Claire Allan grew up in Derry in the '90s - and attended the same high school depicted in Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls. She looks at how the hit show captures that time and place
The year was 1994. I was 17 - and I was a Derry girl.
Each day I put on my bottle green uniform, got on one of the yellow and cream buses (we called them banana buses) run by the education board, and travelled on the winding country road to the big Catholic grammar school on the outskirts of town.
It was the same school Derry Girls writer Lisa McGee attended, and there are enough nods to our shared educational background to let me know where she has drawn her experiences from to write the Channel 4 hit series.
Just as in Derry Girls, the sight of a boy on school grounds would be a cause of great scandal. And a handsome male teacher/ caretaker/ classroom assistant would find himself the subject of unwanted attention from 1,000 hormonal students.
We had our prefects, just like those portrayed on the TV show. Yes, there were genuinely those who came from money and believed that even in an area as socially deprived as Derry, there were no barriers to stop any of us going on the school trips, be it to France or Bulgaria for the annual ski trip.
Most of us though, were just ordinary teenage girls from working class backgrounds trying to figure out who we were – humiliating ourselves along the way and dealing with our individual traumas.
Was life just like it was as portrayed on screen? To be honest, or at least to be honest with the help of some rose-tinted glasses, it kind of was. I think that’s why so many of us have taken it to our hearts – especially those of us who can see the direct comparisons.
Whispering portraits - and an unusual backdrop
No, I never saw a statue of Mary the Mother of God cry– but at school there was a painting of Our Lady which would spark a scandal at least once a year when someone heard Our Lady speak, or swore they saw her eyes move.
(We later discovered there was direct access to a little door behind where the picture was hanging, that girls would whisper from, no one seemingly bothered that 'Big M' suddenly had a Derry accent).
Derry Girls has already been a hit - with 2.5m viewers (Photo: Channel 4)
And just as in the show we all longed to stand out, but not on our own. Only within the safety net of our group of friends, of course. We weren’t really that brave.
Except in a way we were, because we did all this against a very unusual backdrop. A backdrop wherein you could have an army rifle pointed in your direction by patrolling soldiers. Where bomb-scares, both hoax and real, were a fact of life. Where, in that selfish way all teenagers look at things, sometimes our biggest concern about a bomb scare was whether or not we would get a day off school. (I don’t think we ever did, for the record).
Derry in the early '90s wasn’t as bleak as it was at the height of the Troubles in the '80s, but it was still miles behind the rest of the world. We didn’t have a McDonalds or a Pizza Express. We really did rely on the local fish and chip shop on a Friday night.
'A younger version of myself'
We did hang out on the streets with our friends or in the kitchens of our family homes with our ever present parents, sisters, brothers, extended family and more always there to chip in.
And I suppose like many teenagers of any age and any era, our friends were our whole world.
Where Derry Girls has that extra edge for me is that Lisa McGee has captured the big personalities of my teenage years so well. In every group of friends there was the rebel – the one you were sort of afraid of but admired too. There was the weird one, who seemed to have her head permanently in the clouds. And yes, there was the mousy, permanently terrified and studious one.
Erin Quinn - akin to Claire Allan as a girl (Photo: Channel 4)
And as for the girl always aiming for the stars but never quite getting it right, just like Erin in the show? Well, yes. She was very much a part of my teenage years. She was a younger version of myself.
Set against the soundtrack of my formative years, with my city’s streets in the background, the backdrop of the Troubles present but not overwhelming, Derry Girls has taken what really were the best years of our lives and given us a very healthy dose of nostalgia.
Claire Allan is an Irish Times best-selling novelist. Her debut thriller, Her Name Was Rose, will be published by Avon/Harper Collins in June 2018