On Bearings Online, we run an occasional series on the portrayal of clergy in popular media. The following essay by Mary T. Stimming explores the character of Sr. Michael in the television show Derry Girls (2018 – present). Read other essays in this series »
Derry Girls is my go-to recommendation for anyone looking to binge watch a new show. With only twelve 30-minute episodes (two seasons with one more in the works) streaming on Netflix, the dedicated binger can race through them all in short order. The program is so engaging that most do just that. True, one friend gave up because “I can’t understand a word they’re saying.” But that’s why God invented captions. Or as Siobhán McSweeney, the actress who plays Sr. Michael, says: “Feck off! Everyone can understand it. Get over yourself!” Minus the obscenity, this sounds like something her character Sr. Michael would say. (Unlike Fleabag’s Hot Priest, Sr. Michael’s swearing doesn’t serve the purpose of making her more relatable, more “human.” It’s simply the way most Irish people talk.)
Sr. Michael has captured the imagination of the Internet—gifs of her scenes are shared even among those unfamiliar with Derry Girls. No doubt, much of Sr. Michael’s popularity lies in McSweeney’s mastery of the eye roll and her killer one-liners. But, I suspect, the appeal lies in how Sr. Michael embodies a religious authority that honors humans over rules.
The violence that racked Northern Ireland during the Troubles is not treated lightly, but as only one dimension of the characters’ reality.
Set in “a troubled little corner in the northwest of Ireland” during the 1990s, Derry Girls is a mostly comic take on a group of friends growing up amid the inter-sectarian violence. Erin, her “daft” cousin Orla, and their friends Clare, Michelle, and Michelle’s cousin James navigate the familiar ups and downs of adolescence: family, friends, and romance. For the most part, the Troubles function as a backdrop for their lives, not a central focus. We see Ian Paisley thunder on TV, an Orangeman March disrupts traffic, the famous murals appear. But, when a newscaster announces a possible bomb on a nearby bridge Erin’s mother moans, “Does this mean they can’t get to school?! I’ve had a summer of it!” When British soldiers board their bus, Michelle speculates on their sexual prowess. The violence that racked Northern Ireland during the Troubles is not treated lightly, but as only one dimension of the characters’ reality.
(Sidenote: This rings true to me. I lived in Dublin for a year during the Troubles and spent time in Derry and Belfast with Protestant friends who lived there. I was agog at the uniformed British soldiers toting heavy weapons while my friends paid them little attention. The same was true when we went into town and had to pass through security checkpoints. For me, it was shocking, for them, a typical hassle on the way through town. This is not to say they were unaware. They reminded me to call Derry “Londonderry” around their families and insisted I go by a “not Catholic” name when we went to the pub.)
Sr. Michael is the headmistress of Our Lady Immaculate College, the secondary school that the girls, and James, attend (because he’s English). We are introduced to Sr. Michael in the series’ first episode when the girls, and James, are brought before her to answer for threatening a younger student on the bus. When Clare narcs out the others, Sr. Michael dryly observes, “I think it’s safe to say we’ve all lost a bit of respect for you there Clare,” before proceeding to the disciplinary matter at hand. This moment captures the wonder that is Sr. Michael—she’s savvy to personal dynamics, transparent in her opinions, and careful to wield her authority to promote values, not self or institution. No doubt viewer enthusiasm for Sr. Michael derives mostly from the first two traits because they make her relatable, but it’s the third that makes her a most welcome religious figure in popular culture.
We don’t expect direct, even brusque, honesty from religious people—in life or on TV.
For Catholics and non-Catholics, there is often a sense that priests, sisters, and all those who enter religious life are not quite like the rest of us. So, when we learn Sr. Michael studies judo every Friday (one scene features her in her judo outfit, head veil intact) and watches Rawhide, we recognize the simple ways she’s like us. Her blunt, even acerbic, comments seal our sense of affinity. When students are told to feel free to ask any question they want, only the saints among us disagree with her addendum: “But know you will be judged.” And when Orla goes on about when the Virgin Mary cries it becomes the rain, who among us isn’t thinking what Sr. Michael says: “You might want to think about wising up.” Such remarks evoke laughter, in part, because we don’t expect direct, even brusque, honesty from religious people—in life or on TV.
Sadly, we most especially don’t expect it from those in power. We’re drowning in stories of Christian leaders abusing their authority: the high-profile sex abuse crisis in Catholicism and lesser known ones in other traditions, “shepherds” who enrich themselves at the expense of their flock, streams of hate masquerading as Christianity. Sr. Michael reminds us that, at its best, religious authority serves the ultimate good of the people from whom it asks allegiance. To wit, these two scenes:
When the editor of the school paper takes ill, Sr. Michael allows Erin to step in to produce the school paper, but she refuses to approve Erin’s front-page story, “The Secret Life of a Lesbian.” The next day, however, we see the friends hawking this very article: “Read all about the wee dyke!” (Michelle), “Lesbians really do exist” (Orla), “We will not be censored” (Erin). When Sr. Michael notices the students chattering about the paper in the hallways, officious Jenny, indignant and offended, huffs: “Erin Quinn and her friends are handing out their magazine. They’re ignoring the ban, Sister. You need to put a stop to it!” Having called her peers to account, Jenny smugly awaits their fall. Instead, we see the flicker of a smile pass over Sr. Michael’s face as she turns to leave. Jenny objects, “Sister, didn’t you hear me?!” “You know what Jenny, I don’t think I did,” Sr. Michael says as she continues walking away after taking one of the newspapers for herself.
Sr. Michael knows when to push back, which she does when the “proper” thing to do,” the “right thing to do” diminishes people.
Another example: When news arrives that the American President Bill Clinton will be visiting Derry, the main characters are ecstatic: “For once, the world will be watching us for all the right reasons.” But, to the girls’ dismay, Sr. Michael does not grant them the day off school to hear him speak. The day of the speech, however, the only student in class is Jenny from the school paper episode. When Sr. Michael asks why she’s there, Jenny, with self-congratulation, says, “You told us we had to come in, Sister.” With a touch of exasperation, Sr. Michael’s responds, “Oh, for God’s sake, Jenny. You need to learn when to push back.” With that, she dismisses Jenny and we, not Jenny, see Sr. Michael smile broadly.
Sr. Michael knows when to push back, which she does when the “proper” thing to do,” the “right thing to do” diminishes people. To be sure, she is no anarchist. Although she casts a cool eye on clerical culture, she accepts the hierarchy of her tradition, and enjoys her place within it. But, ultimately, she uses her authority to promote the greater good.
A friend described Sr. Michael as “the hero we’ve been waiting for. That she exists, even in fiction, makes everything seem better.” Agreed.