The ancient Celtic celebration of Halloween has become synonymous with Derry, where local people have really embraced this feast of myth and legend, nurtured and developed it, and brought it right into the 21st century.
Crowned Best Halloween Destination in the World in a massive public poll by US media outlet USA Today in 2016, Derry toppled the likes of spooky Salem Massachusetts and even Dracula’s den in Transylvania, to steal the title.
The city’s first forays into celebrating the festival began in the mid-80s, when some of the local bars began the tradition of hosting Halloween events and the homemade Halloween costume soon became a local speciality.
The craft of costume design has come on in leaps and bounds since youngsters trick or treated in their granny’s best net curtains, with some truly out of this world creations now to be spotted out on the streets. Local folk plan their costumes months in advance, with pop up Halloween costume shops appearing magically overnight during the summer to meet the demand for fake blood and fangs.
In 1986, Derry City Council stepped in to make Halloween more of an organised event, with a small stage in Guildhall Square and a bit of music. Those first few hundred curious onlookers have now multiplied to tens of thousands of revellers who return year on year to enjoy the growing programme of events.
What makes the event so special is the strong community element to the celebrations, with hundreds of local children and community organisations getting involved in the choreography, prop and costume making for the main Carnival parade.
Working under the guidance of the North West Carnival Initiative, over 600 participants pull together to bring the celebration to life on the streets of the city on Halloween night, drawing crowds of 40,000 for the official Carnival parade – a figure which grows year on year as word about the event continues to spread.
What was once a local affair is now a draw for visitors from all over the world, with people flocking from the US, Canada, Europe and even Russia to enjoy the colourful display which is steeped in local myth and folklore.
Last year over 90,000 people enjoyed the rich programme of events over the five days of the festival, with plans now to extend the festivities to a full week. Events have also been added in recent years to take in Strabane town and other rural hubs.
The 2018 theme will revisit the magical Under the Samhain Moon narrative, which really caught the imagination last year garnering a number of business and tourism awards including ‘Tourism Project of the Year’ at the UTV Business Eye Awards last December, and the prestigious Northern Ireland Tourism Award for ‘Best Northern Ireland Event or Festival Experience (International) 2018.
Following on from this success and its growing acclaim as a festival of international renown, visitor numbers are expected to continue to soar next year – so why not hop on a broomstick and join the party!