I’ve travelled far and wide in Ireland over the years, but one place I hadn’t been to was Derry/ Londonderry.

So when the opportunity came to visit Northern Ireland’s second-biggest city, I jumped at the chance.

Unbeknown to me, Derry is one of the world’s Halloween hotspots and it was at the end of October that I spent three enjoyable days there.

With a wide range of special events, including a carnival parade and spectacular fireworks display, the celebrations certainly live up to their billing.

Amidst the heaving 30,000 crowd in the city on Halloween night was one young boy dressed as the Tardis from Doctor Who.

But you don’t need time travel to reach Derry, with a weekend break made easy by regular services to its compact little airport and a wonderfully scenic rail route from Belfast.

The focus may have been on Halloween, but as I discovered this is a city, which with more than its fair share of ghosts from the past, is a fascinating destination in its own right.

Most notably in recent times it was infamous for Bloody Sunday when British soldiers opened fire on a protest march against internment on January 30, 1972, shooting dead 13 unarmed civilians, and wounding another 18, one of whom subsequently died.

The events of that day plus what happened in the city during the Troubles are now told in the Museum of Free Derry.

We heard a harrowing account of the events of Bloody Sunday from museum education officer John Kelly, whose brother, Michael, was the youngest to be killed that day at the age of just 17.

The tour ends with film of former Prime Minister David Cameron in Parliament in 2010 apologising on behalf of the Government and the country for the “unjustified and unjustifiable” killings following the findings of the Saville Inquiry, and the triumphant reaction of those gathered in the city.

Oxford Mail:

Murals in the Bogside area are testament to the city’s recent troubled past. Derry’s history of conflict, though, stretches back much further. As the last fully intact walled city in Ireland, in 2018 it celebrated the 400th anniversary of its fortifications, which still have plenty of the original cannons.

During a Martin McCrossan City Walking Tour, our genial guide imparts much of Derry’s history as we look down on the impressive wall murals in the Bogside, which depict historical events related to the Troubles.

The walls faced their greatest test in 1688-89 when the city came under siege from King James II and his Jacobite army.

In the Siege Museum, the story of how the invaders were held at bay together with the legendary bravery of the 13 apprentice boys who closed the city gates is commemorated.

The tale is also featured at nearby St Columb’s Cathedral, which houses the original locks of the gates.

For three evenings before Halloween crowds flock to the fortifications as they come to life with Awakening The Walls.

There all kinds of spooky attractions, including a giant illuminated skeleton and the Return of the Goddess procession, while the haunted monk makes it a fright night for revellers.

Central to the celebrations is the Guildhall, which plays home to the ‘Museum of the Moon’–- Luke Jerram’s massive replica of the astronomical body.

Outside it’s a brief stroll to cross the River Foyle by the elegant S-shaped Peace Bridge, which was built with the aim of improving relations between the mainly unionist Waterside and the largely nationalist Cityside.

On the far bank is Ebrington Square, a public space and site of the Walled City Brewery, which is highly recommended. Voted ‘Best Gastro Pub’ in Ireland, it has the added attraction of ten local craft beers.

Indeed, smart restaurants aren’t in short supply with Soda & Starch in the heart of the Craft Village and the nearby Brickworks also worth visiting.

By the time Halloween arrives the city is buzzing, and it’s time to enter into the spirit of things.

Oxford Mail:

Returning to our base at the excellent four-star Maldron Hotel following a dazzling display by the Spark LED drummers, Elvis steps out of the lift. Derry is clearly ready to rock.

Having put on my skeleton-themed tuxedo, mask and hat, we join the crowds for the ‘Return of the Ancients’ Carnival Parade.

Les Luminéoles - illuminated fish-like creatures which float high in the night sky - lead the way in a procession featuring up to 1,000 costumed performers, including a New Orleans-style jazz band and Vikings.

Outside the City Hotel - the venue for the Halloween Ball where it’s the band’s rendition of Teenage Kicks by Derry’s very own The Undertones, which is to later fill the dance floor - one character is dressed as a postbox.

It’s an unlikely choice of costume among the witches, vampires and monsters, but then Derry is a city which delivers on all fronts.

In the footsteps of Seamus Heaney

FOR five years back in the late 1980s and early 90s, Seamus Heaney was the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

Heaney, who died in 2013 at the age of 74, received the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature - just one of many awards bestowed on him during a glittering career.

And now his life and work is celebrated at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in his home village of Bellaghy - around a 45-minute drive from Derry.

A purpose-built arts and literary centre, it’s sure to appeal to those who are familiar with Heaney and his writing.

Just down the road is Ballyscullion House, the home of Richard and Rosalind Mulholland. A former military base during the Second World War and also location for filming of part of Game Of Thrones, it accepts group visits.

Travelling back to Derry, it’s well worth stopping off at Ponderosa Bar & Restaurant. Not only is the food excellent at Ireland’s highest bar located at the top of the Glenshane, but you also get the chance to take home a special cutting of turf.

Oxford Mail: