If you were offered a free trip to the best place in the world to experience Halloween, you would probably think, Wow! Transylvania (the home of Dracula) or maybe New York’s cool annual Village Halloween parade, or at a push a few nights at one of our many supposedly haunted Irish castles.
Well, you need to update your Halloween bucket-list list people and add Derry City to the top. Yes, Northern Ireland’s second city is a major world destination when it comes to Halloween festivities. Don’t take my word for it, USA Today voted it ‘the best Halloween destination in the world’ in 2015, and we all know how crazy our American friends are for all things Halloween!
Derry, eh? Who knew?! Well, not many south of the border that’s for sure, myself included. The fact is Halloween is a really big deal in Derry and has been for some years now. The city hosts an entire week of events every year around Samhain (Irish for Halloween) on October 31.
Ireland is where Halloween originated after all and can be traced back well over 2,000 years ago with the old Celtic festival of Samhain. This tradition was taken to the USA by generations of Irish emigrants in the 19th century where it became very popular, got Americanised and was then reflected back to us and the world with (pumpkin) bells on! Trick or treat y’all…
October 31 was the last day of the old Celtic year and the night when the spirits of the dead, malevolent or otherwise, returned to walk the earth before the New Year began on November 1.
Samhain was a time associated with sacrifices, bonfires and the telling of ghost stories. Indeed, despite Christianity’s stronghold on the country, Irish pagan culture still persisted with its beliefs in the supernatural and spirit worlds, though less so today.
Derry it seems has been bringing Halloween back home since the 1980’s when its first parade started. Our charismatic tour guide regaled us with a story about how the whole Derry Halloween idea started originally.
In 1985 at the height of The Troubles there was a Halloween fancy dress party organised in Doherty’s Bar on Derry’s Magazine Street. At that time people were looking for any opportunity to enjoy themselves during the dark days of The Troubles in the city. Of course, half way through the party there was a bomb scare, a common occurrence then, and all the revellers piled onto the streets and in true Derry spirit they kept the party going around the city in their mad costumes. The following year the council got involved and organised a Halloween parade and from there it has grown with fireworks added in the early 90’s.
Derry has always been a place of song, dance and story so the people took to celebrating Halloween with gusto. Today they have a terrific week-long programme of events for Halloween which improves and expands year on year. The city had over 100,000 visitors during the three days Awakening the Walls leading up to Halloween itself including parade/fireworks. I heard accents from all over while there – the US, UK, France and I even met some Finnish people who came for the carnival.
Derry is Ireland’s only walled city still intact, built in the 1700’s they were never breached (no surrender!) despite many attempts (who remembers the famous Siege of Derry in 1688 from their history?). The 400 year old walls really add to the atmosphere with their gates and battlements. Although the walls are sometimes seen as divisive due to their association with Protestant Planters, in what is now mainly nationalist city, they are given new meaning with the ‘Awakening of the Walls’ event which takes place three evenings before the 31st. Here the walls form a backdrop for art projections and other fun activities. Derry’s walls are also a major attraction for tourists to the city as intact walled-cities are very rare. They now being embraced more by all the people of Derry as a treasure really.
Since the Good Friday agreement 20 years ago Derry has made great strides to attract visitors and step out of the shadow of Belfast a bit more. 2013 was a seminal year for the city in terms of international profile and number of visits to the city. The year saw Derry become the inaugural city to be designated UK City of Culture with the Halloween carnival forming one of the main events in its calendar and they haven’t looked back since.
Derry Halloween 2018 kicked off on October 26 and ran until November 3 and theme for this year’s carnival parade was ‘Return of the Ancients’. The pinnacle of the week-long programme is always the carnival parade on Halloween night itself followed by impressive fireworks from the banks of river Foyle.
Derry Halloween is a fantastic spectacle for children and adults alike and most people dress up for the occasion and get really into it. You will see costumes of all kinds and every sort of ghoul, vampire and monster imaginable. It’s best to be imaginative and make your own costume that’s all part of the fun here; nobody cares what you come out in.
The city’s impressive Guildhall featured an instillation by artist Luke Jerram called Museum of the Moon which was free and cool; I mean who doesn’t love the moon. This year also saw singers Lisa Hannigan and David Kitt among other preform at the Samhain Sessions at the Guildhall as part of the programme.
The Guildhall Square, in front of the hall, featured daily performers on an outdoor stage as well as being the location for food and other fun stalls.
So, next year if you want to get your proper Spook-on get to Derry for Halloween, it has to be experienced at least once and nowhere else on this island does it better.
Derry is a very interesting city to visit anyways with all that history, situated where it is on the river Foyle close to the Donegal border. The people are so friendly, witty and warm and very welcoming of visitors!
Halloween up here is LegenDerry!!
Check out www.derryhalloween.com for more information.
Train – Irish Rail to Belfast and Train to Derry (very scenic route)
Bus – Bus Eireann from Busáras
Things to see and do:
The Museum of Free Derry (Great insight into Bloody Sunday, the Civil Rights Movement in Derry etc.) – www.museumoffreederry.org
Walk the impressive Peace Bridge across the river Foyle great views of the city.
Visit the historic St. Columb’s Cathedral.
Where to eat:
Walled City Brewery (award-winning gastropub) in Ebrington Square across the Peace Bridge *book early.
Brickwork on Castle St. (good for lunch and brunch).
Brown’s In Town Restaurant on Strand Road (great for dinner).
Where to drink:
Peadar O’Donnell’s on Waterloo St. (Trad music and popular with tourists).
Words: Michael Coughlan
Feature Image: Awakening The Walls