Tattoos, Punk and Three Generations of Derry Girls

Lisa McGee’s Comic Masterpiece

Jim Nolan
4 min readJun 26, 2023
Illustration by Isabella Bannerman

They say dying is easy, comedy is hard. Yet comedy remains an unappreciated art form, too unserious to be taken seriously. Why is Young Frankenstein considered a “great comedy,” and not simply a great film? Every frame, every line, every performance is perfect.

I feel the same way about Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls, a teen sitcom that takes place against the strife of 1990s Derry, Ireland. “The Reunion,” an episode in its third and final season, is killingly funny.

For me, it’s one of the great half-hours of TV comedy, up there with The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s “Chuckles Bites the Dust” or The Simpsons’ “Cape Feare.” And like them, the humor derives from the writer and audience’s deep understanding of characters.

In this case, that’s primarily Ma Mary, played by Tara Lynne O’Neill. For me, Mary is Derry Girls’ standout character, which is saying something. The show is packed with them.

Every character is funny, and some, like the magnificently boring Uncle Colm, bring tears of laughter.

In this episode, Mary and her friends prepare for their 20th high school reunion, and McGee uses flashbacks to their 1977 School Leavers’ Dance to mirror their younger lives with those of their teenage daughters. The tree hasn’t dropped far from the acorn. The adults are revealed as once being as rebellious and curious and eager for life as their offspring, which is almost as shocking to us viewers as it would be to their daughters, were they to find out.

The personalities of both generations of women seem remarkably constant. Clare’s mother Geraldine is as anxious about getting in trouble as her daughter. Straight-laced Deirdre is, back then, as wild as her daughter Michelle, and like Michelle the engine of the friends’ collective misadventures. And just as Michelle has her English cousin James to harass, Deirdre had her Canadian cousin Rob to harangue.

And there’s Janette, rich girl Jenny’s mother, who used to be friends with the gang but no longer socializes with them, because, her former friends believe, she thinks herself too good for them now, having married a surgeon. A surgeon who doesn’t talk.

“A man that doesn’t talk,” Deirdre says. “She is living the dream, girls.”

Adult Janette’s amusement at Mary’s plans to attend university next year triggers Mary to seek revenge by revealing the deep dark secret the group of them have been (literally) hiding since the night of the Leavers Dance.

“I think it’s time to pull some skeletons out of the closet,” says Ma Mary.

“No, Mary!” says Geraldine. “They’re grand where they are.”

The show cuts back to 1977. The girls, utterly disappointed with how the Leavers’ Dance has turned out, debate whether or not to break the rules in an act Deirdre describes as “punk, the only religion worth fighting for,” quite a statement in the sectarian world of 1977 Derry.

It’s Mary who convinces them to go for it:

“Our whole lives we’ve been told what we can do, what we can wear, where we can go, who we can talk to. We’re told who we are and what we believe in. It’s all curfews and barricades and roadblocks and rosaries. For once, let’s do something purely because we want to do it. This is our rebellion!”

“What are you saying?” Deirdre asks.

Young Ma Mary pauses and replies, “Suddenly, I’m feeling punky.”

Spoiler alert. The deep dark secret from 1977? The girls gave themselves “hand-poked” skull-and-crossbones tattoos. And then buried a box with Polaroids of their handiwork. Mary says,

“I hope in 10, 20, 30 years’ time, that another group of girls find this box, look at these photographs and say, ‘Jesus but they must have been a bad bunch of bitches!’”

This is bravura writing.

Now it’s 20 years later. Standing above the box they’ve unburied, and “sick of the lies, sick of the shame,” they show their tattoos to their husbands, who are only surprised they haven’t noticed them. The women explain they’ve used concealer. Lots and lots of concealer. Mary’s sister Sarah apologizes to her father, Joe, who joined them and the husbands to learn what had happened on that night years ago. “I’m so sorry, Daddy.”

“Ach, I’m not bothered by that, love. Your mother had a tattoo.”

Mary, shocked: “What? Where?” Joe just gives her a look.

The episode ends to the pounding guitars of “Airfix Model” by Terry Wrist, and a title appears: “For all the Mammies.”

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling punky.



Jim Nolan

Jim’s humor writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Funny Times,, McSweeneys Internet Tendency, and on WBFO public radio.