TV show in Ireland at the moment is Derry Girls: a chips and naggin fuelled coming-of-age 90s dream soundtracked by The Cranberries and casually set against the background of war. The third and final season begins on Channel 4 next Tuesday, April 12th. Probably the only thing Euphoria and Derry Girls have in common is embarrassing parents, except in Euphoria the parents are alcoholic criminals and in Derry Girls they're militantly putting on a dark wash and doing Rock the Boat at a family wedding.
The parents in Derry Girls are doing their best to raise their bumbling, naïve teens in an environment of limited income and bubbling external conflict. They’re so young, the parents. The characters are probably younger than I am now and they’re bringing up their girls with so much candid discipline and implied love. There’s a scene early on where a school trip to Paris is proposed and our girls – Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and James (the wee English fella) – innocently believe the school dose Jenny when she tells them their parents must have a trust fund set aside for things like this. It’s only when they’re laughed out of it that they realise not all Derry Girls are created equal, as Clare tells Erin: “According to my Ma we’re actually quite poor!”, and Erin responds incredulously, “Aye, I think we might be as well!” Raising children on limited means without them realising it is surely some kind of artform, and Erin’s and Clare’s parents are masters at it.
Ireland is extremely proud of Derry Girls ... yet it has been a hit across the world
In Derry Girls the teenagers are not defined by The Troubles, but inconvenienced by them. The annual Orange Order parades mean an escape to a caravan holiday in Portnoo. Smuggling booze in a suitcase bound for a Take That concert in Belfast veers quickly into a call for a bomb disposal unit. A visit by Bill Clinton means mitching a day off school (and sends Erin's mother into a flitter over her skirting boards).
The Derry Girls don’t have the emotional bandwidth to dedicate themselves to worrying about The Troubles. They have nuns to dodge and boys to fancy and Ukrainian visitors escaping the toxic Chernobyl fallout to impress. In scenes that are even more poignant now, the gang are sneered at by Erin’s Ukrainian visitor Katya, who questions what the hell the complicated fight in Northern Ireland is even about, given they are all essentially the same religion.
"The Russian", as they call her, is equally blasé about the environment she's come from and the one she's landed in. "Of course we have televisions," she tells Erin, with a dryness echoed by Ukrainian teens in 2022, performing comic TikToks about rations and Harry Styles in makeshift subway bombshelters.
I spent a lot of time at my granny’s near Enniskillen in the 1980s and 1990s, and while I look back now and remember border checks and RUC stations and being quizzed by paramilitaries on my way to buy sweets, what was important to me then was having the money to buy the sweets, and the fact that Granny had The Channels.
Derry Girls doesn’t follow the exact timeline of the North in the 90s. Season one ended with a nod to Omagh as Erin’s parents watched an unnamed bombing on television – “already being described as one of the worst atrocities of the Northern Ireland conflict” – while the girls banded together at school to support Orla at a talent show. Clinton’s visit in 1995 brought season two to a close and with only one more collection of episodes to come, the peace process could be “all anyone bangs on about” as exams, video rentals and James’s oppressive English breathing consumes the girls’ every waking moment.
Ireland is extremely proud of Derry Girls. Lisa McGee's show is indicative of what it means to be Irish and, more particularly, what it means to be Northern Irish. And yet it has been a hit across the world. Netflix exposure means there are teenagers in the US who see their experiences represented by the fever dream that is Euphoria, and still relate to Erin agonising over her prom date and Michelle contemplating losing the "other half" of her virginity, even if they have to put on the subtitles to understand lingo like "Aye, dead on", "I'll fight that wain again if I have to" and a personal favourite, "You f***ing Free State b*stard!".
Everyone has a Derry Girl they relate to. I’m probably an Erin or a Clare – smart enough and hardworking, but still incredibly silly a large portion of the time. Nobody wants to be Jenny: the simpering teacher’s pet, and yet sometimes I cast my mind back to me and my friend Niamh harmonising earnestly to The Cranberries Dreams at the first year cross-making assembly at the St Brigid’s Day retreat in 1994, and I really have to wonder …