Derry Girls isn’t the new Father Ted, it’s better

As you’d expect, emotions ran high for the Derry Girls final. Not only were there the aftermath of the penultimate episode, but a one-year time skip brought the conclusion to coincide with the 1998 public referendum on the Good Friday Agreement. Fact and fiction intertwined in the TV series as Erin and her buddies beckoned a new day for themselves and for Ireland as a whole.

Perhaps inevitably, the final season of Derry Girls drew comparisons to the ’90s show Father Ted. After all, both are Irish comedies commissioned by Channel 4, using a small community of broad clichés for social commentary and well-meaning jokes about life before the internet.

But after that, the similarities grow tenuous, and when viewed individually, each represents something very different. Not just in their characters and backgrounds, but in what they say about life in Ireland, our culture and our place in the broader zeitgeist. Father Ted, for all his tea-sipping memories of church life, takes a somewhat regressive view of the Emerald Isle, while Derry Girls finds hope in our troubled history and urges others to get to know the land better.

If you lived in the UK or Ireland in the mid 90’s you know that Father Ted was an institution. The eponymous priest and his fellow churchmates on Craggy Island were top TVs, each episode better than the last for wacky humor and sly one-liners, all through a prism of rural life that was earnest and gentle understated.

Across three seasons and a Christmas special, it was a weekly program that garnered enough praise to make the Pope blush. The DVD box set was like a piece of furniture, although the syndication meant it wasn’t strictly necessary for a repeat. A casual mention of a specific scene would inevitably lead to a highlight reel: Father Dougal at the fairground, the “Careful Now” protests, Mrs. Doyle’s back problems, or the priests getting lost in a lingerie department.

Crossing what felt like distinctly Irish tropes with actual production value seemed brilliant. There was a village on one of the big channels on TV that many of us lived in or knew about – wow!

Dermot Morgan and Ardal O'Hanlon in Father Ted

In retrospect, Father Ted may have accomplished more bad than good. The broadly drawn caricatures and isolated setting portrayed Ireland as old-fashioned, sparsely populated by communities for which the local church remained the lynchpin. Businesses are run by married couples who tease each other, weekend excitement reduced to seedy singing contests and rusty Class Z carnivals, and modernity is rejected because people “like misery.”

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There is some truth to all of this – one cannot argue that Father Ted is not an informed opinion – but there is a difference between being laughed at and being laughed at. The choices Father Ted makes contributed to stereotypes that Ireland is trying to shake up in mainstream entertainment, where we’re still defined by Catholicism and conservative values, and dressing up to appear quaint.

A clear line can be drawn between Father Ted’s rustic simplicity and Westmeath as a pastoral theme park attraction in 2020’s Wild Mountain Thyme. Ireland is less celebrated than commodified and pushed to appeal to outsiders all looking to validate their preconceived notions. A cynicism belies Father Ted, who goes beyond his satire of the priesthood of who and what Ireland is on a global stage.

Derry girls season 3

Derry Girls is decidedly more contemporary and youthful. The focus on several teenage friends already removes it from the weary pessimism of some bored clergymen, and the use of the titular Northern Ireland city demonstrates a contrasting experience to the coastal islands.

Derry was still mired in the Troubles, a protracted, bloody dispute between loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in Britain and nationalists who wanted a united Ireland. So much is part of the show’s fabric, but life there was an opportunity nonetheless

Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and James are no more resentful about home than your typical high schooler who can’t wait to get away from Mom and Dad. Erin’s parents oversee a crowded home they share with some of Quin and McCool’s in-laws. It is imperfect and often tiring, but simply loving.

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Creator Lisa McGee’s portrait of Northern Ireland in the 1990s is culturally awake. They go to video stores to rent films and give clear instructions. James considers himself a filmmaker and wields a handheld camera for an emerging vlog, while Erin is obsessed with literature. The premise of the penultimate episode involves a very sold out concert by Fatboy Slim.

Derry Girls Season 3 Fatboy Slim Concert

Things happen. The country is not sleepy or gloomy. Religious pervasiveness is still there – the girls attend a Catholic school run by a nun – but it is clearly losing its grip on body politics. Adult homosexual activity was legalized in Northern Ireland in 1981, 12 years before a referendum on it in the Republic.

There is an unashamed faith in Derry Girls in Northern Ireland, its people and the island as a whole. The ribs and punch lines aren’t as mean, and don’t easily suggest that we have no clue or interest in joining the wider world. The final episode, “The Agreement,” centers on the 1998 vote for the Good Friday Agreement, a historic political accord that would result in a truce between unionists and Republicans, who had engaged in violent warfare for decades.

Northern and Southern Ireland took part in the vote and the uncertainty is thematically related to the group’s upcoming jump to college. What would happen? Could things actually get better? Joe, Erin’s grandfather, can’t promise her it will change anything, but it’s an opportunity to try.

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That’s a worthy description of Derry Girls: it may not change Ireland’s place in the grand scheme of things, but like Normal People and horror films like Extra Ordinary, it makes an attempt. That’s not necessarily despite Father Ted either; Derry Girls paid tribute to the critically acclaimed Eurovision episode with a hilarious, banging song contest.

The collective Quinn-McCool family exits their polling station together in a poignant image to conclude the series. Joe walks hand in hand with his granddaughter. Our past and future held together by the present. Derry Girls embraces history, reimagining it to add more nuance to the here and now and, if lucky, provide more clarity for tomorrow.

It may not achieve everything, but Derry Girls tried, which is more than I can say about Father Ted. Derry Girls isn’t the new Father Ted, it’s better

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