'Derry Girls' Is Set In Northern Ireland, But It Perfectly Captures Coming of Age in a Violent America

I was only a baby when 9/11 took place, so like most others in my generation, I only remember life after the attacks. Growing up in New York City, the shadow of those events loomed larger than anywhere else. 

Netflix’s Derry Girls follows four girls and one boy, all of whom go to a Catholic all-girls school in Northern Ireland during the early 1990’s. As Erin, Clare, Michelle, Orla, and James deal with the stress of school and trying to rebel against their parents, the Northern Irish Troubles rage on outside their doors. 

The four girls have never known a life of peace, but they still grow up just like anybody else. The ever-present violence is just background noise to their own young adult world of growing pains and changes.

The first episode begins with the "Derry Girls" not being able to take their usual route to school due to a bridge bombing. It is not the bombing that frightens the girls and their parents, however, but instead the fact that Sarah, the protagonist’s aunt, is distraught because she will not be able to make her tanning salon appointment due to the bombing. 

It’s that sort of situation that makes Derry Girls so relatable: the melding between the mundane and the spectacle, the cross contamination between the violent and the everyday. This is the shift we have had to create in an America riddled with gun violence. 

Taking part in active shooter drills and having metal detectors at schools never felt out of place; it seemed standard. To find out that a school did not have frequent drills would raise suspicions. 

When guards come in to search the bus the "Derry Girls" get on to go to school, James, Michelle’s British cousin, has a minor meltdown at the sight of the guards. Coming from England, he had never experienced the constant checkpoints and security procedures that are facts of life for the girls from Derry. 

James, who is sent to the all-girls Our Lady Immaculate because the local authorities fear he will be beat up at the boys’ college, stands in to show that the way things are in Derry is not supposed to be the norm. Individuals should not know a world without peace. 

As James frets, Michelle asks, “Do you think if I told him I had an incendiary device down my knickers he’d have a look?” She has no fear of the soldiers, but instead sees the constant patrolling as a joke. Her cousin’s fear is laughable. Routine searches are the norm in Derry and have been for decades. 

The gang is more afraid of being caught underage with vodka than their alcohol-laden suitcase being presumed to be a bomb. They have become numb to the violence and now fear the wrath of their mothers more than attacks or bombs.

Derry Girls becomes universal because it is so rooted in its own place and time. The world of Derry Girls is drastically different than the one I was raised in, but it feels eerily similar.  

American youth live with the constant fear of attacks, but at the same time, teenagers have not stopped being teenagers. The gun violence epidemic is a burden thrust upon my generation — one we never wanted and wish to end — but the adolescent spirit has proven time and time again that it will not rest and it will not be silent. 

This is all we’ve ever known, so running in fear never felt like an option. 

There is equal weight given to bomb threats and peace treaties as there is to prom and Erin’s crush. On many occasions, more weight is given to the latter. The 1994 Irish Republican Army ceasefire is overshadowed in the episode by the school’s prom. The balance between the political and mundane is something which I am still reconcile my feelings about as there is a macabre beauty that life goes on as normal in times of violence.

There is a relief that this generation can still enjoy life and doesn’t hold the same malice in their hearts as the older generations. There is a sense of optimism with the idea that life can still go on. But at the same time, violence should be shocking.

Is it strong or scary that humans have trained themselves to become desensitized to constant bloodshed? Is there any going back from that?

The second season begins with the five teens going on a retreat with Father Peter to mend the gap between Catholic and Protestant teens.

Before the program, Erin sits in her bathtub, enacting a future interview she plans on doing about her time with the Protestants after the conflict is over and she has made it out of Derry. 

“For generations, we’d known nothing but violence, nothing but hatred. But finally we’re saying enough is enough,” she says.

Enough is enough. How many times have we said that phrase? Perhaps in the wake of each of the 262 tragic mass shootings we have had so far this year. We have had more shootings than days in 2019, and yet, enough never seems to be enough. 

As much as the characters in Derry Girls desire peace, they equally wish to go to concerts, kiss boys, and drink alcohol. The same teens who lied and claimed they saw a statue of the Virgin Mary cry are the same ones who are making the active effort to stop the animosity. At the retreat to “bridge the divide,” Michelle forces Erin to switch partners with her since hers wears a purity bracelet because for her, there is no bridging the divide without a little fun.  

However, despite the optimism that Erin has towards actually making peace, there is the underlying knowledge that there is only so much they can do. What we have seen with the March for Our Lives leaders is that they are creating change and successfully pushing for some legislative reform, but in the end, they still need a senator to vote for the bill or for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to call the Senate back from its August recess. The following sentiment rings true both in the 90s and in the present: only when the new generation comes of age and claims their power can there truly be change. 

Sadly, as Americans, we have become accustomed to the idea that mass shootings are forgotten the week after they occur, just as the "Derry Girls" quickly ignore the violence going on around them. However, both in our reality and theirs, the question of when will all of the violence end? is a constant presence. 

At least in Derry Girls, there is some solace knowing that there will be a definitive end to the rampant violence: the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

But in today’s America? There is no end date in sight.