Moville Drama teacher Greta Mc Tague tells us about the thrill of seeing her past-pupils starring in 'Derry Girls'.
We’re almost halfway through series one of Channel4’s Derry Girls and the craic is still going strong. Viewers across Ireland and the UK have loved tuning in to follow the antics of schoolgirl Erin’s world, along with the inimitable slang and quick wit of the script.
The comedy series is a big hit with Donegal people, and there’s one local woman who has a special connection to the programme.
Inishowen’s Greta Mc Tague is a drama teacher in Derry who proudly coached two of the leading cast members before their big breakthrough roles.
Stars of the series Saoirse-Monica Jackson (Erin) and Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (Michelle) both studied with Greta at GCSE and A Level at St Cecilia’s College, Derry.
Speaking to Donegal Woman this week, Great recalls the girls’ individual talents that made them stand out from the beginning:
The witty, rebellious and passionate Derry girl Michelle is played by Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, who Greta said is quite similar to her natural personality.
“It’s wonderful to see her playing a heightened version of a character she wouldn’t have been a million miles away from in school. She was very keen and very energised. She put everything into her performance and was always a very dynamic performer,” Greta said.
Saoirse-Monica, who also has close connections to Inishowen, stood out for Greta as a character actor.
“I know from Saoirse’s performances that she has a huge amount of sensitivity and depth and very broad emotional range.
“I remember being in tears for all the right reasons for her highly sensitive portrayal of a character in Brian Foster’s Maire – a Woman of Derry.
“They both have wide ranges in terms of the scope of their abilities,” Greta said.
The dynamic young actresses’ careers have already spanned widely across TV and theatre. Saoirse is currently cast in a West End production of The Ferryman, while Jamie-Lee has starred in BBC drama 6Degrees and acclaimed theatre productions.
Both women have shown appreciation for Greta in interviews at various points in their career, which she considers hugely gratifying.
Seeing her past-students on screen together at the Derry Girls premiere was a special moment for Greta. They were also joined by a current collaboration student of Greta’s, Maria Laird from Thornhill College, who played ‘Wee Tina’ in episode one.
Greta said: “It was absolutely thrilling seeing the first image of Erin in her bedroom, then to see Michelle parading along the Foyle Road shouting was really funny.
“The scene at the back of the schoolbus with the girls and Maria was a real blur between the lines of fiction and reality. It was a really unique experience for me as a viewer.”
The programme stays true to writer Lisa McGee’s childhood in many ways, which has been like a blast from the past for Greta. The St Cecilia’s College uniform is the same green as the Derry Girls’ uniform, while their school crest bears the same words as Thornhill, the convent school attended by McGee.
Greta knows well what it was like to teach Derry girls in the 90s. She first worked as a peer librarian and substitute teacher in St Cecilia’s before becoming a full-time Drama teacher in 2000.
While it was a unique experience for her to see past-pupils as teens again, she is keen to celebrate what the cast and show creators have achieved with their step back into the 1990s.
“It’s brilliant to see them doing so well and tapping into a coming-of age generation who remember the 90s and are now adults.
“It’s also a very affectionate and subjective look at Lisa McGee’s time at Thornhill College. All the triumphs of the piece are in the backdrop between the darkness of the Troubles and teenage life.
“We see things like the wooden spoon, the chip shop and the Catholic tenets that show that 20 years do bring a change in values. Religion isn’t that important anymore to a lot of our students.”
Greta recognises different parenting styles acted out from those days too – with strict mammies and respectful children.
“I suppose parents in Northern Ireland felt frantic more than a Donegal parent because they felt that they were holding onto something they needed to protect.”
St Cecilia’s College specialises the performing arts, so it was natural that Derry Girls would generate a buzz among Greta’s students. Many have inquired about their chances of getting a role in the show.
As a teacher and advocate of the arts, Greta has enjoyed seeing a successful production from Northern Ireland casting a positive light on having a career in drama.
“The fact there’s going to be a second series is great because we’ve got a fine cast ready to go! It’s been empowering for the girls to think ‘Those girls can do it, so I can too’. It has been a source of pride and aspiration for them in a tangible way,” Greta said.
@SaoirseJackson @JamieLeeOD We are all sooo proud of you here @StCeciliasDerry Enjoy your success! #DareToDream #LivingTheDream #Aspire #Endeavour #Achieve. Always talented but before you were famous #DerryGirls pic.twitter.com/W34GltxKSG
— PRINCIPAL (@StCeciliasDerry) January 5, 2018
Greta’s own school background includes St. Bridget’s Moville and Carndonagh Community School. One thing she’d love to see is a cross-border storyline with the Derry girls and Donegal teens.
As for Greta herself, if the opportunity arose for a part, she said she’d be only too happy to take it.
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