Belfast Telegraph

How Derry Girls went global

As well as providing great entertainment, Derry Girls is boosting the city's tourism industry. After the series returned for its second run on Channel 4 last night, Ben Kelly, who is from the city, explains the worldwide hype behind the hit show

Off the wall: Derry Girls cast members Dylan Llewellyn, Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Nicola Coughlan and Louisa Harland visiting the new mural
Off the wall: Derry Girls cast members Dylan Llewellyn, Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Nicola Coughlan and Louisa Harland visiting the new mural

Derry is a city with much to say for itself. Five miles from the border with the Republic of Ireland, and profoundly affected by decades of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it is also renowned for its unique sense of humour.

The city's personality is a patchwork in which the scars of war and social injustice run alongside razor-sharp wit, brutal put-downs and a stream of outrageous anecdotes about local eccentrics.

This juxtaposition was impossible to explain to outsiders who had never visited - until Derry Girls came along.

The hit Channel 4 show follows the misadventures of four teenage girls (and one "wee English fella") facing the everyday challenges of growing up against the backdrop of sectarian conflict.

It is the brainchild of writer Lisa McGee, who based much of it on her formative years at an all-girls school in the city.

"I always wanted to write about my friends and the whole convent school thing because I thought it was hilarious," says McGee.

"The whole backdrop of the Troubles happened very naturally because that was just what was happening."

The first series was a wild comic romp that involved the girls digging up a dead dog and bearing witness to a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping with what turned out to be dog wee.

"It's inspired by real things that happened to my family and friends," says McGee, "but then I push things further for the comedy.

"I always wanted it to have an urban myth quality - that we've all heard these stories, but these girls are the people that those things actually happen to."

When it comes to their representation, the people of Derry can be a discerning lot - something she was all too aware of when putting pen to paper: "I thought to myself, 'This needs to be good, or I'll never be able to go back home again!'.

When the show premiered last year, the response in Derry was unprecedented. From WhatsApp groups to Facebook posts, everyone was pointing out the phrases and scenarios they recognised and the characters people most resembled.

It quickly became the most-watched TV series in Northern Ireland since records began.

A scene from the new series of Derry Girls
A scene from the new series of Derry Girls

"We couldn't have wished for a better response," says Nicola Coughlan, who plays the ever-anxious Clare.

"I said to the others beforehand, 'Derry people are very honest. If they don't like our show, they'll let us know'. But they are so proud of it and they treat us so well."

The success continued over the Christmas period when the show received an international rollout on Netflix. Across review sites and social media, new fans were drawn in by the familiar sight of awkward teenagers embarrassing themselves. Derry Girls had truly gone global.

While the Troubles might not be widely understood in far-flung countries, the setting struck some unexpected chords.

Coughlan recalls one of many comments she received about the show on Twitter.

"I got a message from a girl who grew up in Kashmir, and she said, 'This is exactly what it was like for me growing up in a political divide'," she says.

"I hadn't thought it would resonate like that - I just thought that was amazing."

The cast say that while they expected it to do well in Ireland, they were unsure of how well it would translate, having been so faithful to Derry's niche sense of humour; from put-downs like 'dose' (basically, a person who's a pain in the neck) and 's**te the tights' (a nervous person), to the stresses of ordering from the chippy on a Friday night, or fleeing the town before the marches on July 12.

Louisa Harland, who plays dim-witted Orla, is from Dublin. "Only people from Derry will understand how many in-jokes are littered within it," she says. "There's even one or two that I didn't get. But the thing is, it's so layered. There are jokes for Derry people and then there are jokes for everyone."

More and more people are visiting the city to get in on the joke. Derry's tourism industry has been growing since the turn of the millennium, with many people coming not just to learn about the political history, but to enjoy the nightlife, the annual jazz festival and other treats.

Murals that commemorate key figures and incidents from the Troubles are also a curious part of the attraction. Typically, these reflect on the darker moments of the city's past, but a few weeks ago, the Derry Girls made for a unique new addition.

"It took four and half days to put it up," says Karl Porter, who works with local group UV Arts. "People were coming along to watch, just being curious and nosey. Obviously, we're used to the murals showing our history, but this is about showing a new side. People were pleasantly surprised."

The show’s creator, Lisa McGee
The show’s creator, Lisa McGee

Pictures were going viral even before it was finished, and already it has become a new tourist attraction.

The actors say when they came to see themselves immortalised for the first time, it took their breath away.

Ruairi O'Heara runs Tours of Derry, which takes visitors on walks around the city's historic walls and town centre. He has been taken aback by the interest from foreign tourists.

"Last week I had a group of 50 or 60 kids from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, and the first thing they said to me was, 'Where's the Derry Girls mural?' I couldn't believe it. There's been about seven other groups now asking the same thing, gap year students from the US, from Spain, all over."

O'Heara says this fits in with a new phenomenon of screen production tourism, enjoyed where Game of Thrones is filmed in Belfast and at locations across the island which are featured in the Star Wars franchise.

Now, just weeks after the new mural was painted, it seems no one can visit Derry without a selfie in front of it. This tribute to Derry Girls stirs a local pride that runs deeper than mere enjoyment of the show.

For many, it's a reminder of the crucial role women played during the city's troubled past.

Saoirse-Monica Jackson, who stars as the lead character, Erin, says this is the very essence of the show.

"It was the women who were keeping the families going through those years, working in the shirt factories and keeping the house - it was bred down through the generations," she stresses.

"Derry women are strong. They know what they want, they're sassy, courageous, brave, and they look after each other, but they'll let you know when you've got above your station too. It's a sisterhood."

The beauty of Derry Girls is that it doesn't attempt to show a positive side of the city in isolation from, or in contrast to, the violence of the past. Instead, it shows comedy as a coping mechanism that carried people through repeated hardships. In writing the show, Lisa McGee says this became all the more evident to her.

"It's so impressive when you look back and think what our families protected us from and lived through and coped with, and what became normal," she explains. "I think the fearlessness and the humour that we dealt with is so admirable."

"It feels like everyone's show. Everyone is so proud of it. Derry people are great, funny, interesting people. There's more to us than our history - we have other stories to tell."

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