As you’d expect, emotions were high for the Derry Girls finale. Not only was there the fallout of the penultimate episode, but a timejump of a year put the conclusion concurrent to the 1998 public referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. Fact and fiction intertwined in the TV series, as Erin and her mates beckoned a new day for themselves, and for Ireland as a whole.
Perhaps inevitably, the last season of Derry Girls drew comparisons to ’90s show Father Ted. After all, they’re both Irish comedies, commissioned by Channel 4, that use a small community of broad stereotypes for social commentary and well-meaning jokes about pre-internet life.
But after that, the similarities grow thin, and when taken on their own merit each represents something quite different. Not only in their characters and backdrops, but in what they say about life in Ireland, our culture, and where we fit in the wider zeitgeist. Father Ted, for all its tea-drinking send-ups of parish living, holds a certain regressive view of the Emerald Isle, whereas Derry Girls finds hope in our troubled history, and beckons others to know the country better.
If you lived in Britain or Ireland around the mid ’90s, you’ll know Father Ted was an institution. The eponymous priest and his parochial housemates on Craggy Island were peak television, each episode better than the last for off-the-wall humour and sly one-liners, all through a prism of rural living that seemed earnest and gently unassuming.
Across three seasons and a Christmas special it was a weekly fixture, earning enough plaudits to make the pope blush. The DVD boxset was like furniture, though syndication meant it wasn’t hugely necessary for a rewatch. An offhand mention of any particular scene would inevitably cause a highlight reel: Father Dougal at the fairground, the “careful now” protests, Mrs Doyle’s back problems, or the priests lost in a women’s lingerie section.
It seemed brilliant, crossing what felt like distinctly Irish tropes with actual production value. There was a village, just like many of us lived in or knew of, on one of the big channels on the telly – wow!
In retrospect, Father Ted may have accomplished more bad than good. The broadly drawn caricatures and isolated setting painted Ireland as old-fashioned, sparsely populated by communities for whom the local church remained the lynchpin. Shops are run by married couples that resent each other, weekend excitement came down to dodgy singing competitions and rusty, Z-grade carnivals, and modernity is rejected because people “like the misery”.
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There’s some truth in all of this – it can’t be argued that Father Ted isn’t an informed view – but there’s a difference in being laughed at, and laughed with. The choices Father Ted makes contributed to stereotypes Ireland struggles to shake in mainstream entertainment, whereby we’re still defined by Catholicism and conservative values, dressed up to seem quaint.
One can draw a straight line between Father Ted’s rustic simplicity, and Westmeath as a pastoral theme park attraction in 2020’s Wild Mountain Thyme. Ireland isn’t so much celebrated as commodified, pushed to be attractive to outsiders who want all their preconceived notions confirmed. A cynicism belies Father Ted that stretches beyond its satire of priesthood to who and what Ireland is on a global stage.
Derry Girls is decidedly more contemporaneous and youthful. The focus on several teenage friends already moves it away from the tired pessimism of some bored clergymen, and using the titular Northern Irish city demonstrates a contrasting experience to the coastal isles.
Derry was still in the throes of the Troubles, a protracted, bloody dispute between loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain within Great Britain and nationalists who sought a united Ireland. As much is part of the fabric of the show, but living there offered possibility nonetheless
Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle, and James don’t resent their home any more than your typical high school students who can’t wait to get away from mammy and daddy. Erin’s parents oversee a crowded home, shared with some in-laws from both the Quin and McCool sides. It’s imperfect and frequently tiring, but plainly loving.
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Creator Lisa McGee’s portrait of ’90s Northern Ireland is culturally awake. They go to video shops to rent films, and make understandable references. James fancies himself a filmmaker, wielding a handheld camera for a nascent vlog, whereas Erin becomes obsessed by literature. The premise of the penultimate episode involves a very sold out Fatboy Slim concert.
Things are happening. The country isn’t sleepy or dim. Religious ubiquity is still present – the girls attend a Catholic school run by a nun – but it’s clearly losing its grip on the body politic. Homosexual activity between adults was legalised in Northern Ireland in 1981, 12 years before a referendum on the same in the republic.
There’s an unashamed confidence to Derry Girls, in Northern Ireland, its population, and the island as a whole. The ribs and punchlines aren’t as mean-spirited, and don’t so readily suggest we’ve no clue or interest in joining the wider world. The final episode, ‘The Agreement’, takes place around voting for The Good Friday Agreement in 1998, a historic political agreement that would lead to a ceasefire between unionists and republicans, who’d been engaged in violent warfare for decades.
Ireland north and south took part in the vote, and the uncertainty is thematically linked to the group’s oncoming jump to college. What would happen? Could things actually improve? Joe, Erin’s grandfather, can’t promise her it’ll change anything, but it presents an opportunity to try.
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Such is a worthy description of Derry Girls: it mightn’t change Ireland’s standing in the grand scheme of things, but like Normal People, and horror movies such as Extra Ordinary, it makes an attempt. This isn’t necessarily in spite of Father Ted, either; Derry Girls paid tribute to the much-memed Eurovision episode with a hilarious, totally cringey song contest all its own.
In a stirring image to close the series, the collective Quinn-McCool family leaves their polling station together. Joe’s walking hand-in-hand with his granddaughter. Our past and future, held together by the present. Derry Girls embraces history by reframing it, to give more nuance in the here and now, and with any luck, grant more clarity for tomorrow.
It mightn’t accomplish all of that, but Derry Girls tried, which is more than I can say about Father Ted.