Derry Girls: Dancing on the Walls - a personal reflection

Local woman Brid McGinley reflects on living in Derry during the Troubles and the importance of the peace process after watching the Derry Girls finale.

By Brid McGinley
Saturday, 11th June 2022, 9:05 am
Updated Saturday, 11th June 2022, 9:15 am

It was 1981, early morning, I was on my way to work. The barricade across the road was usually unmanned but that day a man in a balaclava stood on the grassy bank above the footpath.

The man motioned me on, and I eased my car onto the footpath, rounded the barricade. Could this be real? I’d been living in Derry for a year, crossed checkpoints and barricades, been searched, endured bomb scares, heard muffled explosions. At times I’d diverted to Strabane in order to get home to the Waterside if the bridge was blocked. But this was a normal day.

I was on my way to Buncrana, on my usual detour via the Letterkenny Road to avoid the city streets. The barricade, a chaotic pile of planks and wire and discarded furniture, had appeared near the junction with the Lone Moor Road some time previously. The hunger strikes had stretched the tension, days stretched like weeks. The city was taut, at breaking point, ubiquitous black flags, standoffs. But I still had to get to work, every day leaving my daughter at the childminder, crossing the bridge, negotiating the obstructions, then the border, cursory searches, jaded questions.

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Brid McGinley shared her experience after watching the Derry Girls finale.

But that morning was different. A gunman watched me, green combats, black balaclava, a rifle held nonchalantly across his body. Seeing him was a surprise, but I felt no threat. I was brought up in a border town, I was used to checkpoints and searches, to young men who had power over me, who could be gruff and dismissive, some who flirted while hugging the barrel of their guns. But I’d always been able to go ‘home’, go somewhere safe. Now ‘home’ was Derry. All the border areas were closely in tune with what was happening in the North, felt its pulse and twang. And the months of tension during the hunger strikes were felt acutely. That day as I rounded the barricade under the eye of the bored gunman, I felt abandoned. Where was my government? Where was there someone to speak for me? To look after my interests? How was it that a lone paramilitary on a barricade came closest to that?

A year and many excruciating deaths later, when things settled back to a more routine level of tension, my husband got a job in rural Co Derry. Now with a second child, we brought my visiting parents to view a house in the countryside, a comfortable family home, fertile fields all round, market towns nearby. Impressed by the house and excited about our prospects, on the way home we encountered an army/UDR patrol. And this time there was another man, another gun slung across his body. He leaned in, asked where we going.

‘Home,’ my husband said in his broad Galway accent, ‘Derry.’

‘What part of Londonderry, sir?’

Orla McCool (Louisa Clare Harland) and Irish dancers. (Peter Marley)

The gun seemed to grow large on his chest.

The next weekend my husband went on a mission and found a similar job in Donegal. We went home.

Last night, I watched the finale of Derry Girls. Orla dances on the walls, steps through the streets, faces a man with a gun; he moves out of her way.

Had we stayed, my daughter would have been a Derry girl. She would have lived her teenage years negotiating the normal difficulties of growing up, pitched against the background of sectarian conflict.

(L-R)Orla McCool (Louisa Clare Harland), (James Maguire (Dylan Llewellyn), DEIRDRE MALLON (Amelia Crowley),Clare Devlin (Nicola Coughlan) , Sarah Mccool (Kathy Kiera Clarke),Erin Quinn (Saoirse Monica Jackson), Michelle Mallon (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell), Mary Quinn (Tara Lynne Oâ€TMNeill), Gerry Quinn (Tommy Tiernan), Cara (Darcey McNeeley), Granda Joe (Ian McElhinney), Gerladine Devlin (Philippa Dunne). Photo: Peter Marley.

We had a choice and we moved. Those who stayed, those communities abandoned in the 1980s chose to grind out a peace that had seemed impossible. It took incredible vision, work, stamina, and belief. There is a remarkable sense of community, of sharing, of humour, of love, and pride in the people of Derry. Still waiting for the dividend, the jobs, the university, the city fights on for its people. In peace.

Back in the early 1980s, those gunmen sparked my despair. This most unlikely and fragile peace must now be supported. The GFA must be protected.

Watch Derry Girls and watch it again; those exuberant, complicated, joyous young women made us laugh and made us cry. They validate our memories, and they give us hope. In peace we rise together.