Lisa McGee's Derry Girls and the young women of Milkman aren't just showing a different side of life during the Troubles. They're claiming space in a world where even dancing is a political statementby Caroline Magennis / March 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
The last scene of the first series of Derry Girls caused a strong reaction. As the young protagonists danced at a school talent show, their families watched news of a paramilitary act—a bomb explosion—at home. There was something about their unselfconscious, spontaneous movement that made the tragedy of the ongoing violence even more shocking. It reminded us that against the narrative of the Troubles, people danced, sang, “acted the maggot.”
In placing music, laughter and dancing at the core of her drama, writer Lisa McGee deftly avoided many of the clichés of Troubles television, which often focuses on the experiences of male paramilitary members. She has also reinserted moments of joy and absurdity into this history—ones that chime with many people’s experiences of life in Northern Ireland. Not all of us have had an argument while perfectly performing Whigfield’s Saturday night, but music and dancing have always been part of Northern Irish people’s lives, whether in public or private.
I am roughly contemporary with the girls of the show and my experiences of Northern Ireland in the 1990s were similarly marked with Take That concerts and the inexplicable ‘Rock the Boat’ dance craze. The world I grew up in was one of Armagh and Tyrone hotels being turned into weekend discos where bouncers would turn a blind eye as long as you didn’t knock into anyone while honing the shapes that would eventually find a home in the Limelight. Going to Queen’s University, Belfast, in 2000 seemed like a wonderland of dancing venues: the metal barriers had come off roads into the city centre and it seemed like a new club night popped up every week. Older friends spoke in hushed tones about Vico’s and the Art College. We couldn’t stop giggling after seeing David Holmes in the local Chinese takeaway. Now, Belfast is an international live music venue, home to festivals and gigs every night.
Derry Girls Michelle, Clare and Erin argue at a House Party before dancing together to “Saturday Night.”
But, as McGee shows us, music and dancing have always been part of Northern Ireland’s beating heart. The film Good Vibrations is a particular joy in this regard. In this film, punk music is a kinetic force that seems to cause involuntary dancing. Stiff Little Fingers’ “Alternative Ulster” begins with a hunt to find a decent nightclub: “There’s nothin’ for…