Derry Hosts Ireland's Largest Halloween Festival – Honours the Celtic Feast Day of Samhain

Skeleton costume at Derry Halloween party

The Ulster City of Derry (Doire), City of Culture 2013, is to host a massive Halloween party from 26 October through 3 November. The event, which is billed as the “Carnival on the Foyle” and named after the river that runs through the city, includes a Carnival Parade and a “Shapeshifters Ball” held in Derry’s historic Guildhall. The Shapeshifters Ball will be held on Halloween, which is the modern name for the pre-Christian Celtic feast day of Samhain. Celtic Myth surrounding Samhain (Halloween) includes many tales of Shape Shifting Fairies who emerge at Halloween when the door to the Otherworld opens.

Samhain has survived, flourished and conquered the modern psyche. The ancient Celtic holiday was the start of the Celtic New Year. This is when the Druids lit bonfires marking a period of great danger to mortal souls. The bonfires were a warning that the laws of nature were suspended and the barriers between the natural order of things and the Celtic Underworld were dissolved, when the Underworld became visible to the living and the Fairies and the Dead would come forth.

On Samhain ordinary folk were highly vulnerable to being kidnapped by Fairies and taken to the Underworld and it was ill advised to go near the many "Fairie Mounds" which are said to have dotted the Celtic countryside. The tradition of “dressing up” at Halloween was a ruse to hide one’s true identity from the Fairies and thus escape abduction.

Halloween party Derry

In the six Celtic Nations of Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales, Samhain traditionally marks the end of the summer and the beginning if winter and is associated with the Celtic feast of kala Goanv (Breton), Calan Gwaf (Cornish), Samhain (Irish), Sauin (Manx Gaelic), Samhuinn (Scottish Gaelic) and Calan Gaeaf (Welsh). Samhain is a time when the creatures of the 'Otherworld' make their presence known to the people of 'this world'.  Dr. Jennifer Butler, Folklorist at University College Cork's Folklore and Ethnology Department states in an interview published by the Archelogical Institute of America:

One of the theories of guising and dressing as ghosts may be the notion that the dead are returning on this night and the change of appearance may protect the human from being recognized by the returning spirits of the dead.

Interview with Adele McCourt, Press Officer for Derry City Council

Derry City Council are the sponsor’s of the Carnival. Transceltic had the opportunity to interview Adele McCourt, Press Officer for Derry City Council, to discuss this year’s Samhain celebrations:

1. Do the Event Organizers consider the “Banks of the Foyle” Halloween Carnival to be based on the Irish Celtic Feast Day of Samhain?

Derry City Council in keeping with ancient Samhain tradition hosts its main Halloween festivities, including a Carnival Parade and a Fireworks display on 31 October, which marks the end of autumn and the harvest season and sees the beginning of winter.

2. All Saints Day on 1 November is a Holy Day of the Catholic Church.  This day is also the date of the ancient Celtic Feast Day of Samhain which had religious significance to the Irish Celts. In this light, do the organizers consider the Carnival to be a Cultural or Religious event?

Derry City Council very much sees the Banks of the Foyle Halloween Carnival as a cultural event that is inclusive and very family orientated. Since its inception it has been promoted as a mid-term festival where families and individuals are encouraged to visit local cultural venues and participate in fun filled activities that take place in the run up to and after 31 October.

3. The Derry festival at Halloween is known as “The Largest Halloween Celebration in Ireland”. Can you give us a brief history of the Festival?

Derry City Council decided in 1986 to organize an outdoor music festival in Guildhall Square at Halloween. As it was the tradition of every member of the family to dress up for Halloween in the city, the Council decided to add an extra dimension to the celebrations and a platform for visitors and people from the city to come out and take part in a cultural celebration on 31 October. Since then the festival has gone from strength to strength to become Ireland’s biggest and best free outdoor event attracting up to 30,000 people. In 2002 it was awarded the prestigious the Northern Ireland Tourist Board 'Event of the Year' accolade and has established itself as the city’s single biggest tourist attraction. The festival has expanded over the years to become a 5-day festival with something for every member of the family.

4. What do you see as the future of the Festival?

Derry City Council is confident that the festival will continue to attract large numbers of locals and visitors to the city and that there is potential for the event to develop and expand. The City is currently reaping the benefits of being the first UK City of Culture and the Council is hopeful that the city’s profile and ability to host large scale events such as the Colmcille Pageant, the All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil, Lumiere and the Turner Prize, will see the city develop in terms of becoming a top tourist attraction for events.

5. Celtic Myth surrounding Samhain (Halloween) includes many tales of Shape Shifting Fairies who emerge at Halloween when the door to the Otherworld opens. This year the Festival will host a “Shape Shifter’s Ball” in Derry’s Guildhall.  Please describe you plans for this event.

Derry City Council is hugely excited at the prospect of hosting a spectacular Shapeshifters Ball in the splendor of the recently refurbished Guildhall building. The Council has been toying with the Shapeshifter theme for a few years having initially hosted a number of workshops and shapeshifter catwalk events in an effort to encourage people to showcase their creativity. The Ball will be a unique opportunity for the Derry public and visitors to the city to put their designs on show and to enjoy the rousing rockabilly tunes provided by Carmen Ghia and the Hotrods. In the build-up to the Ball, the city is hosting a Shapeshifters Catwalk which takes place on October 26 in the Craft Village where participants will be selected to take their place in the Hallowe’en Carnival Parade. Budding designers are encouraged to avail of some help and inspiration at the special design workshops running every week at the Craft Cottage, Craft Village. The workshops  will take place on the following dates Fri Oct 11th, Fri Oct 18t, Sat Oct 19th and Fri Oct 25th. To register email Tickets for the Shapeshifters Ball are priced £20 and are available through the Guildhall Tel: (028) 7136 5151, ext 8301. Doors open at 9pm and close at 1am. Admission for over-18s only. You can get all the latest information on the programme online at or view the interactive programme via the Halloween Facebook account and clicking on the Halloween Programme button.


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