As the home of mystical Celtic traditions, the banshee, the creator of Dracula, ghostly tales, tricks, treats, festivals and parades, the Emerald Isle is a bewitching destination at Halloween.
At the scariest time of year, spooky Halloween entertainment abounds in Ireland’s incalculable estate of haunted castles and rustic stately homes, houses, pubs and gaols, all usually obliged by a cloak of dark and suitably eerie October evenings.
The whole country gets into the, er, spirit, and ramps up the horror and gore into a frighteningly heady mix of mystery and merrymaking.
But at least a break on the Emerald Isle at Halloween time isn’t scary on the pocket; in fact it’s your ticket to a great-value package of thrills and spills.
So here are the top five reasons why you’ll be spellbound in Ireland this Halloween – it would be terror-able if you missed it. Wouldn’t it… hoa, hoa, hoa?
1. Ireland invented it
Sure wasn’t it the ancient traditions of Ireland that gave the world Halloween in the first place.
It all began in Celtic Ireland as an end-of-summer festival celebrated as ‘Samhain’ and sometimes referred to as the Celtic New Year.
Being the start of the dark season, it was associated with the dead and the otherworld. The pagan Celts believed that on the night of 31 October the veil between the present world and the next was at its weakest and that the spirits of the dead could pass through. They lit bonfires to guide friendly spirits and wore costumes and masks to scare off evil spirits.
So next time you don a costume for Halloween think of Ireland. Scary dressing up started there and several other Irish Halloween traditions have also spread throughout the world, among them carving demon faces on hollowed-out pumpkins.
In old Ireland these Jack-o-lanterns were originally made from turnips. They were supplanted by pumpkins after emigrants took the tradition to America, but Jack-o-lanterns originate in an old Irish folk tale about Stingy Jack who played a trick on the Devil. As a punishment the Devil doomed Jack to wander eternity with only a burning ember from the everlasting fires of Hell inside a turnip to light his way.
Telling ghost stories is also as Irish as it gets, while other customs such as apple bobbing, visiting haunted places and trick or treating that are now practices all over the world began in, and in fact are still alive and well on the Emerald Isle today.
2. There’s so many stories to entertain
On your Irish Halloween travels it will be essential to talk to the locals. The original land of storytellers will regale you with the most unbelievable tales from the gigantic storehouse of Irish myth, legend, lore and imagination, not to mention a tumultuous history splattered with bloodshed and gore.
It could be eerie apparitions, tales of the mysterious megalithic monuments dotting the countryside, the exhumation of skeletons, black masses, human and animal sacrifices – or maybe a saga of mythical Irish demons sucking the blood from the living.
Or it might be malevolent leprechauns, pookas and ‘eye witness accounts’ of the dreaded banshee. Descriptions of the banshee’s appearance vary from an ugly old hag to a beautiful young woman, but all agree the creature’s blood-curdling cry, one of the scariest sounds to the Irish psyche, will be heard three times before someone dies.
Perhaps these old tales were passed on to entertain during the dark winter nights. Maybe they were a way for parents to scare their children so they stayed out of harm’s way. Or possibly they are more than just stories, hoa, hoa, hoa... any which way the Irish will be happy to recount them.
3. It’s got stacks of scary experiences
Count Dracula, the original scary vampire and forerunner to TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood, is himself an Irish creation.
Dublin’s Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker defined the modern image of the monster in Dracula, his masterpiece novel, one of the most popular books of the 20th century. Many believe he took the name from the Irish ‘Dreach-Fhoula’, pronounced droc-ola, and meaning ‘bad or tainted blood’.
With 2012 being the centenary of the author’s death, Gothic fans should make for the special tricks and treats planned in Dublin. The Bram Stoker Festival (27-28 October) will peel back the layers of the city to reveal stories of Victorian Dublin and combine a playful contemporary celebration of Halloween with all things vampire. Interactive literary and film events, unique walking tours, a themed street animation and a Gothic spectacle for all ages will be on offer.
Dublin might the friendliest European city, but with more over a thousand years of history it is also one of the most haunted, so there are plenty of exceptional frights to be found and lots going on over the Halloween holiday weekend. It’s one of the biggest dares in the city to take a ghost tour, especially on Dublin Ghost Bus, otherwise known as the Hellfire Express.
The National Leprechaun Museum in the capital is dedicated to Irish folklore, mythology and enchanting stories. Every year the museum leaves the modern world behind to celebrate Samhain and what it meant to the Celts. Daytime tours for adults and children offer cauldrons of entertainment with weird stories from long ago, spot prizes for costumes, face painting, pumpkin and turnip carving (24 October – 5 November). In the evening an adult only event explores the dark otherworld of Ireland. Celebrate the ancient festival here…if you have the nerve.
Practically every castle and stately home across Ireland has its own ghostly tale. Some are of old and ancient ghosts, some of more modern spirits and there are plenty of accommodations that offer haunted weekend adventures. Those looking for a scary encounter might experience more than they bargained for around Ireland’s castles.
Three fortifications in County Offaly alone – Leap Castle, Kinnitty Castle and Charleville Castle – are noted for eerie activity, and while it’s a four-star stay, County Cavan’s Cabra Castle Hotel was named the second scariest hotel in the world two years ago by ratings site TripAdvisor.
Other haunted hostelries you can stay in include the comfortably converted 17th century Ballygally Castle Hotel on the Causeway Coastal Route in County Antrim. It has its own ‘haunted room’ where door knocking and the wail of a child are said to disturb the occasional guest ...book in to get the full story.
The 120 year old Renvyle House Hotel and Resort in Connemara also has many a story to tell from its turbulent history including pirate queens and ghostly characters. It even has its own ‘fairy ring’ so watch out for trickery in the area.
For a milder stop on the highway to hell try Belfast’s night-time Halloween tours of the Friar’s Bush graveyard, eerily lit by flickering candle-lanterns – excellent for an atmospheric night out learning about the tragedies of Irish history.
Or go ghost-busting in Cork, which will stage the 12th World Ghost Convention (26 October), held fittingly enough in the City Gaol. This scientific, therapeutic and educational ghost convention offers an ideal meeting ground for the many people fascinated with the supernatural to share their interest.
4. It hosts the world’s largest Halloween parties
In Northern Ireland you can really unleash your inner ghoul at the world’s biggest annual Halloween party in Derry~Londonderry, which will be the UK’s first City of Culture all through 2013.
A heart-stopping 25,000 people flock to The Banks of the Foyle Halloween Carnival (27 Oct - 31 Oct) each year in the legendary city for a four-day festival where a range of family-friendly activity and scaring the stuffing out of each other is all part of the fun. Locals and visitors alike embrace the long tradition of dressing up for one of the most authentic Halloween festivals in Europe and a visit just to see the fantastic costumes on display is well worth it.
This premier date in Ireland’s festival calendar lets visitors take to the streets to explore haunted houses, listen to spine-tingling stories on ghost walks about the city, bob for apples, carve pumpkins and enjoy free concerts.
The eerie events culminate in the Carnival of Light parade with a major riverside fireworks display guaranteed to make you jump out of your skin. Best bring a costume, as balls, discos, and banquets take place across the city and basically the entire population infests the steep streets, dark alleys and even the famous Walls of Derry with wailing witches, vivacious vampires and grisly ghosts.
The Galway Aboo Festival in County Galway on Ireland’s famous west coast is another major Halloween party that sees the city’s Latin Quarter and medieval streets come alive with a fright fest of fun and high-spirits.
The end of October is not just Halloween time, it’s pumpkin time. And that’s why pumpkin heads across Europe will be making for the weigh-in at the Virginia Pumpkin Festival in County Cavan over the bank holiday weekend (25– 29 October). Large pumpkins from all over Europe compete for the title of biggest pumpkin and the streets fill with people in fancy dress as they make their way to the pumpkin marquee for a massive party. The festival’s fireworks display over Lough Ramor is spectacular.
Meanwhile in the Irish midlands a spectacular torch-lit procession from Athboy in County Meath to the top of the ancient Hill of Ward, the place where it is thought Samhain originated, takes place every 31 October as part of the Spirits of Meath Halloween Festival. It offers an unusual and eerie experience of Ireland’s Celtic past mixed with twenty-first century sensibilities and re-enactment.
In addition, this year the festival (19 October - 5 November) will see 35 spine tingling events taking place in every corner of the county, including Farmaphobia (“We warn you now that the event is very scary”), Haunted Spooktacular at Grove Open Farm and Phantom Funtasia at Funtasia Water Park. Add in themed events all across the area and County Meath is definitely one of Ireland’s biggest and best Halloween experiences.
5. It’s for everyone
From carnivals, to comedy, children’s activities and spectacular fireworks shows, there is a lighter side to Halloween in Ireland too that majors on treats and fun and minors on tricks and frights.
The Halloween Howls Comedy Festival in Portlaoise County Laois (25 - 29 October) in Ireland’s midlands pulls visitors from everywhere for a good Halloween belly-laugh.
Have a howl too at Westport House and Pirate Adventure Park’s annual Halloween Fest (27 October – 4 November). The owners are direct descendants of Grace O’Malley, the famous Pirate Queen of Connaught. Their stately home will be transformed into a (not too) scary haunted house for the week and there’s children’s Jack-o-lantern workshops, a fireworks extravaganza and a haunting Halloween dance on the front lawn. Dress to distress, you could win a prize.
More fireworks are on offer along with a great mix of local food and music at the Seapark Fireworks Festival in County Down (27 October).
A Hogwarts Halloween is available at one of Ireland’s premier properties. Dating back to 1228 and consistently ranked as one of the best resorts in the world, Ashford Castle is the supreme setting – secret rooms, high turrets, hidden alcoves, and mystical woodland – to experience Harry Potter’s magical world of witches and wizards. There are two packages on offer from 28 October to 6 November.
Join in some hocus-pocus at the Argory in Country Armagh and Springhill in County Derry, both spectacular National Trust properties. Family fun is an offer with ghoulish games, haunted trails and spooky tales (27-28 October).
The choice really is endless.
You can also sample Lullymore Heritage and Discovery Park’s Halloween Happenings Week which sees Halloween fever reach its peak; seven spooky days of frightful fun combines a themed train ride, treasure hunts and its very own haunted house.
In Florence Court in County Fermanagh, a specially themed Halloween Fest and Craft Fair will also be serving up some festive treats (28 October).
Another great way to get into the Spirit of Halloween is with the Waterford & Suir Valley Railway´s Spooky Express. Brave families can take a trip in the dark where anything can happen (27 October).
And anything can happen too at Bunratty Castle and Folk Park in County Clare where you can venture into the basement’s Creepy Crypt where Dracula, Frankenstein and Freddie Kruger and other spooks lie in wait.
If you prefer more treat than trick then Aunt Sandra’s Candy Factory in Belfast or Butler’s Chocolate Experience in Dublin will make the perfect Halloween destination. Special scary chocolate workshops will let you create your own yummy chocolate treats. Prizes and fun for all ages and spooky surprises guaranteed. Well, it is Halloween in Ireland after all.