‘Hope you’re carrying your Halloween costume,” smiles my cab driver Tim, as he puts my suitcase in the boot of his limousine. As I shake my head, he adds, “Not to worry, I am sure you can put something together, there are plenty of shops selling creative stuff that will be perfect for a Halloween outfit.”
As we zip down the road from the Belfast airport towards Derry-Londonderry, he is agog with excitement at what lies in store for the day dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the departed souls.
It sure isn’t difficult to be mesmerized by the beautiful vistas the landscape offers. “Ah, it’s raining out there in ‘Derryeh’,” declares Tim suddenly and with a smile adds, “I have long been in these parts and can immediately make out where the rain clouds are going about their business, and they do that quite often here.”
Admiring the dark-hued sky in the distance, all I can do is hope is that the temperature does not plummet as my host said it would, especially at this time of the year. And as I get off at The City Hotel, Tim’s goodbye comes with yet another reminder, “Besides Halloween, don’t forget to take time out for all the other ‘goodies’ that this city offers. But, for Hallows Eve, don’t be the odd one out —make sure you’re dressed to a tee.”
Sure enough, the spirit of Halloween that is believed to have its roots in Irish history is one of passion and colour. And no, Irishmen will not have you believe that it originated from America. “The Guy Fawkes association happened much later,” they will tell you. Northern Ireland, rather Derry is where it all began, they say. And Halloween’s origins here go back to a thousand years to the time when, according to an ancient belief, on the Celtic festival of Samhain (that marks the end of harvest or the end of summer and the beginning of the harsh winter) the ghosts of the dead come back and even mingle with ‘earthlings’.
So, when in Derry, be prepared to have fun-filled encounters with ‘visitors’ from the Other World, especially at the ‘Awakening of the Walls’ evening where these creatures try to scare the living daylights out of you. It’s not enough for residents to just decorate their homes with traditionally macabre symbols of witches, skeletons, ghosts, cobwebs, headstones, etc but to also dress up in the scariest of outfits — all in a bid to spook the evil spirits away.
“While all these stories are fun, Halloween is essentially family time,” says Linda Rotty donning an “evil witch” costume as her two children dressed as a unicorn and a skeleton, look on with a smile. “I come down each year to spend time with my parents, and of course, to enjoy the spirit of Halloween here.”
The Rottys, like thousands of others (around 30,000 is the estimated footfall), have driven down to Derry that has been living up to its title of the ‘Best Halloween Destination in the World’ (bestowed on it by a USA Today readers’ poll in 2015) overtaking Salem in Massachusetts with its history of witch trials and even Transylvania, the home of Dracula.
In costumes ranging from bloodstained monsters, vampires, werewolves, sword-wielding pirates to even Batsman and Catswoman, both kids as well as grown-ups join in the revelry that includes a fascinating Halloween Carnival parade through the centre of town followed by a spectacular fireworks display.
Finally, it’s time for a pub crawl for a date with the devil! Despite a late night donned in black with my face painted in colours of blood to give denizens of the Other World the heebie-jeebies, the next day, I am all set to explore the city that has a rich history of conflict and reconciliation.
I walk towards the Museum of Free Derry where you can get to trace the history of the ‘Troubles’ era and its impact on the city. A light drizzle creates a sombre mood as I stop to gaze at the 12 murals, “political statements of the time”.
These murals, made by local Bogside artists —brothers Tom Kelly and William Kelly and Kevin Hasson — were a form of protest by the Catholics against the British policies and lack of job and economic opportunities for them.
Julia adds how every time she walks down Rossville Street, she can almost visualize the scene here on 30 January 1972 or “the Bloody Sunday” — when British tanks and guns targetted unarmed people who were part of a civil rights march organized to protest a policy of indefinite detention and interrogation by their military.
And among the most haunting of visuals here are the Bloody Sunday Commemoration that features the faces of the 14 victims and ‘The Hunger Strikers’ that focuses on the plight of the hunger strikers in a Belfast prison. And the ‘Death of Innocence’, depicting Annette McGavigan, a young 14-year-old girl who was shot in the head as she happened to be walking down the street in September, 1971.
Going past the wall on which is written ‘You Are Now Entering Free Derry’ that, incidentally, first appeared on a gable wall in the Bogside, I enter the award-winning Museum of Free Derry, established by the Free Sunday Trust to tell the story of the civil rights movement and the creation of Free Derry in the 1960s and -70s. Through state-of-the-art audio-visual displays, the Museum presents an arresting insight into the city’s role in the worldwide civil rights movement.
Later, moving towards the Guildhall, I decide on an up-close and personal encounter with one of the most realistic replicas of the Earth’s only permanent satellite. It’s the Museum of The Moon — UK artist Luke Jerram’s acclaimed creation that offers visitors a chance to explore the lunar landscape in unprecedented detail. He has used detailed Nasa imagery of the lunar surface to create what he hopes will be the closest people can come to experiencing and exploring the Moon’s surface.
A darkened hall houses a giant, seven-metre diameter, illuminated scale model of the Moon suspended from the ceiling. It is complimented by a surrounding soundtrack created by Bafta and Ivor Novello award-winning composer Dan Jones. As I get the opportunity to meet the affable John Boyle, the 400th mayor of Derry, wearing the official Mayor’s Chain of Office, he tells me how much people have been enjoying their “flights to the Moon” or rather, the Moon’s descent on Planet Earth.
Later, I walk towards the city walls, the piece de resistance of Derry. Boasting a width from 12 to 35 feet, the walls have seven entry points together with imposing bastions, watchtowers, battlements and are dotted with many fearful-looking, restored, cannons. I watch the evening descend and as the skyline gradually starts looking like a palette of varied shades of yellow, orange and red, its delightful colours reflecting on the city below, the walls exude a magical hue.
The entire structure of the walls is still in place and accessible to walkers. What makes them special is that even during the 105-day siege in 1689, they kept the city safe, never allowing it to be breached, giving Derry the title of the ‘Maiden City’.
I ask an elderly gentleman here the story behind the city’s moniker name, “Is it Derry or Londonderry?” “Both,” he answers, “but we prefer to call it just Derry. It was the British who wanted to assert their association with this city and hence added ‘London’ to it.”
Sure enough, once known by its old Irish name, Daire, meaning ‘oak grove’, with time the city adopted the more anglicized ‘Derry’. But in 1613, after being granted with a Royal Charter by King James I, it was prefixed with ‘London’ to reflect the funding of its construction by the London guilds. While both are correct, the nationalists here favour using the name Derry, and unionists Londonderry.