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‘Derry Girls’ Shows Us How a Dysfunctional Family Can Be Functional

Netflix’s hit Irish-Catholic sitcom is the craic. Especially if you have a family like mine

Growing up in a large Irish-Catholic family means your nana’s house is your second home — that is, if she doesn’t already live with you. My brothers and I would spend full weekends, school nights (she’s a retired high school math teacher, and I sucked at algebra) and endless holidays (so many birthday dinners when you have eight kids and 19 grandkids) huddled around her birch kitchen table. At any moment, another family member might burst through the door and join us for a slice of Irish soda bread and sarcastic conversation.

It’s common for American families to section off their gatherings, with kids in a back room somewhere unseen and unheard. But not at Nana’s house. Over a game of Double Solitaire and a plate of corned beef and fries (the American version of a very Irish meal), I’d listen as my aunts chatted about whatever random family friend died that week. (As one Twitter user pointed out earlier this week, moms are obsessed with telling you someone you didn’t know is dead.)

I’ve been missing this energy — shit-talking over potato chips and red wine — during the pandemic. My nana is holed up alone in her home full of knick-knacks that remind her of the family she can’t see. It must be hard on her. But recently, we found a way to connect: bingeing the British sitcom Derry Girls over the holidays. The show offers us the tough Irish love we’ve sorely missed.

Love in a Fuming Family

Derry Girls, which streams internationally on Netflix, follows a ragtag bunch of Catholic school girls growing up during the Troubles in early ’90s Derry, Northern Ireland. (Catholics prefer “Derry”; the city’s legal name, preferred by Protestants, is Londonderry.)

There’s something about Catholic school kids: They’re a volatile mix of fracturing self-guilt and naive self-regard. So go the Derry Girls: bright-eyed Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), rule-following Clare (Nicola Coughlan), rule-breaking Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) and idiosyncratic Orla (Louisa Harland). Topping off their ragtag bunch is Michelle’s cousin, the one “wee English fella” James (Dylan Llewellyn).

The best moments on the show are situated around Erin’s beat-up kitchen table, covered in a chintzy tablecloth common for working-class families of the era. She lives with her cynical father Gerry, overwhelmed mother Mary and baby sister Anna, as well as her cousin Orla, her dotty aunt Sarah and grumpy grandpa Joe.

Their house is perfectly disorderly. Erin’s friends are always barging in while Mary folds laundry, Orla practices her steps routine (it’s the ’90s after all) and Aunt Sarah purses her lacquered lips. This is all against the backdrop of an industry town embroiled in deadly irregular war.

And yet you wouldn’t really know it inside Erin’s home, save for the TV that’s always tuned to the news. Mary is busy wondering why Michelle’s mom doesn’t want “the big bowl” she once borrowed. (Oh, how I miss my nana announcing no one is to leave her home until the unidentified casserole dish from last Sunday’s dinner is claimed.) Then there’s Gerry, who wants to take his wife Mary on a romantic date to see The Usual Suspects, only for her to invite her sister Sarah and her father. (Respect to anyone marrying into a big Irish-Catholic family. You shan’t get any alone time.)

Families like my own can’t help but meddle in one another’s lives — even during ongoing national unrest. That’s not to say the worries of trying to get by, supporting a shit-ton of relatives while strapped for cash, doesn’t manifest in some regard. In a big family, the love can bubble over until it feels like all you do is fight (and feel like a failure for doing so). But Derry Girls demonstrates what real familial love looks like, and it extends far beyond just bloodlines. You screw up, absorb the brief mockery, then reconcile. Or in James’ case, when he gets the entire crew banned from the local fish-and-chip shop after calling it “too greasy” (sacrilege!), you make up over shitty pizza.

I was just watching and noticed they started to wearing rainbow pins after Clare came out :’) I love this show from DerryGirls

An Ode to Adolescence

Derry Girls is, at its core, about boisterous teenage women coming of age amid chaos and trauma. It’s particularly rare to see chaotic teenage girls just be politely disorderly. But Erin, Michelle, Clare and Orla are all too familiar with being reprimanded by headmistress Sister Michael (Siobhán McSweeney).

Dating back to Hardy Boys and even Peter Pan, we’ve long been subject to narratives of roughhousing boys — Sandlot, The Little Rascals and more recently Stranger Things. However, so much of the young heroine narratives follow Nancy Drew knockoffs (Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Society and I Am Not Okay With This) or tormented, sexual pseudo-adults (Euphoria, Gossip Girl and Elite.) It’s only recently that teenage girls get to be blundering, horny but well-meaning and well-rounded thanks to shows like On My Block, PEN15, Big Mouth and, now, Derry Girls.

Now shift it over to Netflix and binge the show so we can get a third season.