Image courtesy of Netflix
“Whatever you do, don’t slag off the Pope. We’re outnumbered!”
This line comes from an episode of Derry Girls. You may have noticed it trending on Netflix lately. Originally on Channel 4 in the U.K., “Derry Girls” follows the hilarious antics of five awkward and often misguided teens as they try to navigate the universal struggles of teen-dom. But against the not-so-universal backdrop of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Snappy one liners juxtaposed with armed sectarian conflict. All set to an amazing soundtrack of all your early nineties favorites.
One of the things that struck me during the years I spent researching for my debut Young Adult novel All the Walls of Belfast, set in post-Troubles Belfast, and Derry Girls is the tribalistic concept of identity and how it divides. Clive, the wee Protestant from East Belfast surrounded by Catholics, captures a deep-rooted them-versus-us fear well in that snappy bit of dialogue as he warns a suspected fellow Protestant against busting out the Protestant joke book.
Think the growing division in the United States between Democrats and Republicans, but to a whole new level; imagine physical walls between Democrat and Republican neighborhoods. And add in thirty years of sectarian bloodshed and hundreds of years of systematic oppression and violence by one group against the other.
The Troubles was not about religious beliefs. It was about history and ethnic/cultural identity. In the early 1600s , the King of England used Protestant Scottish and English people loyal to the Crown to colonize what is now Northern Ireland. He gave them lands belonging to local Irish Catholics resisting the Crown. Boiled down simply and speaking generally, Protestants see themselves as British and Loyalist or Unionist and wish for Northern Ireland to stay in the United Kingdom. Catholics see themselves as Irish and Republican (no affiliation to American Republicans) or Nationalist and are more likely to want a united Ireland free of British rule. In Northern Ireland today, the main political parties are still Unionist (Protestant affiliated) or Republican (Catholic affiliated).
The Troubles lasted from 1968 until 1998. Over 3600 people were killed and many more were injured. It began during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, after attempts at peaceful protest demanding equal rights for Catholics (“one man, one vote,” protection from job discrimination, access to equal resources such as quality housing) were met with violence on behalf of the British government and the mostly Protestant police force. At first, most of the violence on the Catholic side was in defense of their neighborhoods, which were under siege following the unrest. From there, the Provisional Irish Republican Army launched an armed campaign to force concessions around civil rights and to get a united Ireland. Protestant Loyalist paramilitaries took up arms out of fears of a united Ireland.
Derry Girls is told through the Catholic lens, but it’s really more about people trying to live normal lives as the sectarian conflict rages in the background. It highlights how normalized things like bombs being planted down the street and British soldiers searching your school bus with massive guns can become.
The first ten seconds Derry Girls brilliantly captures the conflict of identity: an armored British military car drives past two boys spray painting over the “London” part of a Londonderry road sign. Londonderry is it’s official name, but it was called Derry until the early 1600s, when the English government changed it to Londonderry to thank a bunch of London investors. Especially during the Troubles, you could tell tribal affiliation based on what a person called it. Catholics called Derry. Protestants called it Londonderry. The conflict of identity comes down even to the name of the city in which Derry Girls takes place.
When I was traveling around the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland researching for All the Walls of Belfast, I was struck by the fact that in the Republic of Ireland road signs called it Derry, but as soon as I crossed the border into Northern Ireland (and switched from kilometers and hour to miles per hour), road signs called it Londonderry.
Let’s go back to making fun of the Pope. Here’s the context. One of the Derry girls, Clare, starts calling into question why they hate Protestants. She decides to wear a Union Jack dress to a party thrown by someone from their all-girls school. Clive, the wayward Protestant from East Belfast, launches himself at Clare, assuming she’s Protestant because of the dress, and warns her they’re surrounded, so don’t say anything that might offend Catholics. Clive has spent days pretending to be Ukrainian, and being led around on a leash, because he’s so terrified these Catholic girls will figure out he’s a “Prod.”
He’d probably never actually talked to a Catholic before. And the Derry girls had probably never really talked to a Protestant either. In the first episode of Derry Girls one of the girls mentioned going to “Friends Across the Barricades,” a cross community program meant to bring Protestant and Catholic kids together.
While traveling and researching for my book, I learned, at least as of seven years ago, it’s not uncommon for people to go their entire childhood without having meaningful interactions with kids from the other side, especially in working class communities. In All the Walls of Belfast, one of the two main characters had never spoken to a Catholic in his eighteen years of life. But beyond not talking, deeply rooted fear and anger toward them can still linger, even in people who were children or not yet born during the Troubles because it’s passed on from one generation to the next.
A fact that shocked me: even though the Troubles have been over for more than twenty years, as of 2015, only 7% of children in Northern Ireland attended religiously integrated schools. The vast majority of Catholic and Protestant children don’t even go to school together. Government agencies track school achievement data by religion like we track by race in the United States.
It makes one think about how easy it is now, especially with social media, to retreat into our echo chambers and vilify the other side as elitist or ignorant or wanting to murder unborn babies or letting school children be slaughtered as a sacrifice to protect gun rights. Us versus them. And not just our politicians. All of us.
Twenty years after the Troubles ended, the vast majority of Northern Ireland has moved on. But there are still 109 peace walls dividing Catholic and Protestant areas in Belfast. During my times in Northern Ireland, I asked people if the walls should come down. The answer from those living around them was pretty much always no. Because they were still afraid of them.
It was these walls that inspired me to write All the Walls of Belfast, a love story about a boy and girl separated by a forty-foot-tall peace wall, and the legacy of their parents’ pasts, long after the Troubles ended.
Seasons 1 and 2 of Derry Girls are currently available on US Netflix. All the Walls of Belfast is available on Barnes & Noble, Amazon, IndieBound, and Book Depository.
Derry Girls Season 1 glossary:
Wain: small child or infant
GCSE: an exam taken after year fourteen (when students are 15 or 16) that determines whether a student can move on to A-Levels, which are usually required to get admitted to university.
College: a name for a kind of high school.
Slag off: making fun of someone; can be good natured.
Class: a good thing
Quid: pounds (money)
Chippy: fish and chip shop
Slabber: a smart ass
Buck: engage in intercourse
Craic (pronounced crack): a good time or good thing
Fruit: derogatory term for a homosexual, used as an insult
Minger: unattractive or repulsive
Balaclavas: ski masks
Fenian: term for Catholics; can be derogatory
Tout: snitch to the authorities
Provo: member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army
Wee RA (pronounced ra) man: member of the IRA
The Free State: Republic of Ireland