Walking around Derry feels strangely nostalgic considering I haven’t been here before. I’m sure I’m not alone in sheepishly admitting that my first proper introduction to the city was through season one of Channel 4’s hit series Derry Girls. I too was wildly infatuated by the characters, the location and the prospect of eating cream horn (no, not a euphemism but a pastry). And so with a hop, skip and a flight across the Irish Sea, I eagerly arrive in Northern Ireland to be an IRL Derry Girl for the day and sneak a peek at the show's second season.
Cast your mind back to a little over a year ago and you'll remember Derry Girls hitting our screens. Set in the '90s against the backdrop of the Troubles, we were introduced to four teenage best friends – Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), Orla (Louisa Harland), Clare (Nicola Coughlan) and Michelle (Jamie-Lee O'Donnell) – who go to Our Lady Immaculate College. Hilariously cynical nun and head of college, Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney) is often on the receiving end of the girls' angst and mischief, and it's not long before the gang is joined by "wee English fella" James (Dylan Llewellyn), aka the boy who's found himself attending a girls' school and is the subject of 80% of all ridicule.
Fast forward a year and not much has changed. The gang are just as we left them except perhaps even more prematurely desperate to grow up (and away from their parents), eager to prove themselves and resentful of school work - at least, when we meet for a quick tea and a chat, Louise tells me that their perspective is changed by the arrival of a really cool new teacher.
I'm taken on a walk through the streets of Derry to get a feel for the place. It's exactly as you'd imagine it: quaint enough to feel familiar and intimately local but big enough to lose yourself on an ambitious trek around some of its more famous sights. We pass the church with the 'crying' statue of Mary, where Toto the dog disappears in episode three; up Pump Street, where Granda Joe was spotted with an apple turnover and the suspicious cream horn in episode four; and along the famous Derry City Walls that enclose the city.
Needless to say, the show has had a huge impact on the city it's based in. Restaurants now have menus inspired by the characters, tours have been created to show off the series' landmarks and I'm sure you don't need to live in the area to have heard about the giant mural that was painted in honour of the show's lead characters. So it's no wonder that when it came time for the world premiere of season two, shown to friends, fans and family at the local cineplex, the entire city was buzzing.
I can confirm that the hype is justified. Episode one sees us thrown back among familiar faces for more chaos as a school trip calls for some unsuccessful peacekeeping. Let's just say that tasking a group of teenagers with building bridges between Catholics and Protestants at a time when the very thought of an alliance struck fear into the hearts of the older generations ("Don't come back with any Protestant babies," warns mum Mary Quinn) wasn't ever going to go smoothly. They fail to name a single thing that either sect has in common – but when it comes down to the familiar priorities, like snogging, our girls are a little bit more proactive.
The relatable hilarity of Derry Girls' tight, observational wit remains strong, and though many of the cast and even the show's writer, Lisa McGee, weren't sure whether the Derry humour would resonate outside Ireland, the worldwide anticipation for the second season proves otherwise. "I think it’s a mixture of loads of different things," Saoirse tells me. We catch up again a couple of days after the world premiere and though she was really nervous watching the first couple of episodes, Saoirse is as confident as I am in the show’s brilliance. "I think the fact that it’s set in the '90s really does something and gauges a different audience. And I think most importantly it’s the fact that Lisa has developed a character that everyone should be able to identify with and each one of those characters are full, sculpted, rounded characters. That really dry sense of humour at that time, it hasn’t been done in a while – it's authentic at the same time as being new and fresh."
Louisa agrees that the series has a multifaceted charm: "It all boils down to Lisa’s writing – it's so good. Even from an Irish perspective I feel like it’s just littered with in jokes, but there are just so many layers to this show." When I ask Nicola about returning for a second instalment, her enthusiasm echoes Louisa and Saoirse. To explain why, she paraphrases one of her co-star's words: "Siobhan she says series one was amazing but series two is like that but in technicolour. Everything is amped up. She said it way better than I ever could. It’s like, you know the characters now. There’s no explaining to be done. People have accepted that this is the world, it’s all been established and I think it’ll be more fun this time."
This trip was arranged by Tourism Ireland. Derry Girls starts on Channel 4 on Tuesday 5th March at 9:15pm.