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They say laughter is the best medicine. I hadn’t really paid mind to the veracity of that statement until early last year, when a rough patch in my life meant laughter was suddenly in short supply. But when I stumbled upon Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls, I found laughter in abundance and a reminder of my Northern Irish parents’ unshakeable sense of humour in even the darkest of hours. 

Derry Girls tells the story of four teenage girls living in Derry, Northern Ireland, in the ’90s during The Troubles — three decades of bloody sectarian conflict between nationalists and unionists. The second season of Derry Girls will air in the UK in spring, and the show recently came to Netflix in the U.S.. Moments into watching Erin, Orla, Clare, and Michelle navigating school life at Our Lady Immaculate convent school, I recognised a kind of humour that felt deeply familiar to me, and which reminded me of my Northern Irish parents.

They’d been teenagers in the ’70s — the bloodiest decade of The Troubles — and it wasn’t until I reached adulthood that they began sharing the full extent of the things they’d witnessed. But, one thing I did know was that even during the very worst of times, that strong Northern Irish spirit — and signature wit — never wavered for a minute. 

A mural in Derry.

A mural in Derry.

Image: David Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

In the first few minutes of Derry Girls you see Erin’s “Granda Joe” announce that there’s a bomb on the bridge. A bridge that just so happens to be slap bang in the middle of Erin and her cousin’s bus route to school. “Oh dear God, no,” says Erin’s mother “Ma Mary”. At first, you think this “oh dear God” might be in reference to the fact that there’s a pretty terrifying situation occurring on the bridge — that’s a given — but, no, it’s actually in relation to the possibility of the kids not going to school. “Does this mean they can’t get to school? I’ve had a whole summer of it, Gerry, she’s melting my head,” says Ma Mary. As I laughed, I thought of my own Northern Irish parents and the way they talk about their adolescence “back home,” as they call it. One might characterise this as black humour, maybe even gallows humour. My father tells me this kind of humour was “a vaccine against the miseries” of a generation marred with terrorism. 

“That was normal life to us. You just got on with it.”

In the opening credits of Derry Girls you see an army vehicle driving through country roads — a sight that wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary during Operation Banner, the 38-year British military operation in Northern Ireland that was the longest in British military history. In the first episode, you also witness British soldiers searching the school bus at a military checkpoint. 

“That was normal life to us. You just got on with it,” my father told me after watching the very same episode. “You always had to have ID on you as it could prove tricky at police and army checkpoints.” As my father and I watched the series from our respective sofas, I took the opportunity to ask my parents about their youth on the other side of the Irish Sea. 

My father grew up in Lisburn — eight miles southwest of Belfast — home to Thiepval Barracks, the British Army headquarters in Northern Ireland, which was bombed in 1996. My mother lived in Larne, a town on the north Antrim coast. Growing up during the ’60s and ’70s, their early lives were shaped by this turbulent period of history. Together, they moved to England in the ’80s before I was born and settled in Warwickshire, where they raised me and my younger brother.

A Royal Marines unit patrol through the bombed-out ruins of the Broadway Hotel in Newry, Northern Ireland, 1972.

A Royal Marines unit patrol through the bombed-out ruins of the Broadway Hotel in Newry, Northern Ireland, 1972.

Image: Terence Spencer/The LIFE Picture Collection via

My dad’s childhood and adolescence were shaped by his proximity to the conflict. Just like Derry Girls’ Erin, Orla, Clare, and Michelle, my father’s everyday life at school was affected by bomb threats being called in. “When we had bomb scares at school, we all piled out of class and stood in the tennis courts until the bomb squad gave the all clear,” he told me. “Were you not scared?” I asked, alarmed. “No, just cold and wet because it was usually raining,” he replied. 

There were, of course, times when the violence hit very close to home. The son of an undertaker, my father grew up in a home where the phone would ring in the middle of the night — sometimes it would be the police, ringing to request the collection of a body of someone who’d been killed in the violence. There was also the time his next door neighbour was shot dead in the shop he owned. One of my father’s schoolteachers incurred life-changing injuries after being caught in a bomb blast in Belfast. 

Tight security inspecting cars entering the British Army Northern Ireland headquarters at Lisburn after the 1996 bombing

Tight security inspecting cars entering the British Army Northern Ireland headquarters at Lisburn after the 1996 bombing

Image: Adam Butler – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

One particular moment has always stood out in my mind. Easter 1980, my father was sitting in my Nana’s dining room working on a university project when he heard a loud knocking sound. “I thought someone was banging hard on the window, but when I looked, there was no one there,” my dad told me. “Next thing you know there was no window there.” A car bomb had been planted by the IRA in front of the Woodlands Hotel in Lisburn, which not only destroyed the building itself, it also shattered all the glass windows of houses in the vicinity. “Within four or five hours, the windows had been refitted,” my dad added. “Very well organised.” 

The following year, my father had been out having beers in Belfast with his mates when he accidentally entered the Short Strand, a Catholic and Irish nationalist area. “As a member of one community you wouldn’t go into the other community’s territory,” he said. He recalled being stopped by a policeman on foot patrol that night. “He asked me ‘Where are you off to?’ and I said, ‘I’m going up the Newtownards Road to stay with a friend.'” 

“I wouldn’t hang about,” the policeman warned him, before suggesting he take a taxi. “There was no such thing as Uber in 1980s Belfast,” my dad told me. 

My parents, Nancy and Gary, on my dad's 60th birthday.

My parents, Nancy and Gary, on my dad’s 60th birthday.

When my mother got her first Saturday job at the supermarket Woolworth’s at the age of 16, she was tasked with searching women’s handbags for incendiary devices as they entered the store. Male members of staff were given handheld devices to check male customers. “I remember it being boring, but only now do I stop and think, what if someone had actually had a bomb in their bag?” my mum told me. “I was just 16!” 

When my mum hung out with her friends when she was at Queen’s University Belfast, she would experience all kinds of security measures. “When I was at uni, there were security gates all around Belfast city centre and I took it for granted that I had to go through these barriers — tall metal fences and turnstile gates — to go shopping for clothes or makeup or go out to a cafe with my mates,” my mum added. “Even inside the barriers, we were still frisked and had additional handbag searches store by store.” 

These are just the experiences of two people, my parents, and they are not representative of everyone’s experiences of living in Northern Ireland at this time. Many people endured deep traumas and personal tragedies during this era. 

Our beloved Derry Girls and "the wee English fella."

Our beloved Derry Girls and “the wee English fella.”

I, for one, am indebted to Derry Girls writer and creator Lisa McGee — who’s from Derry, Northern Ireland — for bringing this delightful, hilarious programme into the world. Not only does it shine a light on daily life in an era of history that many people from the “mainland” of Britain might not know very much about, and that’s rarely discussed here, but it also captures the spirit and humour of the people who lived through it. 

Watching Erin’s family chatting to one another and cracking jokes, I laughed, cried, and felt sharp pangs of nostalgia for the summer holidays I spent visiting my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins “back home” in the ’90s and ’00s. In Erin’s family, I saw my own family. And, for that reason, I’m completely hooked. 

Now streaming on Netflix in the U.S. and on Channel 4 in the UK, the second series of Derry Girls will be gracing our TV screens in the spring. Frankly, if you haven’t got round to watching it, then you jolly well need to get your act together.

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