Derry Girls and Derry/Londonderry: the References You Might have Missed
By Jaime Ryan
Derry Girls, a 90s punk-inspired comedy created by Lisa McGee, follows a group of teenagers living in 1992 Derry, a North Ireland city defined by political conflict. The Netflix show blends the life of teenage girls with a troubled history.
I’m particularly passionate about this show, its historical context, and the female perspective attached to it. I am the great granddaughter of John Ryan, an Irish Republican Army soldier who fought in the Irish War of Independence. He briefly fought in the Irish Civil War before he was captured and given the choice between leaving Ireland for good or execution. Thankfully, he chose the former.
Inspired by this thread of my heritage, I traveled to Ireland in May and June of 2018 to learn more about what my great grandfather fought for and how the fight persists today. I lived in Derry for two weeks and met community activists who are working for peace between Catholics/Nationalists and Protestants/Unionists in the city.
You might be asking yourself, what is this girl talking about? You may have asked yourself the same question if you’ve seen Derry Girls, since the show references many key players and events of 1992 Derry. To help out the Derry Girls fans out there, I’m going to walk you through the first episode and elaborate on details the sociopolitical context in which the show is set. So open up Netflix, start watching the first episode, and keep this article handy for whenever you spot a hidden detail about Derry’s rich history.
Let’s look at the very opening shot of the film: an armored car brimming with British soldiers passes by a couple kids spray painting the city sign, blacking out the “London” in “Londonderry.” To understand the significance of this act, we must dig into the semiotic history of British colonialism.
Way back in the 17th century, King James I of England granted a few London-based companies permission to settle in this territory, despite the fact that the city was already lived in by the Irish. The charter granted to these companies officially changed the name of this place from Derry to Londonderry. This change has become a symbol of the divide between nationalists, people who believe Northern Ireland should be independent from the UK, and unionists, people who support British rule over the North. Historically, nationalists are associated with Irish Catholic people since Catholicism came to Ireland in its tribal beginnings, and unionists are associated with British Protestants, since the Church of England is Protestant. These names evolved into a shibboleth between the two groups once political tensions increased in the 20th century.
Though “Derry” is associated with anti-Anglo sentiments, the name Derry itself is actually an anglicization of the area’s original name. The region now known as Derry/Londonderry was once called Daire Calgaich, which is Gaelic for “oak wood of Calgach.” This name was first recorded well before the twelfth century. So if you really want to support Irish national identity and culture, revive the Gaelic language! #AchtAnois
Free Derry Corner
Also in the opening sequence, we see a mural of a man wearing a black mask holding a rifle, and the shot widens out to reveal a white wall that reads “You are now entering Free Derry.”
The Free Derry wall and surrounding murals are part of an area known as Free Derry Corner, a historical landmark commemorating a major moment in North Ireland’s fight for independence. In 1969, an event known as the Battle of the Bogside took place at this site. The Nationalist community living in this area rose up against Protestant Unionists. The police were unable to enter the area as the rioters fought them back. The British army was eventually called in, not only initiating British occupation of Northern Ireland but also marking the creation of Free Derry. Free Derry refers to the time between 1969 and 1972 when this area was able to operate as a space free from British rule.
The walls of this neighborhood are now dedicated to murals that honor Derry’s history and call for peace.
John Hume, MP
As Erin’s family casually groans about a bomb scare on a nearby bridge, the newscast they are watching cuts to a talking head with a lower-third that reads “John Hume, MP.” John Hume, a politician from Derry, is a founding member of the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP) who went on to win the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in architecting the Northern Ireland Peace Process.
Many parties and political characters had their hands in the Northern conflict. The other major parties involved in the conflict are Sinn Féin (SF) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Sinn Féin is the Nationalist party, who at the time of Derry Girls was lead by the notorious Gerry Adams. Adams and the party in general were associated with the IRA, the nationalist provisional police force in Northern Ireland, which had a bad reputation from the perspective of the British government and Unionist leaders as dangerous and, in extreme accusations, terrorists. However, the Catholic nationalist population saw the IRA and Sinn Fein as their defenders, since the Northern Ireland police and British forces were extremely prejudiced against them. The DUP at this time in history was lead by Ian Paisley, a Protestant British loyalist and big personality in Northern Ireland’s political history.
Michelle jokingly calls Clare “Bobby Sands” as she struggles with day of fasting for Kamal the Ethiopian boy.
Bobby Sands, an IRA soldier, participated in a hunger strike protesting against his imprisonment and the imprisonment of his fellow IRA soldiers. Sands was the first of ten men who died standing up to at-the-time British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Long Kesh Prison.
Hunger striking is a form of nonviolent resistance intended to remind people in power of their victim’s humanity. The Long Kesh hunger strikers were asking the British government for civil rights allowances in the prison, including rights to be treated as political prisoners, not criminals. When Bobby Sands died after 66 days of striking, he became an emblem of nationalist pride and empowerment. Many monuments are dedicated to the hunger strikers not only in the North but across Ireland.
And that’s episode one! Now that you’re experts, you’ll get all the jokes that the show throws at you, and you’ll appreciate the amazing work Derry Girls is doing to bring Irish history into the modern global dialogue.