If you’re a fan of Derry Girls, you’ll probably remember the Halloween episode. The gang were all excited to dress up and head into the city for a big night out.
What you might not know is that Derry is actually the home of Europe’s biggest Halloween festival.
This year, Derry Halloween is returning to the Walled City, and from 28 to 31 October it will feature an array of spectacles and festivities to celebrate the spookiest night of the year.
Around 100,000 people are expected to attend this year’s festival, which takes place at 14 key locations across the city. This year’s Derry Halloween will also stretch out to Donegal and Strabane.
In 2015 Derry was voted Best Halloween Destination by USA Today readers, while this year it has been named alongside Dublin as The Best Place in the World to Visit for Halloween by travel blog The Planet D.
Jacqueline Whoriskey, festival and events manager at Derry Halloween, has attributed the growth of Halloween in Derry to the local people.
“How it got there, really, we would say it’s to do with the people of the place.
“This started off as a small community event, everybody started dressing up and it just grew bigger and bigger each year. Then the council took it over 37 odd years ago in terms of organising an outdoor celebration.
“We’ve added days on to it, we put additional attractions on to it, but at the heart of it is it’s all about community, and that’s everybody from taxi drivers, to the waitresses and waiters that you meet.
“Everybody gets behind it, we’re very proud of it and it’s a huge success.”
Derry Halloween returned last year with some outdoor attractions, after being cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19. While not all events could go ahead, it was still a success.
“We’re certain it was the largest event of its kind on the island last year. Ninety-thousand people came to the city.”
While last year’s celebrations were pared back, this year Derry is seeing a huge demand for hotels as the event returns fully.
Spreading the word
Derry City has been in the limelight for the past few years due to the success of Derry Girls. Jacqueline highlights how the poignant Halloween episode, which aired earlier this year, has given exposure to this city’s unique Halloween celebration.
“You couldn’t have had a Derry Girls series without a nod to Halloween in this part of the world, especially in the era Lisa McGee would have been brought up in. It’s grown massively in that period of time.
“So we just knew that Lisa would acknowledge it, and it absolutely has had a massive impact for us.
“The Derry Girls series in general had a massive impact on the city, people absolutely love it and we are delighted that she helped spread the word about Halloween, the dress-up and I guess the focus on Halloween. Some people realised, ‘Oh, that looks like an interesting place to come and visit’, and then the fact that the parade was featured.
“They did a bit of their filming last year, so we were absolutely delighted that that’s when they were recording so there’s some elements of our activity recorded as part of the series.”
She expresses that Derry Halloween is just as fun as it looks in the Derry Girls episode.
“It really showed the youth. A lot of people know Halloween as young people going out and dressing up and having good craic, so the piece on Halloween showed that.
“It also showed the really clever costume making which people do here. They spend a lot of time thinking about costumes, and then as I said it showed the parade, which is a huge part of the festival.
“And props in that parade, we will be using in our parade, and have used in our parade in the past.
“Ask any visitor, yes they come and they love the events that are on but it’s the interactions with the local people that they remember the most and they take away with them, and the bit of fun that they have, you know in this part of the world we don’t take ourselves too seriously and we remember to have a bit of fun as well.”
This year, Derry Halloween is stepping up a gear with the involvement of new organisations.
“We’re working with a school, Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, who are going to be working locally with The Playhouse Theatre and a number of different companies to deliver the trail.
“As to what people can expect – there’s projections, there’s illuminations, there is smoke, fire, there’s characters, all really bringing to life the stories of Halloween from ancient times. And really just there’ll be a wee bit of a scare, if people want a wee bit of a scare too. But it’s mainly family-friendly fun, activities for all the family.”
Awakening the Walled City, a spooky trail around Derry, will be back this year and will feature the City of Bones and Forrest of Shadows paths. On Halloween itself, the festival parade will return after a three-year hiatus.
The parade is one of Derry Halloween’s biggest attractions, and it sees hundreds of costumed performers and members of the community take to the streets.
“Our parade is the heart of Halloween, it’s on Halloween day itself and that has over 700 community participants who are working away for the last number of months on their costumes and their props and that goes around the streets of Derry on Halloween and that’s followed by a big display.”
The parade will begin at 7pm, with a fireworks display over the River Foyle bringing the evening to a close at 8.15pm.
Beyond the city, events will be taking place to mark Halloween across counties Derry, Donegal and Tyrone.
“We’re working closely with Donegal County Council and Buncrana Swan Park, a beautiful part of the world. We’re working with the creative organisation in Inishowen Carnival, who are going to deliver a Halloween experience in this gorgeous [location].
“The story is about the Red Branch Knight and that’s one of the ancient folklore stories in this part of the world, where they reckon a number of the Red Branch Knights are buried up at An Grianán, which is really between both Derry and Donegal and it’s a ring fort.
“We couldn’t do the event at the fort so we did the next best thing which was Swan Park in Buncrana. Again, important that we’re working with local groups to deliver that.”
Strabane is also gearing up to be involved in this year’s celebrations.
“We’re doing two different days in Strabane, the Saturday – and that’s really about activities that will help boost people into the town centre on the Saturday – as well as Halloween day itself. And we really talk about the various different folklore around Strabane.”