Derry Girls is A Big Damn Deal. Channel 4’s teen comedy series set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland is not only funnier than its premise would suggest, but has become the most successful comedy on the channel this millennium. The show avoids accusations of insensitively mocking a period of political turmoil that’s a little “too soon” with its darkly comedic tone, ingeniously blending humour and heartfelt moments. The eponymous Derry girls have a chemistry that almost every viewer picks up on and warms to, even subconsciously. As well as feeling like actual teenagers with actual adolescent concerns, they feel like real friends. Even the characters perceived as laughing stocks can have some real heart to their storylines, and there’s no better example of this than Clare Devlin.
Sweet, studious, and perpetually nervy, Clare Devlin arguably goes through the most development of the show’s core friendship group. Like honorary Derry girl James, she’s got an easily flappable demeanour that means she’s often a source of comic relief, softening the blow of a politically turbulent backdrop for the show. However, Clare’s done a lot of growing up over the show’s two seasons, with one of her most important lessons being self-advocacy. By Season 2, she’s still a little nervous, in love with the idea of being a rebel but deterred by the consequences if someone catches her in the act, but we’re seeing many more moments of bravery.
The show’s first episode presents Clare as someone with a strong moral compass. She’s the voice of reason who reminds the gang of the school rules when they’re climbing out of windows to escape detention or stealing back their confiscated possessions. This adherence to rules isn’t the only thing that differentiates her from the more rebellious members of her friendship group, though, as Clare is also characterised by a strong desire for social change. Protagonist Erin thinks of herself as a high-minded activist, but it’s Clare who’s most often fighting for a cause. It’s Clare who starts the first episode of the show on a hunger strike to fundraise against poverty, and it’s Clare who risks ridicule by wearing a Union Jack dress to a party as a symbol of peace and unity. Even when her attempts to “send a message” make her a bit of a social pariah, she’s intensely committed to her ideals.
A core inner conflict in Clare’s character is her fear of being weird squaring up against her hatred of injustice, a struggle that’s a lot more believable than the illicit affairs and murder mysteries of your standard teen drama on the CW. Clare Devlin is a teenager in a teen show who actually does schoolwork and does care about her grades, as her caffeine-induced blind panic during the first season’s study sleepover demonstrates. This makes her worries a lot more true to life than what we often saw in the glossy teen dramas of prior decades. One of Derry Girls’ strongest qualities is writer Lisa McGee’s willingness to show adolescence warts and all, with the awkwardness and anxieties and highly strung emotions it’s actually filled with for most of us. McGee has confirmed that a lot of the show’s smaller plotlines are based on her own coming-of-age during the Troubles, lending an authenticity to the wins and the woes of her Derry girls. It’s so easy to suspend your disbelief and really feel the worries of a character like Clare, whose concerns feel real—and as someone who recently left that hellish stage of life, they’re painfully so.
While Derry Girls is often a comedy, its backdrop proves that it’s also capable of providing truly heartfelt moments. The finale of Season 1 is a clear example of this, and it’s Clare’s episode through and through. She’s working on the school newspaper with the gang and they find an entry for the school’s writing competition written by a gay student. When it’s published in the newspaper, their Catholic school is abuzz with questions of who could have written it, but unbeknownst to the rest of the group, it’s Clare. This prompts her to come out to her friends in one of the best scenes for Nicola Coughlan, the actress portraying her. There’s comedy in the coming out scene, but there’s also growth. After describing herself as a lesbian, Clare says, “I’ve never been brave enough to say it out loud before,” and gives a small but steely nod that quietly signals to audiences that she’s allowed to be assured in her identity. I’ve been there, and this scene felt like such an accurate and affirming portrayal of the confidence coming out can give someone. It doesn’t have to be a tragic moment in people’s lives; for me and many other LGBT+ people, asserting who we are to the world can be one of our proudest moments.
Sadly, there’s also heartbreakingly believable disappointment in Clare’s face when the accepting ideals of her friends don’t match up with reality, after which she stops speaking to them. It takes a lot of strength for her to give her closest friends the silent treatment for not treating her with the respect she deserves. Even though their fallout is brief, it’s an assertive moment led by Clare. The reconciliation of the group at the end of the episode is similarly led by Clare standing up for the other girls and, in a moment of real evolution, eschewing her own fears of being judged to keep them company during an embarrassing talent show performance, refusing to let them make fools of themselves alone.
By Season 2, there’s something of a shift in Clare’s character as she embarks on many of her “firsts” in life. The obedient girl we met in Season 1 gets drunk for the first time after meeting a free-spirited English teacher, and attends their school prom with another girl after coming out in the last season. She sneaks out to her first concert with the rest of her friendship group, and despite wearing far too many layers as a disguise and justifying it by saying “I just don’t want anyone recognising me, okay?” in her typical mile-a-minute delivery, she’s too passionate about the gig to not come along for the ride. She’s the definition of the adage “feel the fear and do it anyway”; I don’t read her as brave because she isn’t scared of much, in the way that others in her group like Michelle are, but because she sticks by her friends in spite of the fear she’s experiencing.
A small detail in Season 2 that I absolutely love might help explain this change in her. As the gang walk to a school trip, all five of them can be seen wearing pride pin badges with a rainbow icon that weren’t seen in the first season. It’s hard to read this as anything other than a show of support for Clare, given that they were only worn by the Derry girls after Clare came out and are a fixture in almost all of their outfits. Their reactions to Clare sharing her identity in the last season weren’t perfect; this is a consistent symbol of support for their friend. Actions speak louder than words, as they say.
Knowing she’s backed up by her friends for who she really is, Clare feels a little lighter as a character now. It’s as though a weight has been lifted off her shoulders. She still gets nervous and fixated on rules in a way that I feel ever-so-slightly called out by, but her safety net has only gotten stronger, giving her the freedom to embrace adolescent rebellion in the knowledge that she’s got true friends by her side.