As a teenager in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, Lisa McGee knew she wanted to be a writer.
But she also swore she’d never write anything about the Troubles, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants that had transformed her tiny country into a war zone.
The depictions she saw in popular culture were always “so grey and masculine” and — worst of all — humourless. “It just seemed so boring to me,” she said by video chat from her home in London. “I never would have watched any of it by choice.”
But years later, when she began to toy with the idea of a series set in a convent school, “That’s when I started looking at how strange it was to grow up during that time. I realized it was probably very rich territory.”
The result is the gleefully irreverent Netflix series Derry Girls, which few would describe as grey or masculine.
Set in the mid ’90s in the border city of Derry, it centres on 16-year-old Erin Quinn (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), her large working-class family and her close circle of friends at a Catholic girls’ school. A darkly funny story about coming of age amid political violence, Derry Girls blends the typical teenage high jinks — skipping school, going to the prom, drinking cheap vodka — with jokes about bomb scares, British soldiers and the IRA. Much of it is drawn from McGee’s memories of the era.
For McGee, the show is a more truthful representation of the Troubles and of the Northern Irish comic sensibility. “It was so uncertain those times, so unpredictable and, maybe to be able to cope, we developed this weird sense of humour about it,” she said.
In Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants still tend to live in separate communities, Derry Girls has become a rare unifying national institution. It is the most popular series in the country since modern records began in 2002, according to its U.K. broadcaster, Channel 4. A mural depicting the cast has been painted in the city centre: a potent sign of change in a place where murals typically display partisan propaganda.
McGee is “keen to make Derry Girls a show for everybody, because we don’t have many things that are for all of us,” she said. “It’s been 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, and we’re still segregated. That’s always at the back of my mind. Even saying where you’re from — Derry or Londonderry — is problematic.”
As a teenager, McGee often had to go on cross-community projects, aimed at fostering understanding between Protestants and Catholics. “I think of Derry Girls as a cross-community project,” she said, noting that series director Michael Lennox is Protestant. “We grew up on different sides of the fence, but here we are making this show.”
Like Erin, McGee grew up in a working-class Catholic family. They didn’t support paramilitary groups such as the IRA but lived in a community where many did.
An overwhelmingly Catholic city near the border with the Republic of Ireland, Derry has a long been a flashpoint of tension. (And it continues to be: in April, a journalist named Lyra McKee was killed during a riot.)
The city is “a bit of an underdog,” McGee said. “It’s got a bit of an attitude.” Jobs were scarce, but women were often the family breadwinners, because the only available work was in shirt factories, leading to what she describes as a female-dominated culture. “That’s why so many women from there are very outspoken.
“The men are just a support act,” she added. “The dads are just there to make sure whatever the mom (says) happens a lot of the time.”
This legacy is reflected in Erin, her oddball cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), her studious pal Clare (Nicola Coughlan) and, especially, their raunchy friend Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) — “the easiest character to write,” McGee says. “There’s a lot of Michelles in Derry.”
Meanwhile, Michelle’s English cousin, “wee English fella” James (Dylan Llewellyn), goes to school with the girls out of concern he’d get beaten up at the boys’ school.
McGee discovered she wanted to be a writer when she was about 9 and became obsessed with Jessica Fletcher, the amateur sleuth and mystery writer portrayed by Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote. “I thought I was going to be this great crime novelist who solved murders in her spare time,” she said.
This preoccupation eventually led to a degree in English and drama at Queen’s University, Belfast, where McGee discovered the work of playwright Brian Friel, from Donegal, Ireland. “It was the first time I realized you can write about where you’re from and write the way you speak and it can still be very profound,” she said. “Reading his plays, it was the first time I thought our world was interesting as well.”
She also sparked to Arthur Miller, with his fast American dialogue: “I just love the rhythms of that and it has a lot in common with the way Irish people speak.”
After starting a theatre company that put on plays above pubs, she got an agent in London and landed work writing for television, including Being Human, about a group of 20-something monsters. She created a sitcom, London Irish, for Channel 4, that was “love it or loathe it” but gave her the confidence that there would be interest in a show about Northern Ireland.
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McGee, who writes the entirety of Derry Girls, said it came easily to her: “I think I had a lot of material in the back catalogue from my school days.” The hardest part was replicating the contradictory sense of community in a place such as Derry, “where everyone knows your business. We grew up in this really scary, violent time, yet no one locked their doors. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The series is filmed in Belfast and Derry, which can create some humorous misunderstandings. During production of the first season, McGee’s father heard some co-workers saying the British army had returned. “And he said, ‘No, that’s my daughter’s TV show,’” she said.
At 37, McGee is a member of a generation straddling peace and conflict. She remembers what it was like to hear a car backfire and assume it was a gun and was in her late teens in 1998 when a bomb in Omagh killed 29 people — an incident that “had a profound impact on me personally … I could fully understand the horror of it.”
Derry Girls has helped generate conversations about the country’s painful past.
“There is a legacy of trauma in Northern Ireland that we haven’t quite worked out how to deal with,” McGee said.
“I very recently was having a conversation with someone who told me she was ‘lucky,’ and that the Troubles ‘never really touched her,’ when I know she saw a stranger being shot dead just a few metres from her, and that nobody could come to this person’s aid or they’d be shot too. But she didn’t think to count that because lots of people saw distressing things. I honestly don’t think many people lived through that period and came out the other side unscathed by it.”
McGee has gotten few complaints about how Derry Girls has handled controversial topics. But she did receive feedback asking her to write more Protestant characters. In the Season 2 premiere, Erin and her friends go on a retreat with boys from a Protestant school. Called “Friends Across the Barricade,” the program is designed to foster peace but — spoiler alert — isn’t terribly effective. Michelle is mostly focused on hooking up with a Protestant “ride” or hot guy.
McGee recalls many such “schemes” from her youth.
“It’s so silly. Everyone just wants to get off with each other. But I look back at it fondly. These Protestant people were obviously exactly the same as us, but they were these exotic creatures. It was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re so sexy because they’re Protestants,’ because you’re sort of not allowed (to like) Protestants. There’s such an innocence about that. There’s a universality to it.”
In another episode inspired by real life, Erin and the gang sneak off to Belfast for a Take That concert and wind up on the nightly news. (The boy band played in the city in 1993.) While McGee couldn’t afford tickets, a girl she knew skipped school to attend the concert and ended up on the cover of a local newspaper. “She was so delighted she was at the concert, she didn’t realize she should hide,” McGee said.
Season 2 concludes with a moment of slightly greater historical significance: President Clinton’s visit to Derry in 1995, following the IRA ceasefire. McGee was there but not close enough to see anything. Still, she said, it was “probably the biggest thing that ever happened in the city. I’ll never forget that day.”
McGee is already writing Season 3. She sees the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, as a logical ending point for her story. “I’m not interested in seeing those girls as adults.”