The History Behind “Derry Girls”: The Troubles and Bloody Sunday

The final season of Derry Girls aired in the UK and Ireland this spring, and finally arrives on Netflix in the U.S. today. While the show is nominally about five teens who make up the Derry Girls gang and their families — and how much of a timeless banger “Dreams” by the Cranberries is — it’s also set against the backdrop of the Troubles.

The Troubles was a period roughly spanning from 1968 to 1998, though its political roots go back much further, and its ramifications are far from resolved. Ready for a brief Irish history lesson?

Ireland was England’s first colony, with the Normans arriving in the 1100s and Protestant settlers arriving in Ireland in the 1600s. British Protestants became the ruling class, and the Irish, who were at the time majority Catholic, were colonized. As an Irish American, I was raised hearing stories about how our family struggled as Catholics in Northern Ireland, leading my grandmother to emigrate here to the U.S. — a common tale, one connected to the trope of the 19th century potato famine migrant. (While a famine did play a role in mass Irish migration to the U.S., that famine was a result of colonialism, which had forced Irish peasant farmers to produce potatoes for English and Anglo-Irish landowners, exposing them to crop failure resulting in mass starvation.)

Courtesy of Netflix

In 1922, after centuries of struggle between Irish political factions and the British, the Irish Free State was established; and the Republic of Ireland was established in 1949. However, the British retained control of the six counties that now make up Northern Ireland. Sectarian tensions between British-aligned “Loyalists,” who were generally Protestant, and Irish-aligned “Republicans,” generally Catholics, continued throughout the century, leading to the Troubles.

Derry, the location of Derry Girls — officially called Londonderry by the British and by loyalists — had a significant role in the Troubles, as the site of Bloody Sunday in 1972. You might’ve heard of the U.S.’s Bloody Sunday in 1965, the famous incident where John Lewis and other civil rights marchers were attacked by state police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge walking from Selma, Alabama to the capital of Montgomery. However, the Irish Bloody Sunday was, for example, the subject of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” On the day of, during a civil rights protest march led by Catholics, British soldiers shot 26 civilians, killing 14, in what was the deadliest mass shooting of the era. The day went on to become one of the most defining ones in the Troubles.

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