'I'm the real Derry Girls Michelle' - the friends who inspired sit-com writer Lisa McGee

“I am outing myself as the true Michelle Mallon, the mouthy one from Derry Girls,” says real-life Derry Girl Shauna Bray.

Shauna and her friend Aoife O’Neill are part of a group of friends that attended Thornhill College in the 1990s with writer Lisa McGee. The gang would become the inspiration for the Channel 4 comedy.

“Lisa took the best and the worst of all of us and she made an amazing series out of it,” says Aoife. “We never imagined it would be the huge success it is today with Baftas and other awards.”

The friends were attending the opening of a Derry Girls exhibition at the Tower Museum in Londonderry. On display are sets, costumes, and props from the show.

The series has become a huge tourism draw in the city with visitors coming to see the streets where boy-mad Michelle, would-be writer Erin, conscientious Clare, dreamer Orla, and befuddled James (a.k.a. “the wee English fella”) come of age as teenagers in a 1990s Northern Ireland scarred by bombs and bullets.

“For the first year after the first series came out I would have tried to deny that Lisa based Michelle on me,” laughs Shauna, “but once I saw it becoming a massive hit I was telling everyone I’m Michelle, I’m Michelle.”

Aoife admits that Clare is based on her, and Shauna is quick to agree. “It’s not because Aoife is conscientious and hard-working. It’s because she’s a panicker. Aoife worries about absolutely everything, just like Clare in Derry Girls.”

Aoife says the friends all loved the show from the very start. “We went to a special premiere showing and we just adored it from the get-go. From the beginning it had that core of friendship and family, and it’s been amazing to watch it grow.”

In the past Derry usually featured on TV when news reports broadcast details of violence connected to the Northern Ireland Troubles.

But Shauna says that all changed when Lisa McGee wrote Derry Girls: “Lisa wrote from her heart, and she told such a beautiful story that transcends the Troubles.

"It has universal themes about love and family and friends. Teenagers are teenagers no matter where they grow up.

"They’re obsessed with music and fashion and falling in love.”

Aoife agrees: “We were preoccupied with growing up and the Troubles was just in the background for us. Our main focus was having fun.”

Derry Girls has won some celebrity fans, but Aoife and Shauna couldn’t believe it when the show was referenced in ‘The Simpsons’ and then praised by movie director Martin Scorsese. Shauna says: “Martin Scorsese is my hero, and I nearly died when he said he watching Derry Girls.”

The Tower Museum exhibition runs until next year.

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