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The power of festivals in place

Tuesday night saw a return of “scary” to the streets of Derry. But the blood was (thankfully) fake, and the loud bangs were just the fabulous fireworks.

Derry has created the largest Halloween celebration in Europe with 100,000 people taking part in the 4 day festival culminating on Halloween itself. It is an important part of the continuing transformation of the City which was seeded by Derry holding the title of the City of Culture in 2013.  The tangible economic benefits are of course important, but the intangible benefits stand out for me. The confidence, pride, community involvement and pro-active shaping and living a new city narrative is evident.

The role of festivals and culture more broadly is often under-indexed as an agent for change in towns and cities.  Derry’s Halloween festival highlights all that is good about the city and is a pure place-based approach. Way before Derry girls, and all during the troubles, locals recognised that Derry was a city for music, art, drama and literature but it was overshadowed by the political strife and poor economic conditions. Derry is joining the ranks of other top players in this space – the Edinburgh Fringe, Notting Hill carnival and smaller literary festivals that have put towns like Kilkenny or Cheltenham on the international visitor’s maps.

The Halloween festival is helping to forge a new identity for the city – a place to have fun and engage with cultural activities irrespective of politics or background. It’s a multigenerational family event. A safe and welcoming city for locals and visitors  – and they came in droves from many countries. We hosted a friend of my son’s – Alex – a curious 22 year old Australian girl travelling across Europe who landed on Tuesday morning specifically to join the celebration. 

It’s more than clever place marketing – and hats off to the festival organisers for a great job on that front – it’s also a great place-based event on a number of other fronts. It’s cognisant of the spatial elements and main geographic features. The majestic River Foyle, the peace bridge and the historic Guild Hall feature heavily in the pictures. Activities are spread across the city over a 4 day period so visitors get to see more of it. It highlights some of the significant regeneration projects such as Ebrington barracks – a symbol of what once divided the City but now well used as a public space for festivals and events.

It’s set up to attract locals and visitors but it relies heavily on community as part of the delivery. The parade included representation from many schools and local dance groups – a whole new perspective on performance which surely for young participants will create positive memories to last a lifetime.

And like the events curated for the City of Culture, it instils pride and even humility. Visitors coming here, for all the right reasons. The fireworks are not just to mark the end of this pagan festival – every year they are a celebration of just how far we have travelled.

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