Celebrating with Spirits (not the drinking kind) at Ireland’s Largest Halloween Carnival

A woman dressed as a nun holding a cross.

A nun.

They made me a nun.

And not just any nun, but one wearing the full-length habit, with headpiece, including wimple and veil, and a big gold cross hanging around my neck.

And did I mention that my outfit was covered in blood?

As you might have guessed by now, this was my costume for Halloween, which Terri and I celebrated last year in Derry, Ireland—the city where the holiday originally got its start. And while I hated to question the decision-making of our hosts, who put us in “fancy dress†as it is called overseas, I had to wonder what they were thinking when they handed a card-carrying atheist this costume in a country that has already had some issues with religion.

A woman in witch costume sitting on chair.
If there’s one thing that Terri likes, it’s a good hat.

Is she a good witch…or a bad witch?

Terri, however, had her own set of problems.

Terri:  I can’t wear this costume out.

Vanessa:  Why? You’re not going to get stoned by the masses for blasphemy like I am. You’re a witch. Which is certainly closer to true life than me being a nun.

Terri:  Ha Ha. I can’t wear this out because it’s too tight. I’m like a sausage in this dress.

Vanessa (snorting a laugh when she sees the full effect):  It is a little snug. Just don’t sit down. Or breathe. And for goodness’ sakes, don’t eat any candy.

Terri:  You’re not taking me seriously! I’m in pain!

Vanessa:  Wait until I slap your knuckles with a ruler.

Terri: ‘Nuf said.

A group of people standing under an arch.
Dancing and drumming skeletons? That’s not something you see every day.            Photo credit: Tom Heaney/Courtesy Derry Halloween

Celebrating with a different kind of spirit

Now the good news, other than the fact that Terri did not die of suffocation that night, is that there is so much going on in Derry during this festival that no one notices what you’re wearing. As Ireland’s largest Halloween carnival, Awakening the Walls attracts thousands of people from across the globe to take part in the three-day celebration that traces its roots back to the pre-Christian fire festival of Samhain.

A crowd of people standing around a statue.
When the spirits cross the veil, there’s no telling what you’ll find.

No matter where you look, there is something magical to see. From fairies to fire spinners, to giants and flying, glowing birds that dipped and swirled above the crowd, the festival truly lived up to the ancient traditions of Samhain, which is considered the time of the year when the veil between our world and the spirit world is at its thinnest. Walking among the fairytale birds and beasts, and characters that almost defied the imagination, it wasn’t a big leap to feel that some of those walking among us weren’t wearing costumes at all.

A person in costume with a beard and green outfit.
You’ve got to be careful to stay out of the way of the giants.

Awakening the Walls

One of the most unique aspects of the festival is that it’s held within the walled city of Derry, which is in itself an almost mythical destination. Wandering along the 1.5-kilometer stone walkways above the city, which were first built in the 17th century as a way to protect English and Scottish Protestant settlers from Irish rebels, it was as easy to step back in time as it was to step into the spirit realm. As the only remaining completely walled city in Ireland, Derry has an enchanting charm of its own, no matter what time of year.

A crowd of people standing around trees at night.
There’s something truly magical about the Walled City, especially when celebrating Samhain.

Luckily for us, we blended right in with the crowd, which I realized while being served a cocktail by a waiter with an ax hanging out of his head. While I did have a few tense moments—I wasn’t sure if the explosions I saw were the fireworks over the River Foyle or a few lightning bolts being hurled my sacrilegious way—it’s impossible to not get swept up into the spectacle that is a Derry Halloween.

A man in glasses and a pink shirt is smiling.
Does this picture whet your appetite? See what I did there?

If You Go:

The festival is held every year, though there are different themes, so visit www.DerryHalloween.com to stay up on the latest news.

To learn more about year-round reasons to visit the Walled City, visit www.DiscoverNorthernIreland.com or www.VisitDerry.com. Despite my recent desecration, the walls are still standing.

Finding Peace in Times of Troubles

Terri and I don’t do well when it comes to off-limits areas. In fact, if there’s a sign that says KEEP OUT or AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY, chances are we can be found on the wrong side of it. It’s not that we don’t understand the message. It’s just that it’s so damn tempting to find out what’s so special that we aren’t allowed to see it.

We have the same problem when there’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity that may or may not be allowed, at least by civilized or legal standards. So imagine the attraction, nay, the overwhelming obsession that we felt when we were traveling through Belfast on a Black Taxi Tour, and our guide, Billy Scott, took us to see one of the art- and graffiti-coated Peace Walls. These huge chunks of concrete practically scream out for a writer to grab the nearest pen and go to town (or in this case, warring suburb).

A close up of the hand on a wall
There are all sorts of styles of art on display on the Peace Walls. Some happy…some not so much.

Why are there Walls?

The walls were built in response to the 1969 North Ireland riots that are most often referred to as “the Troubles,†in which upwards of 3,500 people died. About 38 such walls still exist in Belfast, separating the Republican and Nationalist Catholic neighborhoods from the Loyalist and Unionist Protestant areas. Most are adorned with spray-painted art, quotes and slogans memorializing the struggle, remembering those lost or thankfully, encouraging peace and reconciliation.

The security-gated walls, some of which are 25 feet high and three kilometers long, were meant to be temporary. They were built to separate hostile factions and to help maintain peace in these areas, many of which still fly the flags of Britain or the Republic of Ireland. These platforms that divide the city also became canvasses for people’s thoughts, hopes and fears…making us want to share our own.

A tree is next to the side of a building
What do you do with a 25-foot tall wall in the center of your town? Why, write on it, of course!

Leaving Our Mark

Billy slowly cruised along the wall, sharing information about the paintings and stories of those who were lost. Stopping to watch an artist at work, he mentioned that some of what was currently being created was commissioned public art, encouraged by local arts agencies as a way to reach across communities.

Vanessa: Oh my god. This is just so beautiful. And so sad. And so heartwrenching.

Terri: I can’t believe how many people have written on it. There’s so much history here.

Vanessa:  Can I write on it?

Billy (handing me a pen): Well, it’s technically illegal to put graffiti on government walls…

Unfortunately, Billy didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence, as Terri and I were both bailing out of the black taxi while ripping the pen caps off with our teeth. We may or may not have actually written on the wall (depending on who is reading this and if it will cause an international incident). While there are pictures, there’s not technically proof.

Terri: What did you write?

Vanessa: Write? Nothing, of course. That would be wrong.

Terri: And illegal.

Vanessa: Possibly unethical.

Terri: So move and let me read it.

A woman is painting on the side of a building.
I might or might not have written on the wall. Deniability is key.

You Don’t Have to Break the Law

Even if you don’t plan to leave your mark on the walls, you should definitely make plans to visit these monuments before they are gone. In 2013, the North Ireland Executive (a government branch) laid out a plan to remove the walls by the year 2023 “by mutual consent.â€Â This is still being met, not surprisingly, with arguments from all sides. Even if they do agree, there will probably still be some delay. Northern Ireland has been without a government for two years (can’t we all just get along?) so the wrecking ball probably won’t be swinging any time soon.

I personally would hope that the walls would end up in a museum somewhere, as the area’s history—both good and bad—is displayed so movingly through its artwork.

A mural of soldiers in uniform with guns.
While the Troubles are over, the memories remain.

A Guide to Walls…and Whiskey

As for whether to visit the area, it is safe for travelers. While memories of the Troubles are still strong, the rioting and civil unrest of those tumultuous decades is over. I’d definitely recommend going with a guide, though, so that you don’t miss anything. The Black Taxi tour drivers are well-versed in the area’s history and art, and can take you to areas of town that you wouldn’t know to visit. Somehow we ended up in a bar, and a whiskey shop, and a wildly painted courtyard on the other side of a pub. Let’s just say that Billy had a good grasp of what would interest us.

The bonus, of course, is that you also get to listen to beguiling Irish accents, hear some off-color jokes, and make lifelong friends. We stay in touch with Billy through his Facebook page, and I remain jealous that he’s drinking some fine Irish whiskey without us. (Save me some Writers Tears, Billy!)

A painting of people with one person holding up his fist.
Billy Scott, tour guide extraordinaire

If You Go

The walls can be found in numerous cities in Northern Ireland, especially in Belfast. To learn more about things to see and do in the city, including Black Taxi Tours and walking tours, visit http://www.visitbelfast.com/. To hook up with Billy’s tour, visit http://www.touringaroundbelfast.com/. Just don’t believe any of the stories he shares about us.

A black taxi cab is parked on the side of the road.
Who wouldn’t want to ride in a Black Taxi? Even on the wrong side of the road…