Derry Girls' Siobhan McSweeney blasts English education on Northern Ireland as 'absolute disgrace' and says threat to peace 'breaks my heart'

Siobhan McSweeney attends the Virgin Media British Academy Television Awards ceremony at the Royal Festival Hall on 12 May, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by WIktor Szymanowicz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Siobhan McSweeney has blasted English education on Northern Ireland's history. (NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Derry Girls star Siobhan McSweeney has blasted the current threat to the Good Friday Agreement and the lack of education about Northern Irish history in English schools, saying "it breaks my heart".

McSweeney starred as sarcastic nun and headteacher Sister Michael in the Channel 4 90s-set sitcom that ended on Wednesday night with the characters casting their votes for the peace agreement.

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The comedy followed a group of Catholic Derry teens against the backdrop of the Troubles and McSweeney called it an "absolute disgrace" that so many English viewers had contacted her to say they had learned more about the turbulent period in Northern Irish history from watching the show than they had done in school.

She told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I've woken up this morning to, no word of a lie, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of messages, and at least three quarters of them are 'Derry Girls has taught me more about the history of Northern Ireland and Britain than anything that I have been taught in school'.

Sister Michael in Derry Girls
Siobhan McSweeney played Sister Michael in Derry Girls. (Siobhan McSweeney)

"I think if you put aside the absolute disgrace it is that there's such a gap in the educational system here that they have to look to a comedy to find out about Northern Irish politics that still have an effect today, I think it shows how good the medium of comedy can be to spread a message."

Asked whether the show's ending of the characters at a polling station to vote for the Good Friday Agreement seemed apt given the current threat to it posed by Brexit, McSweeney shared her strong feelings.

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She said: "I'm going to be very inarticulate about this because I feel quite emotional about what was meant to be the ending of a sitcom and instead what it shows is that the past is not the past, it's always with us.

"The Good Friday Agreement was hard won and hard fought for and the people of Northern Ireland voted for it and now it's in danger of being attacked through ignorance. Ignorance.

Derry Girls cast at the polling station. (Channel 4)
Derry Girls aired its final episode with scenes at the polling station. (Channel 4)

"Yet again, it goes back to that idea that a sitcom is teaching the people of this country about the history of Northerm Ireland. That's not how it should be."

She continued: "I feel it's incredibly poignant that we watch (the Derry Girls characters) head off at the end full of tentative hope for peace, for reconciliation, for the future, for the young people and what their future is and we cut to now and that is in danger and it breaks my heart."

The Holding star also appeared to take aim at the current government plans to privatise Channel 4, which many connected to the broadcaster worry could stifle its content.

Derry Girls referendum scene
A final special episode showed the end of the sitcom coinciding with the Good Friday Agreement. (Channel 4)

She said: "(Derry Girls) is one of Channel 4's biggest comedies, it nurtured it, it commissioned it, it ensured that it was broadcast into every house that had a television licence last night.

"That is a free education. Not bad for a sitcom, not bad for a laugh."

Fans of the comedy supported McSweeney's comments, with one person tweeting: "I learned more about the Good Friday agreement in the five minute closing #DerryGirls montage than I learned in the entirety of my education in the UK, and that is literally not an exaggeration in the least."

Someone else commented: "I had to pause and compose myself but holy Christ, #DerryGirls has killed me. That ending. To English people wondering why we’re breaking our hearts over brexit, that’s why. We were promised the world. We wanted the killings to stop…."

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