Modern Halloween festivities evolved from ancient Ireland during the time when Druids conjured curses, people believed in superstitions and supernatural entities, and rituals were used to placate the gods. These surreal elements are prominent in Irish Halloween festivals to this day, making Ireland the key destination to succumb to the strange, macabre and demonic at the end of October.
Halloween traditions emanate from Samhain (pronounced sow-en), October 31 on the Celtic calendar, the date that marked the end of the year once harvest was completed; the new year started the next day. Communal gatherings the evening of Samhain were a mix of celebration and caution as the Celts believed spirits from the netherworld roamed freely on earth that night.
People dressed like the prowling demons on Samhain to deceive potential abductors, and they offered treats to appease them. Druids carried embers from the bonfire at Tlachtga (pronounced clock-ta) in carved turnips to light the fires at other ceremonial sites and home hearths for the year ahead. Irish immigrants brought these traditions to America in the 19th century, where they were adapted.
Today, Halloween festivals in Ireland are multiday cultural extravaganzas that echo their pagan roots with bonfires, towering mythic goddesses and creatures, dramatic processions and illuminations to dispel the darkness. Dublin is transformed into the Victorian era of bodysnatching when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula.
Following are unique Halloween festivals that include spectacles, theatrics, mischief, music and fun.
Púca Festival. Photo courtesy of Failte Ireland
PÚCA FESTIVAL, ATHBOY AND TRIM
This double festival presents an authentic version of Samhain events at the site of the legend’s origin in Athboy as well as a modern celebration in Trim with a light show, concerts, a parade and activities, many taking place on the grounds of the town’s 12th-century castle.
The Samhain origin experience in Athboy features a tour of the hilltop earthwork enclosure of Tlachtga with Dr. Ciara Ni Crábhagáin, a local anthropologist and expert on the history of medieval Ireland. Visitors can also participate in the Samhain reenactment with a torchlit Druid procession from Athboy to the ceremonial site for the ritual bonfire, chanting, storytelling and fire figures.
The Hill of Tlachtga is an ancient sacred site, named for a powerful goddess, explains Ni Crábhagáin, who believes the historic site is among Ireland’s most significant. Archaeological digs unearthed pottery dating to the Neolithic period 4,000 to 2,000 BC, as well as evidence of massive ceremonial fires dating to AD 1,200. The Samhain origin story here is referenced in Ireland’s oldest historical writings.
In Trim, the Púca, a shape-shifting entity, appears in a variety of forms during Samhain celebrations, notably in the giant illuminations projected on the walls of Trim Castle and as huge specters in the town parade. Past festivals have featured a laser show of lightning strikes on St. Mary’s Abbey ruins, fire installations, theatrical productions, old horror film screenings and music sessions.
A festival highlight is the grizzly history of Trim Castle revealed by local guide Cynthia Simonet on the Murder Hole Tour. “Trim Castle’s past is brutal,” says Simonet, adding that murder holes are a feature in castle entrance archways that allowed guards to throw boiling oil, rocks, lime and tar onto invaders below. An archaeological dig on castle grounds turned up three headless bodies as proof of executions, and records show an oubliette, a dungeon hole where prisoners were left to die, she explained.
Bram Stoker Festival. Photo courtesy of Failte Ireland
BRAM STOKER FESTIVAL
Those attending the Dublin festival marking 125 years since the publication of Dracula by native author Bram Stoker might wear garlic and carry a crucifix, as people in full vampire costumes with fangs are seen across the city.
Past festivals have featured an illuminated installation on the Grand Canal with an eerie soundtrack; a séance led by a medium fusing technology and theater performance; an outlandish parade; a concert of ballads based on murders; and Bite of Dublin, a gastronomic walking tour taking in Bram Stoker’s haunts and top chefs’ creations.
There were also related literary programs at the Museum of Literature Ireland; the Haunting of Marsh’s Library, an after-hours tour of Ireland’s oldest library with sensational tales; and the Anatomy of a Corpse presentation on Victorian-era body snatching. The 2022 anniversary festival promises more dark storytelling.
Macnas Spectacle Parade. Photo by Julie Dunin Photography
MACNAS SPECTACLE PARADE
Macnas, an award-winning spectacle theater company based in Galway, presents this large-scale Halloween parade on the city’s streets with 16-foot-tall puppets, stilt-walkers, drumming corps, pyrotechnics and original music. The creative extravaganza incorporating 300 performers in elaborate costumes and many more behind the scenes wows spectators.
“A spectacle for us is about scale and epic visual storytelling,” says Johnny O’Reilly, Macnas executive director. “The highlighted creatures invite you into their inner world and tell you their stories. And the response is incredible.” He notes that past puppet creations include a tormented giant named Crom; a disillusioned cailleach, or witch; and a fanged wolf that unexpectedly turned on the crowd.
The kinetic puppets take a year of work by artists, sculptors, engineers and craftspeople, and often require eight puppeteers to operate. The extended team of playwrights, sound and special-effects technicians, lighting designers, actors, musicians and dancers ensures memorable results.
Derry Halloween is Europe’s biggest Halloween festival. Photo courtesy of Derry City & Strabane District Council
DERRY HALLOWEEN, DERRY-LONDONDERRY
Presented for more than 35 years, this is Europe’s biggest Halloween festival. A series of spirit worlds are featured across the city with a walking trail to take in the creative installations, performances, fire displays, phantom encounters, music and illuminations.
The spirit world created inside the 400-year-old walls of the city core called “City of Bones” welcomes visitors with the skeleton from the city’s coat of arms atop the main entrance gate. At past events, an acrobatics troupe performed daredevil stunts, a giant spider puppet roamed the streets, supernatural animations were projected on the old walls, and digital sound clouds added atmosphere.
“Whispering Wharf” is the spirit world created along the waterfront where a cailleach beckons visitors to listen to seanchai, or storytellers, tell ghostly tales with chilling effects. St. Columb’s Park hosts the spirit world “Forest of Shadows.” Here, shape-shifter Queen Morrigan lures visitors along dark paths where other shape-shifters lurk.
Additional festival highlights include cemetery tours, a Gothic organ performance at the Guildhall, a carnival parade, a gourmet food trail, the Samhain Sessions after-dark music trail and grand-finale fireworks over the River Foyle.
Halloween in Ireland is a treat for visitors thanks to vivid pageantry, compelling visual experiences and memorable entertainment rooted in tradition. Attending in costume is encouraged.
Derry Halloween is Europe’s biggest Halloween festival.