'broke my heart' | 

Derry Girls star says hit comedy taught UK public the history of Northern Ireland

Siobhán McSweeney speaks about her views on Sister Michael and the comedy which became global hit

Cork actor Siobhán McSweeney played the part of Sister Michael in the hit conedy Derry Girls, set in the northern city in the years before the Good Friday Agreement

Concubhar Ó LiatháinCorkman

DERRY Girls star Siobhán McSweeney has packed away the habit and nun’s pacostume she wore with such effect during the three series of the hit series, the finalé of which was screened this week, but the character may be gone but it will never be forgotten.

For those just landed from a distant planet, Siobhán played the part of Sister Michael, the intimidating and acerbic head mistress of the Convent school attended by four Derry girls, Erin, Clare, Michelle and Órla as well as James, the wee English lad.

For many the scene stealing turns of Sister Michael as she engaged with her young charges were highlights of three series packed with comedy gold. Derry Girls was written by Lisa McGee from the Maiden City and chronicles her teenage years in the time before the Good Friday Agreement and music by the likes of the Cranberries and the Undertones were the anthems of the era.

But now Sister Michael is retired, Siobhán confirmed, as she reminisced over the series which, it’s fair to say, gave her her biggest break during an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today Show the morning after the Derry Girls finale aired on Channel 4.

The Aherla born and raised actor with strong links to the Múscraí Gaeltacht was on crutches during the filming of the final series as she had broken her leg during the filming of the ITV small screen adaptation of Graham Norton’s novel, Holding, which was produced in west Cork last year.

The Derry Girls, Erin, Clare, Michelle and Órla and James, the wee English lad, arrive at the polling station to cast their votes in the Good Friday Referendum held in May, 1998.

At present Siobhán is appearing in another ITV drama, Redemption, which is being screened on Virgin Media 1.

However the character which drew her to public attention has now been retired. As she told the BBC interviewer:

“I will definitely miss her - she’s been a constant companion of mine for the last five years - and will continue to be a constant companion as people will irrevocably mix me up with that insane nun - she’s gone but I don’t think she’ll be forgotten.”

Her favourite moments from the series, she said, were too numerous to say but she drew attention to some of the scenes from the finale episode, set on the eve of the Good Friday Referendum in May 1998, which she described as ‘beautiful’.

“It’s great to play the comedy but I think the most powerful thing about this show is that it uses comedy for really quite serious messages with historic aspects.

“There were a few scenes in the finale episode with Fr. Peter that broke my heart and continue to break my heart.”

The morning after the final episode aired onco Wednesday of last week, Siobhán woke up to what she said were ‘hundreds and hundreds of messages and at least three quarters of them are ‘Derry Girls taught me more about the history of Northern Ireland and Britain than anything that I had been taught in school.

“If you put aside the absolute disgrace it is that there’s such a gap in the educational system here [in the UK] that they have to look to a comedy to find out about Northern Irish politics that still have an effect today, that it shows how good the medium of comedy can be to spread a message, to spread information.

“The fact of the matter is that, through Channel 4, this is one of Channel 4’s biggest comedies, it nurtured it, it commissioned it, it ensured that it was broadcast into every house that had a television licence last night and that is a free education.

“Not bad for a sit-com, not bad for a laugh.”

The character of Sister Michael wasn’t a natural fit for Siobhán as her view on organised religion is not conformist to say the least.

“I think there’s something absolutely laughable about any organised religion but that’s my own personal take on it. I think when it comes to comedy I think any authority figure is up to be lampooned,” she said.

The escalation of tensions in Northern Ireland leading the to the failure to form a powersharing Executive after the recent election, caused mainlyby the political impasse over the Protocol and Brexit, means the reminder contained in the final episode of those hopeful heady days when the Good Friday Agreement was being ratified by a huge cross comunity majority in the north could not come at a more apt time as far as Siobhán is concerned.

“The timing could not be more apt - I’m going to be very inarticulate about this because I feel that what was meant to be the ending of a sit-com and instead what it shows is how the past is not the past, it’s always with us.

“The Good Friday Agreement was hard won and hard fought for and the people of Northern Ireland voted for it and now it’s in danger of being attacked through ignorance and yet again it goes back to that idea that a sit-com is teaching the people of this country about the history of Northern Ireland.”

She called to mind one of the final scenes when Sister Michael, the Derry Girls, the grown ups, head off at the end to the polling stations, ‘full of tentative hope for peace, for reconciliation, for young people and what their future is and we cut to now and that is in danger and it breaks my heart’.

As the final credits roll, after just three seasons and a bumper finale episode, Derry Girls is likely to join the annals of classic comedy such as Fawlty Towers which left the audience looking for more.

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