15 Meaningful Quotes from “Derry Girls”: A Looking Glass into Irish History

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Created and written by Lisa McGee, Derry Girls is an angst-ridden, two-season-spanning (for now) British sitcom following four girls and a wee English lad juggling their teenage lives while facing the bomb scares, political divisions, and religious segregation of Derry, Northern Ireland, in the 1990s. Filmed in modern-day, but set in the noughties, the series looks back into the bloody, fractured history of a divided Ireland under the existence of the Troubles; clusters of British soldiers patrol the streets, whilst news outlets broadcast the latest conflict dealings during dinnertime. The 90s soundtrack of Derry Girls punctuates the nostalgia and aesthetics of a decade long gone, but the heaviness of the Troubles still weighs down the show, offering a sometimes in-the-background perspective of the conflict that revolves around the hyperfocused, genuine friendships of this fivesome. Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle, and James try to make sense of a Derry that, in their mindsets, is merely a speck of a lonely, complicated existence, later becoming the very essence of Irish history.

So, here are 15 meaningful quotes from Derry Girls that’ll give you a looking glass into Irish history.

1. Ma Mary: “Do you hear this? This’ll be someone she met at that stupid summer scheme you insisted we send her on. Her bloody ‘Friends Across the Barricades’ thing. I have nothing against Protestants, I’m all for integration, I am, but if they’re letting their weans divorce them?” (Season 1, Episode 1)

2. Erin: “Macaulay Culkin isn’t a Protestant, ma!” (Season 1, Episode 1)

This Home AloneDerry Girls crossover might not be historical to Ireland, but the implicit meaning behind Ma Mary’s misinformation on who Macaulay Culkin is and that his “divorce” from his parents is exemplary of Protestantism is a bit tone-deaf, but also reminiscent of Irish Catholic mothers with no sense of popular culture. In Catholicism, especially Catholicism in the 1990s (and, most specifically, during the Troubles in Northern Ireland), divorce is extremely frowned upon. And, to conjoin “divorce” with “emancipation” is a fear felt by every Irish Catholic mammy. No chance the weans of Irish Catholic mothers will be leaving the nest anytime soon – not like the Protestant weans!

3. Aunt Sarah: “Sure, I’ll not get over the bridge at this rate. It’s going to play havoc with my build-up. This is what they want. They want ordinary people to suffer. This is what it’s all about.” (Season 1, Episode 1)

During the Troubles, bomb scares and actual bombs were all the rage in the North that it became normalized in everyday life. Aunt Sarah is not afraid of the bomb because she’s become so desensitised to the very idea of a real bomb.

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4. Orla: “Why’s he making that funny noise?” / Michelle: “He’s English, Orla! That’s the way they talk.” (Season 1, Episode 1)

This is quite the Northern Irish joke that is almost entirely self-explanatory. The Brits, unless they were part of the army or the Royal Family, rarely stepped foot in the North. If a Brit did step into Northern Ireland, the English accent would stick out like a sore thumb. James, a Londoner, would no doubt struggle to fit in a country that is considered the enemy. Orla’s lighthearted (but a bit ignorant) question just fuels the divisions between England and Ireland merely on the grounds of an accent.

5. Michelle: “Nobody actually gets expelled. Rhonda Gallagher hasn’t even been expelled and she’s in the IRA.” / Erin: “I’d say that’s probably why.” (Season 1, Episode 1)

The Irish Republic Army, or IRA, was established in 1919 to halt British rule in Northern Ireland using armed forces; they aimed to fight for independence to reunify the North with the republic. As mentioned in History, “in 1969, demanding British withdrawal from Northern Ireland but differing on tactics, the IRA split into two factions: officials and provisionals. Officials sought independence through peace, while the provisionals used violence to further its efforts, which resulted in an estimated 1,800 deaths.” The Provisional IRA waged an increasingly violent campaign, causing the British Army to retaliate, which led to the Troubles.

Michelle’s blanket statement that Rhonda Gallagher is the IRA is, in fact, alarming, but, during the Troubles, it isn’t necessarily bizarre. Erin’s response that Rhonda hasn’t been expelled because she’s in the IRA goes to show the fear people of the North felt to even stand up against this organization that was meant to unify, not create a deeper wedge, in Northern Ireland.

6. Deidre Mallon: “Sorry I’m late, Sister. Couldn’t get over the bridge. This bloody bomb. I begged the Brits to let me take my chances, but the awkward bastards made me go the long way.” (Season 1, Episode 1)

Like Aunt Sarah, Deidre Mallon also blames the bomb for interfering with normal lives. However, she mentions she interacts with the Brits, but the “bastards” made her go the long way home. Armed British soldiers manned the street checkpoints, as Operation Banner – a 38-year-long British military operation in Northern Ireland as part of the Troubles – was installed. This operation turned out to be the longest continuous deployment in British military history. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to have the British soldiers search vehicles with loaded weapons, holding up the line. Therefore, with Deidre Mallon’s quotation, it really wasn’t surprising to know the British army didn’t let her through the “shortcut” and made her take the backroads.

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7. Clare: “We’re still on William of Orange! We haven’t so much as looked at the famine.” / Michelle: “‘We’ve got the gist. They ran out of spuds. Everyone was raging.” (Season 1, Episode 3)

From an outsider’s perspective, the total summation of Irish history boils down to the Great Famine of 1845, also known more loosely as the Irish Holocaust or plainly the Famine. The Great Famine is not to be downplayed; the potato blight, which infected potato crops all throughout Europe, caused rampant disease and eventual deaths (upwards 1 million) that was further exacerbated by the British Whig government’s economic policy of laissez-faire capitalism. So, in Clare’s frustration of not having managed to study the Great Famine, Michelle swats away Clare’s fears by understating the historical event, saying all Clare has to know is that “they ran out of spuds.” 

8. Michelle: “Clive is a wee prod from east Belfast. Clive came back from Ibiza, got on the wrong bus at Aldergrove airport then fell asleep. Clive woke up in Derry surrounded by Russians and Fenians.” (Season 1, Episode 4)

Michelle’s speech contains two seemingly derogatory terms. “Prod” is short for “Protestant,” and it was/is often used by Catholics to speak negatively of the Protestants. As for “Fenians,” it stands for “a member of an association of Irishmen known as the Fenian Brotherhood, founded in New York in 1857, with a view to secure the independence of Ireland.” This term has been turned into a religious slur by Protestants towards Irish Catholics. Michelle using “Fenians” is a bit like a reclaiming of the slur and turning it into a sense of pride, which is what Derry Girls aims to be as a series representing the Catholics of Northern Ireland.

9. Erin: “You can’t marry an Orangeman, Michelle!” (Season 1, Episode 5)

An Orangeman is “a member of the Orange Order, a Protestant political society in Northern Ireland.” So, Erin is quite right: Michelle, an Irish Catholic, shouldn’t marry an Orangeman because it would be extremely sacrilegious.

10. Ma Mary: “We need to shift ourselves. We’re the last Fenians standing.” / Granda Joe: “Relax, love, we’ve a good two or three hours before the rioting starts.(Season 1, Episode 5)

Once again, Ma Mary mentions “Fenians,” and it’s a takeback of the religious slur and turning it into self-acceptance. Granda Joe mentions they have “a good two or three hours before the rioting starts,” alluding to the IRA’s dependence on violence when caused by the Orangemen.

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11. Ma Mary: “The only crime I ever committed was to be born a Catholic.” (Season 1, Episode 6)

This Derry Girls quotation is also self-explanatory to the max. From a Northerner’s point-of-view, especially that of a Catholic, their religion is often blamed to be “at fault” for roiling tensions with the Protestants and further fueling the Troubles. Ma Mary’s gallows humour of committing a crime in the form of being a Catholic is an internal wish to stop the political and religious divisions between the two.

12. Da Gerry: “They’re rifles! I don’t understand what connection golf clubs, spatulas, or stilts would have to the Irish resistance!” (Season 1, Episode 6)

Like many other Derry Girls’ quotations, this one is just a humorous piss take on ignorance. Of course the IRA graffiti on their side of their house is not a pair of golf clubs or crisscrossing spatulas or even stilts. They’re rifles for God’s sake! Why would the IRA use golf clubs to make a statement?

13. Sister Michael: “Sadly, Sister Patrick has decided to leave us. She’s returning to her missionary work, educating the heathen inhabitants of a primitive and savage place.” / Teacher: “She’s taken a teaching post in Belfast, Sister.” (Season 2, Episode 2)

Ah, the assumption that everyone who lives in a capital city (such as Belfast) is a primitive savage. Sister Michael’s statement is similar to the old-fashioned ideologies of Granda Joe. At this point in time, Belfast was the frontline of the Troubles, meaning rioting became the happenstance.

14. Granda Joe: “Belfast! Sure, why don’t you just sell the wains into white slavery and be done with it?” (Season 2, Episode 3)

Know a relative that has never stepped foot outside of Derry? Well, Granda Joe is a fictional representation of them all. Pair a boomer with old-fashioned thinking and hometown roots, and you’ll have Granda Joe, who can’t wrap his mind around why these Derry girls (and a wee English lad) would ever want to leave Derry for the vices and crises of Belfast? According to Granda Joe, the capital will tear them apart!

15. Sister Michael: “Miss Cheung’s family have recently moved here to Derry so I hope you’ll all make her feel very welcome. It’s bound to be a bit of a culture shock, Mae. Things are done differently in this part of the world. But ‘m sure you’ll soon feel as at home here as you did back in your beloved Donegal.” (Season 2, Episode 5)

And, last but not least, we can’t forget this gem of a joke! Mae Chung is the new girl in Derry, and, if it hasn’t been mentioned enough, she’s Asian. But, while all her features might point towards her being Asian, she’s born and raised in Ireland – in a place known as Donegal. The vast majority of Donegal’s land border is shared with three Northern Irish counties: Londonderry, Tyrone, and Fermanagh. The geographic isolation from the rest of the Republic has led to Donegal maintaining a distinct cultural identity, and it very well could have resulted in Donegal marketing the slogan “up here it’s different.” The girls treat Mae Chung as if she’s just moved here from China. When they are reminded that she’s from Donegal, they still treat her like an exotic foreigner, as Donegal might as well be an entirely different culture to that of Derry…and the rest of Northern Ireland.

Derry Girls has undoubtedly put Northern Ireland on the map for all the right reasons. Not to mention, it’s brought the magnifying glass closer to a small city with a massive history, one that bears its most tumultuous periods in Ireland’s past that is still present to this day. These Derry Girls‘ quotations, although seemingly light-hearted in their portrayal on a television series, are testaments to bringing Irish history into the modern global dialogue, especially in picking up the debris left behind by the Troubles.

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About the author

Melanie Romero

Melanie Romero is a creative writer and college student based in Orange County, California. When she’s not overworking herself to meet a deadline, she can be found drinking an iced chai at her local organic café, making sufganiyot from scratch, or collecting paperbacks.

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