Derry Girls, Nostalgia, and the 1990s

Derry Girls, Nostalgia, and the 1990s April 7, 2023

This week my husband and I watched the last episode of Derry Girls. I had watched most of the series when it first came out, but somehow, I had missed this fictionalization of one Northern Ireland family’s participation in the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement. Because it is also serendipitously 25 years this week since the Agreement was signed, I began to think about the way in which the Good Friday Agreement reflected the general mood of the 1990s.

I admit all this remembering is a little bit self-indulgent. I was a young graduate student in 1998, newly married, and still more than a year away from my first research trip to the UK. Eastern bloc countries were joining NATO and the EU after the end of the Cold War, Apartheid was being dealt with through the inspirational Truth and Reconciliation Committees, and the US was experiencing the “peace dividend” with an economic boom, the expansion of the internet and the frequent balancing of the budget during the Clinton presidency. The Good Friday Agreement felt right in line with what we called “The End of History” and the expansion of wealth and freedom for the world.

Of course, this is part complete fiction and part nostalgia-draped reality. The Agreement was in fact an important move forward to the end of violence between the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland, but it is also true that for those of us in the United States who came of age in the 1990s, there was indeed a sense that democracy and economic thriving were going to be the future. We were aware of some general horror going on in Rwanda and the Balkans but assumed these were bumps in the road. Progress was inevitable.

During the Cold War, academics, even historians, operated on the sometimes-unspoken assumption that religion and ethnicity were no longer the primary categories of identity for political violence. In my own graduate program at the University of Chicago, not one of the 50 history faculty studied religion. In order to take courses on religious history or to have mentors helping me with this element of my research, I had to go to the Divinity School. This is of course no longer the case, but in the heady days of the 1990s, mature historians had been mentored to study culture and politics in ways that that effectively ignored faith.

The Good Friday Agreement seemed to affirm this. Three years later, the religious violence we called Political Islam literally smashed into the United States on 9/11 and all this optimism went up in smoke. And yet, for many Christians in the USA, religious or ethnic violence appeared to be something “uncivilized” and applied primarily to those who had not yet embraced the obvious goods of liberal democracy and modern progress. Religious violence was the purvey of “towelheads” and “backwards” folks in South Asia, Africa, and the Islamic world. In the early 2000s, when I was a new faculty member at a small Christian college, I literally had a colleague tell me (when discussing the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo) that she didn’t “understand why those people can’t all see they would just be better off if they didn’t stop fighting.”

In the context of the Irish “Troubles”, religiously shaped identities causing political violence shouldn’t have seemed so strange. Here were Christians killing each other, and yet historical study explained the ways this wasn’t simply about what people believed happened at Communion. The same was true of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, religious violence in Nigeria and Myanmar, and terrorism in the Caucasus region. For folks in the United States who saw religion as something to separate out to the side of politics (and of course there were many who wanted the US to be a Christian nation with Biblical laws, but they were in a minority), such religiously informed nationalism seemed alien and like a regression.

In the meantime, I was studying the development of religious toleration in Great Britain in the 17th century. In fact, I was researching Catholic contributions to the idea of toleration in a Protestant nation with an established church. I grew up in a denomination that was absolutely opposed to the unity of church and state or to the notion of the United States as enforcing Christianity. I was also deeply faithful and my Christianity shaped all of my decisions. I felt out of place in the 1990s in much of academia where few were open about being people who took the supernatural seriously and who engaged in daily Bible study and prayer.

The most upsetting experience I had as a graduate student was when I met one of the British scholars who had most informed my approach to studying early modern toleration and he said: “No one who is actually religious can truly believe in toleration.” I remember feeling like I was going to fall into a hole, with waves of both chagrin and alarm encompassing me.

I believed in the promise of the 1990s: that we could curb religiously based political violence without totally embracing secularism and eschewing the supernatural.  I believed in a sort of progress, even though as an active member of an apocalyptic church I believed that there would be no full breaking in of the Kingdom of the Lamb until the New Earth. And yet, we should still beat swords into plowshares as we worked for the Kingdom that was “among” us. As a young US voter, I also believed in liberal democracy within a radically diverse state. I still do.

The early 2000s were a huge wake up call to the difficulty of this project that I naively embraced in my college years. The young are impatient. Aging has allowed me to embrace the reality learned by so many who have gone before me: the work of crafting the Beloved Community is long and will last much longer than my lifetime.

Derry Girls expresses so much of the simplicity of those days—let’s all just get along and realize how much we have in common and how much we are all suffering and let’s just “stop it.” It was never so straight-forward. And Brexit has made all of the Irish Troubles very real again (though that’s an essay for another time).

Still, as the last episode draws to a close with each member of the cast standing in a voting booth and thinking through their decision about whether to agree to a complicated and morally muddled Agreement, I teared up. We sometimes do need to be reminded that we should give peace a chance, even when it isn’t a lovely black and white decision. We need reminders that sometimes centuries-old hatreds have been overcome—or at least no longer cause regular violence. We need a bit of optimism in our world, a bit more belief that occasionally the limited goods of liberal democracies can provide space to thrive a little bit more.

As someone who spends my life with 18-25-year-olds, I’m here for some sappy positivity. And so, without apology, I’ll end this reflection with the words of the fictional Erin, newly 18 years old and about to vote to ratify the Agreement:

“There’s a part of me that wishes everything could just stay the same. That we could all just stay like this forever. There’s a part of me that doesn’t really want to grow up. I’m not sure I’m ready for it. I’m not sure I’m ready for the world. But things can’t stay the same, and they shouldn’t. No matter how scary it is, we have to move on, and we have to grow up, because things… well, they might just change for the better. So we have to be brave. And if our dreams get broken along the way… we have to make new ones from the pieces.”

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