Derry Girl Jamie-Lee O'Donnell asks flute band if they 'know any Wolfe Tones'

Jamie-Lee takes on Protestants, flute bands and Bloody Sunday in documentary on her home town of Derry

Jamie-Lee O'Donnell in Derry on the peace bridge

Eugene Masterson

"Do you know any Wolfe Tones?" jibes Derry Girls actress Jamie-Lee O'Donnell upon meeting bemused members of a leading Protestant flute band.

The bubbly star arranged to join a rehearsal of the Churchill Flute Band in Derry as part of a new documentary on her home city to be aired by Channel 4, The Real Derry: Jamie-Lee O'Donnell.

Jamie, who plays foul-mouthed schoolgirl Michelle Mallon in the hit TV series, explains that as she was brought up in a Catholic area of the city she had rarely anything to do with Protestants and knew little about their culture.

"Have I ever dated a Protestant? Probably, without realising. Definitely a kiss and a cuddle off a Protestant," she giggles.

Jamie-Lee O'Donnell

The show appears to be aimed at a British audience who may not be aware of the intricacies of the Irish political and religious divide, and Jamie outlines the historical background to the Troubles in the town she loves so well.

"I'm here to meet one of the oldest flute bands in the country, who take part in lots of different events and parades, including the 12th," she explains as she enters the flute band's headquarters in the centre of Derry.

"Something I never thought in a million years I would do, because I thought I'd just walk in and catch flames or something, I dunno.

"As I walk in their weekly practice is well underway. Even hearing this music makes me feel a bit weird."

Jamie admits that when she's nervous she talks a lot.

After her Wolfe Tones joke she announces: "Thank youse for having me. I just want to sort of give a wee chat to youse and just ask youse 'what's all this about'?" One of the girl members of the group, Julie Porter, replies: "You're brought up with it and you do join from an early age, so people come from family members and academia as well. So, parents are happy for them to come in, learn their instruments and become part of the band."

Jamie, who was chosen earlier this year alongside actress Bronagh Gallagher to co-host a major Bloody Sunday 50th anniversary event in the city's Guildhall, then asks the group about their opinion about the massacre.

The horrors of Bloody Sunday

"I also want to ask youse about the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday is coming up and I just want to ask, again, youse don't have to answer, what's your perception of that, would youse be interested in that at all?

"Or is it anything to do with youse or how would you feel about it, if anything? It might be nothing," she asks.

There is deathly silence.

"OK great," she confirms, before quickly changing the subject.

"It was just radio silence," she admitted later. "I'll be honest with you, I was really really shocked because I didn't anticipate a reaction about it different to mine.

"I know that's a wee bit ignorant to me I suppose, but I really didn't expect that level of silence at all. I think I made people really, really uncomfortable and didn't mean to, so we just moved on with the conversation.

"I think I made a couple of awkward jokes, but I just do that, whenever it's awkward, you just have a couple of jokes."

To lighten the mood Jamie asks: "Do you know any Irish jigs, I don't think I know any Irish jigs!"

She's told there a few in the folder, while she picks up a strange object.

"Looks like a wee hot dog," she remarks, only to be told it was a baton.

She then waves the baton as she conducts the band playing Star of the County Down.

"This feels slightly surreal. Here I am conducting a Protestant flute band, surrounded by flags I'd usually run a mile from," she chuckles.

She adds in a serious tone: "Unlike me, many in the Protestant community see themselves as British and are loyal to the crown. But even though we come from very different worlds, everyone in the flute band has been very welcoming to me."

O’Donnell with the cast of Derry Girls

Jamie then meets Julie afterwards in a bar, where they discuss the Protestant background she was raised in.

"A lot of working-class Protestants have problems with education and underachievement, particularly within working-class Protestant boys. There has been an increase in actual use of food banks, so there is a lot of social issues particularly within the Protestant community as well," Julie tells Jamie.

"When you look across the whole city, you see that everybody is facing the same thing. We are failing people who are struggling with mental health issues across Northern Ireland, so something really needs to be done about it."

Jamie describes herself as an "Irish working-class woman" and "a Derry girl born and bred".

She meets up with her fellow Derry Girls colleague Saoirse-Monica Jackson, visits her old St Cecelia's school and the Museum of Free Derry (where she's shown bloodied artefacts from Bloody Sunday) and talks about mental health issues with TikTok star Mammy Banter, whom she later goes sea swimming with.

Jamie comes across breezy and lighthearted for most of the documentary, but becomes serious when talking about Bloody Sunday.

"I would describe Bloody Sunday as a day in Derry history, Irish history, that changed the course of history," she stresses.

"It was a civil rights march, the day people were marching for the rights that they deserved. And the British paratroopers opened fire and murdered 13 people on the day, 14 in total. Innocent, defenceless people."

She tells of how her parents had lessons in school on how to avoid gunfire and bombs when growing up.

Jamie weeps when she explains how her own grandfather marched on Bloody Sunday and that her family knew victims who had been murdered by the soldiers.

"If you grow up in a certain place where you are afraid of the police, it definitely does something to your decisions, how you feel about yourself, if the people who are supposed to protect you and look after you, you are brought up afraid of them and not trusting of them.

"It leaves you a bit lost. It's just f**king overwhelming, and I just think it's really unfair for people, especially for my parents' generation. Looking back as an adult it's very hard not to get really heartbroken by it and you feel devastated for your family.

"Maybe it's no wonder many people think there's a mental health crisis in Derry, something experts recognise as linked to Troubles-related trauma.

"These people are still struggling with the devastation of it, we are still segregated."

The Real Derry: Jamie-Lee O'Donnell, Thursday 10pm on Channel 4.

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