By Ruth Foster
On the 4th of January 2018, Channel 4 graced our screens with Derry Girls. Described by Channel 4 as a “new candid and family-centred comedy set during The Troubles in Northern Ireland”, the series presents the ordinary life of teenagers during possibly one of the least comedic locations in recent history – the city of Derry, (“or Londonderry, depending on your persuasion”, Erin Quinn, played by Saoirse-Monica Jackson, explains).
Through presenting the conflict as the background to this coming of age story, Derry Girls presents some of the best aspects of both Northern Ireland and the 1990s, from a nostalgic soundtrack to the chippie order to characteristic black humour. The success of the series comes from its entertainment and educational value about life in Northern Ireland to a British audience. It exemplifies the generally accepted attitude that you “just get on with it”, even if a bomb scare is blocking your path. This attitude is summarised by a quote from the first episode: “How long does it take to diffuse a fecking bomb anyway, sure the wee robots do all the work!”.
Set in the early 1990s, the characters in Derry Girls do not yet know of the peace process and eventual Good Friday Agreement that was signed in 1998. Two decades on, Northern Ireland is no longer a place of conflict, but the refusal to truly come to terms with the past remains. What the characters of Derry Girls would be aware of is that the 5th of January 1976, in Kingsmill, County Armagh, Northern Ireland, 10 Protestant workmen were murdered in an IRA massacre on their way home from work.
MP for West Tyrone Barry McElduff posted a video on Twitter on the 42nd anniversary of the killings, in which he had a loaf of Kingsmill bread on his head. In a follow up tweet, McElduff apologised for any hurt caused, as many interpreted his tweet as mocking the victims of the Kingsmill Massacre. Although he stated in the same tweet that it was never his intention to offend, McElduff’s actions, which led him to resign from his position as Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone yesterday, exposed some the worst aspects of Northern Irish attitudes to its troubled past.
Further, I apologise for any hurt or offence caused. Never my intention to offend anyone who has suffered grievously.
— Barry McElduff (@BarryMcElduff) January 6, 2018
The success of Derry Girls and Irish dark humour reflects a general culture to use humour as a tool to come to terms with issues that evoke uncomfortable emotions. In a 2014 article, Neil Douglas explained that the Irish deal with things with a sense of humour, even cancer, stating that “in my family, even when my mother was sick and I was scared, we still made jokes”.
In Northern Ireland today, the population recognises how it uses humour to come to terms with the psychological weight of the Troubles. The interpretation of McElduff’s video as mockery reflects the effects of misjudging the use of humour as a tool in a society that is still trying to rebuild after conflict fuelled by a culture of ethno-sectarian division. Whatever McElduff’s true intentions were, this psychological weight means that when humour is misused, emotions are unearthed.
Some of the cast of Derry Girls, a new Channel 4 comedy set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland
In his resignation announcement, Barry McElduff said that he did not want to be a “barrier to reconciliation”. This statement has been welcomed by Sinn Fein’s opponents and lamented by his family and friends, who hoped that his three-month suspension would be enough time for emotions to cool. Derry Girls and the reality of Northern Irish politics teach us that these emotions can take lifetimes to cool. As politicians navigate their way through their twelfth month without a government and its second Secretary of State in eighteen months, it’s difficult to find the funny side of political life in Northern Ireland.
Ruth is a final year undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, originally from Northern Ireland. Her aim in life is to try and make the world a little bit better and care about the right things, which includes (but is in no way limited to) storytelling, politics, culture, and coffee.