Warning! Spoilers ahead for Derry Girls season 3 finale.
Sometimes sad times in our lives provide unexpected moments of acute humour. I’m thinking of that uncontrollable laughter you only get while wiping away tears.
I cried watching the last episode of Derry Girls. We all knew this day would come (writer and creator Lisa McGee said from the outset that it was always the plan to make three series and be done) but it still stung. It’s not just the laughs I’ll miss though. Since it first aired in 2018, it’s delivered so much more than jokes.
Part of the show’s magic is that it takes something that should be a don’t-go-there topic for humour (the period of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the late ’90s known euphemistically as The Troubles) and makes us laugh the pain away.
One of my favourite scenes takes place back in the seminal first series. Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) is excited when fellow teenager Katya comes to visit from Chernobyl (Ireland was one of the first countries to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Chernobyl, opening its doors to thousands of victims). When try-hard Clare (Nicola Coughlan) attempts to relate to the youth of Ukraine as “a young person from a troubled place”, Katya, an early adopter of dissociative pout, sits on the end of the bed and coldly dissects the highly charged, complex sectarian violence in the North: “It’s not the same. Chernobyl was a terrible nuclear accident, you people like to fight each other and to be honest, I don’t really understand why.” Erin protests, adding that there is both a political and a religious element to the violence, but Katya is not having it. “But you’re not two different religions here – you are two flavours of the same religion, no?” It’s a quintessential Derry Girls moment.
It’s given us a slice of Ireland’s gritty and glorious history alongside the giddiness, glee and ritual humiliations of being a teenager in all its pure, pre-social media glory.
Then there’s the glorious Gerry (Tommy Tiernan) and Aunt Sarah (Kathy Kiera Clarke) scene where Sarah – who we would describe fondly in Ireland as ‘away with the fairies’ – mistakes one of Derry’s iconic political murals for a pair of spatulas. It’s actually a painting of two huge rifles.
On paper, the family-centred comedy set in 1990s Derry didn’t sound like a surefire hit but the show has become a critically acclaimed global success. Some 1.6 million people watched the opening episode of the final series and Ireland.com (Ireland’s tourist board) seized on its popularity by sponsoring the show. But it’s not just warmly received at home; the girls’ appeal is international. Every episode sparks an outpouring of love on social media (as well as memes from its many fan accounts on Twitter) and the love fest has only intensified as the final season comes to a close.
And what a season it’s been, delivering in spades what Derry Girls does best. There was the Line of Duty-esque Liam Neeson cameo, the Spice Girls tribute act and the flashback school reunion show that centred on the mammies’ and daddies’ backstories (so much so that many feel a spinoff show is in order). But it has never flinched from what’s been its backbone and backdrop all along.
In season three, episode three, the family go about their morning while an RTÉ newsreader delivers solemn news about the decommissioning of IRA arms. Ian Paisley’s unmistakable voice booms in the background. It brings you back to one of those knife-edge times for everyone on the island of Ireland, when peace seemed within touching distance. But you can’t really think about all that because Ma Mary and Aunt Sarah are positing their own views on this precarious moment of the peace process, namely that the IRA might have simply misplaced their Semtex, balaclavas and guns. Lisa McGee says her aim was “never to offend”. “I want the show to bring joy, but to be real, so I have to tackle it. I just hope I get the right side of the line,” she said in an interview. And that’s exactly what she does.
Even though it’s set in 1998, the episode couldn’t be more timely now with the ongoing post-Brexit borders debate and fresh questions about what it all means for the fragile peace of Northern Ireland.
It’s fitting that the series draws to a close with an episode that addresses the Good Friday Agreement. Speaking about the final series, McGee said: “What the Good Friday Agreement did for my generation was made to think about things like, ‘Do you think paramilitary prisoners should get out?’ ‘What do you think should happen to the police force?’ ‘Should the army be there?’ These were all big questions that you had to have an opinion on.” For the girls, the Good Friday Agreement means thinking seriously about politics too, taking responsibility and growing up. And even though it’s set in 1998, the episode couldn’t be more timely now with the ongoing post-Brexit borders debate and fresh questions about what it all means for the fragile peace of Northern Ireland.
For people from the north and south of Ireland it’s been a joy to watch familiar family scenes (from long and boring Catholic masses to the threat of the wooden spoon) delivered without the patronising paddywhackery we’ve sadly come to expect (see: Snatch, Leap Year, P.S. I Love You and most recently Wild Mountain Thyme. Oh, and it’s rude not to mention the OG of butchering Irish accents, Far and Away).
Instead, throughout Derry Girls it almost felt like we were getting our own back. The show laughs both at and with the Irish but also rips the English to shreds. Just think of poor James aka “the wee English fella” (played by Dylan Llewellyn). When he arrives in Derry the misanthropic Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney) announces in front of a packed assembly that James will be studying at the all-girls’ school due to fears for his safety at the boys’ school because “unfortunately James is English”. His foul-mouthed cousin Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) repeatedly refers to him as an “English prick”. In one episode, the gang stay up all night studying for their exams. Here even the MOST sensitive of topics in the history of Ireland – the Famine – gets the Derry Girls treatment, when Michelle quips that she knows the gist of the story (“We ran out of spuds, everyone was raging”) before blaming James for the fact that there is so much history to study: “If you lot had stopped invading us there’d be a lot less to wade through, you English prick.”
Derry Girls got the formula right from beginning to end: bucketloads of ’90s nostalgia (all butterfly clips and chokers), a cracking soundtrack (Blue Boy, East 17 and, of course, The Cranberries) and joyful, funny characters. It’s given us a slice of Ireland’s gritty and glorious history alongside the giddiness, glee and ritual humiliations of being a teenager in all its pure, pre-social media glory. Never saccharine or sanctimonious, it celebrates the madness of family and friendship without ever taking itself too seriously and that’s why it will be missed.
The last Halloween-themed episode doesn’t disappoint. Fatboy Slim comes to Derry. “He’s like a modern-day Beethoven,” says Erin. “Except good,” adds Orla (Louisa Harland). It’s got a magnificent Michelle moment, another star turn from the imperious Sister Michael: “Don’t be ridiculous, girls,” she says. “Of course God doesn’t hate you, you’re not interesting enough. I’d say he’d be ambivalent towards you at best, if he even exists.” There is more misfortune for James, a perfect Aunt Sarah mix-up, a lot of growing up for Clare plus more laughs, floods of tears and one hell of an unexpected ending.
As always, Derry Girls delivered just what we needed when we needed it, and part of its perfect timing is knowing when to say goodbye.
The final episode of Derry Girls season three airs on Channel 4 on 17th May. A special extra 45-minute episode will air on 18th May on Channel 4.
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?