The spirit of “Derry Girls” lives in Jamie-Lee O’Donnell’s “The Real Derry”

Photograph Courtesy Channel 4  

The Real Derry.  Really? The first thing, Brian, is not to get too intense. The second is to resist abandoning all critical faculties. Jamie Lee is a great kid- sorry, young woman, as good a talker as her fictional self Michelle and  a little less foul mouthed. That didn’t stop her old teacher greeting her warmly.   The third is to admit I know very little about the very different home town of today.

In Derry Girls we’re talking about a world beater.  A place in recovery played as farce has struck a chord all over the world. That may say as much about today’s world as about the wee bit of it that’s Derry.  Or maybe we’re not so isolated in ways good and bad after all.

The huge Bogside murals of the Troubles offer no escape from history. Tellingly perhaps they do not appear in the film.  Their impact on the environment is eased by a new one of “Derry Girls,” proclaiming  a source of local pride and suggesting a very different experience.

The claim of the title pitches it a bit high for Jamie -Lee O ‘Donnell‘s film. In many ways The Real Derry is a toned down documentary version of the comedy. The treatment and her own inclination protected her from too much historical introspection. But the keystone was inevitable, book-ended with the fatal shooting of Lyra McKee.

“To understand we have to go back in history – to 30th January 1972.” There were civil rights protests and then British paratroops shot dead 14 innocent people. History. So it is and so they did.  Jamie- Lee was in Derry to take part on a memorial event in the Playhouse, reading out victims’ names, “the most important event in my life. “.

And yet her real Derry is as apolitical as it’s possible to be.  This was Derry without the IRA and the Catholic Church. “History” for Jamie Lee is a sort of given to which we pay our respects and then move on. With 32% of Derry and Strabane’s population aged 25 or under, it feels dominated by the culture of youth and the aspiring young.

Of course in principle  she laments the continuing sectarian split although awareness of it in Creggan ,can hardly have figured much in her upbringing  . Here for the film was the obligatory first encounter in ethnic mode; band practice in the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall, a literal stone’s throw away from the Bogside inside the city walls, a grand Scottish baronial building she had never presumed to enter before. She throws out a question: “What do you think of Bloody Sunday? “and is met with silence. The Irish Times reviewer fastened on this as the film’s revelation.

But it’s 10 seconds of silence halfway through that feels like the real moment of truth. Visiting the practice rooms of a loyalist marching band—“Do you know any Wolfe Tones?” she jokes by way of breaking the ice—O’Donnell canvasses views of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Nobody responds. The air crackles with hostility. The usually chatty O’Donnell doesn’t know what to say. Is she about to burst into tears?

“I was really shocked,” she whispers afterwards. “I didn’t anticipate a reaction different to mine.”

I think the reviewer gets it wrong. Hostility?   I saw embarrassment .  Perhaps we see what we want to see . How would a Catholic feel if Bloody Friday was sprung at them on camera?   The searing topics require a different set- up to elicit meaningful responses.   Jamie- Lee’s surprise was clearly innocent. She wasn’t  trying to make a critical point about Protestants.

So what involves Jamie Lee in the home town she will grow apart from more and more as her career develops? A powerful nostalgia and burning loyalty certainly.  The condition of those she spoke too were all women, roughly contemporaries and pathfinders like herself.  We learned how one coped with her depression by joining a club of cold water swimmers at dead of winter in the Swilly. “Might be good for my anxiety, “said Jamie – Lee doubtfully at first, but she gamely joined in. Another who was going to Leeds to learn counselling and promote wellbeing back home in Derry with its high suicide rate.  The young Protestant woman she persuaded to watch the St Patrick’s Day parade for the first time enjoyed the experience, far more colourful than the annual  Apprentice Boys’ celebrations of the Closing of the Gates and the Relief of the siege along the same route. A pity Jamie-Lee wasn’t  present for one of them.     (Bread and circuses play big part in Derry public life; the budget has just been cut).

Over everything lies  the inevitable contradiction; the drift away of the young from the greatest wee place in the world where the future is nevertheless definitely bright.

That bright future is surely Jamie Lee’s, luckier and more talented  than most. But she is also authentic, rooted and warm spirited, with the bounding energy and optimism in the face of life’s ordinary adversities that made Derry Girls so infectious. And such a relief  she presented a Derry  emerging from the enclosed cauldron of the Troubles, willing and eager to join  the wider world.



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