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Masquerading as Subversion?

On 31 October each year, the population of Derry takes to the streets to celebrate Halloween in a way that seems difficult to reconcile with its ‘troubled’ history. This paper examines Halloween in Derry in the contexts of Irish folk customs and social history, and suggests that the possibility of carnival is not only a means of cultural and subversive rehearsal of liberation for an oppressed group (Fanon), but can also function to expose the ways in which the carnival disguise acts as a means of subversion through performativity (Bakhtin).

On 30th October 1993, during an evening of Halloween celebrations, two masked gunmen entered a bar in Greysteels, Derry, Northern Ireland, and shouted ‘Trick or Treat’ before opening fire. Seven people died and thirteen were injured: of the seven dead, six were Catholic, and one was Protestant. On 17 November 1993, less than a month after the Greysteels Halloween murders, a soccer match was held in Belfast between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as part of the 1994 World Cup. The atmosphere during the match was extremely volatile, and the local crowd contained elements of vocal and openly hostile Protestant extremists who made no secret of their dislike towards the ‘foreign’ visitors from across the border (it needs to be said, of course, that the crowd also contained substantial numbers of Protestants who were there simply to watch the match). The event was marred by a number of offensive events, including graffiti and anti-Catholic and racist chants when the Republic of Ireland scored a goal (a number of the Republic’s players were of racially mixed heritage). Arguably more offensive than anything else, however, were the persistent chants of ‘Trick or Treat,’ throughout the game.

These events – not especially significant in a brutalised environment of civil war on the island of Ireland – raise two particular questions: first, how could a group of Protestant paramilitaries be so certain that the majority of revellers in a particular bar in Derry on a Halloween night would be Catholic and, second, why was the chant of ‘trick or treat’ used to threaten and intimidate fans of the Republic during the soccer match in Belfast: why not just chant ‘Greysteels’ to invoke the horror of the event? In other words, what is it about Halloween, in particular, that allows it to be utilised and exploited as a symbol of religious, political and cultural distinction between the two dominant tribes of Northern Ireland? I will attempt to answer these questions by exploring the phenomenon of Halloween celebrations in Derry as a political event in the contexts of both Irish folk customs and social history. I will suggest that while the source of the phenomenon itself is located in the former, the growing popularity of Halloween celebrations among both Catholics and Protestants in the North, raises the possibility that Halloween in Derry represents the beginnings of a symbolic celebration of cultural unity in Northern Ireland at a time when many other solutions seem largely to have stalled.

Clearly, the 800-year troubled history between Ireland and England is beyond the boundaries of this paper, but it is important to note that the contemporary events in Derry, including its Halloween carnival, have a history that can be traced back a very long time – certainly to long before Partition. In terms of population today, the Republic has almost 4 million citizens, while the North has around 1.5 million. The predominant religion of the Republic is Roman Catholic and is relatively homogeneous, certainly in the contemporary period. However, religion in the North is much more problematic and politically-inflected. Of the 1.5 million people there, approximately 1 million (and declining) are Protestants of various denominations and the rest are Roman Catholic. This means that there is a double division at work in Ireland as a whole – that between the Republic and the North, and that within the North, based, ostensibly, on the religious differences of the two dominant communities, but which, on closer scrutiny, actually suggests cultural, class and political, rather than religious differences.

Politically, and largely culturally, Catholicism in Northern Ireland has continued to be identified with all things Irish, while Protestantism (Calvinism, rather than Lutheranism or Wesleyism) has generally been linked to a British identity. From the time of Partition in the 1920s, the North was controlled by Protestant-dominated politics, and its Catholic population experienced many inequities relating to employment, housing, and voting rights – and Derry, which had a large Catholic population, suffered especially severe discrimination. Since the mid-1960s, Northern Ireland has experienced what is euphemistically called ‘the Troubles’ – a period of often severe civil unrest between the two tribes, during which the British Army remained on active duty from August 1969 until the very recent peace agreements were implemented. Everything about Northern Ireland, then, is contentious and based on a binary of Protestant/Catholic. The religious divisions equate into political and paramilitary/activist terms which tend to represent the spectrum of binaries through which the two communities understand and talk about each other: Protestant/unionist/loyalist versus Catholic/nationalist/republican.

Officially, there are only two cities in the North – Belfast and Derry. Belfast is considered to be a Protestant city, and Derry an essentially Catholic or Irish city which was for a long time politically controlled by Protestants – although even its name is contentious: Catholics use Derry while Protestants are said to prefer Londonderry (despite the fact that two of the most prominent songs associated with Protestant/loyalist culture – ‘The Sash’ and ‘Derry’s Walls’ – both contain ‘Derry’) – which caused one journalist (Gerry Anderson) to rename it ‘Stroke City’ since so many people use both, with an oblique or stroke in-between in an attempt to avoid the problem. In appearance and in cultural and local customs, Derry ‘feels’ like an Irish city (in the context of the North, read ‘Catholic’), and it has always struggled to acknowledge its place in an Irish, rather than British historical tradition, such as the fact that there are statues of famine refugees placed centrally towards the Quays in memory of the substantial number of famine migrants and refugees who left via the ‘Derry Kay to Americay.’ From the point of view of British/ Northern Irish traditions, the Famine belongs strictly to the Irish, and so such overt statements have more political overtones in Northern Ireland than they might elsewhere.

Over the period of ‘the Troubles,’ Derry has been the site of much civil strife, including ‘Bloody Sunday’ in January 1971, when thirteen Civil Rights marchers, made up of representatives from both communities, were shot by members of the British Army. But, ironically, Derry has also produced a substantial number of important contributors both to the subversive Republican movement and the peace process in Northern Ireland (often the same people), not least John Hume and Martin McGuinness. And, so, there is a political radicalism associated with Derry – much more so than with Belfast – which is common to those places where oppression and subversion has been a feature of daily life.

Officially, Derry is very proud of the fact that both traditions of Northern Ireland are acknowledged these days on all levels: it has two Cathedrals (Catholic and Church of Ireland/Anglican) which hold shared services several times throughout the year during which the congregations of each church attend a service at the other. Geographically, Derry also sits precisely on the border into Donegal (part of the Republic), yet the city remains an integral part of Northern Ireland. Unionist (Protestant) and Nationalist (Catholic) mayors now alternate annually, and there has been much achieved in terms of satisfying the needs of both communities, including official endorsement of a variety of festivals, which are of importance to both sides. But that’s the official story.

The unofficial story, by contrast, suggests that the relative peace that has come about in Derry these days is because it exists as an entirely divided city, which functions as well as it does, largely, by one community ignoring the other and living completely separate lives. The area known as the Waterside or East Bank and its population is predominantly Protestant, while the Cityside or West bank (the names have more significance than just geographic determinants, of course), and its residents are predominantly Catholic/Nationalist. Of its 100,000 population, 70% of Derry is Catholic. It is in this context of division and official/unofficial history that I want to place the phenomenon of Derry’s Halloween carnival, which regularly attracts up to 40,000 people over a two-day period.

The Halloween celebrations in Derry were originally part of a free outdoor carnival, introduced in 1986, by Kevin McCaul, then Deputy Chief Amenities Officer of the Derry City Council, as part of the North West Arts Festival. The official name change to the Banks of the Foyle Halloween Festival, which is promoted as being the ‘first and longest running Halloween carnival in the whole of Ireland’ (Derry City Council website), happened in 1991, at a time of restructuring within the Council when festivals became separated from the performing arts (McGee 2003). The Festival includes a fireworks display, a crazy costume day, student and other formal Balls, outdoor concerts, face painting, balloon modelling, and the awarding of prizes provided by corporate sponsors. The Council’s website also promotes Derry as ‘the place to be on 31October as the city stages its single biggest visitor attraction of the year’ (Derry City Council website). During the month of October, Derry actually becomes transformed into a ‘Halloween city,’ something that has proved very successful as a tourist attraction in recent years. I lived in Derry for a while during 2001, arriving there in October, and I was amazed at the number of ‘Halloween Shops’ that existed, all of which miraculously transformed back into news-agencies and other everyday businesses once the Halloween festivities were over. They had simply placed a false ‘Halloween’ name over their existing shop-fronts.

However, long before the Council officially legitimised Halloween celebrations in 1986, Derry’s Catholic population celebrated on 31 October in a way that set them apart, not only from other cities in Northern Ireland, but from the Republic – largely as a result of the fact that their politically marginalised position made the celebration a subversive activity. In general, Halloween in Ireland – and certainly in Northern Ireland – is something associated with Catholicism, despite the fact that it has a long Christian, rather than Catholic history. But the first difficulty encountered in teasing out the various aspects of Halloween history is in the disjunction, again, between official and unofficial versions. In the official story of Halloween, Christians, since the eighth century, have celebrated All Saints’ Day (the celebration of known and unknown Saints) on 1 November. Equally, there is a long history of celebrating All Hallow’s Eve: the words ‘saints’ and ‘hallows’ both mean Holy, so Halloween came to mean, literally, the evening before All Holy Ones’ Day. Even the most official Church history acknowledges that, like Christmas and Easter, Halloween has a connection to pre-Christian festivals, but this has never seemed incongruous with Christianity since most cultures and all religions have stories and superstitions about death, and so Halloween was able to be fitted into the Christian story along these lines. Christians, it was believed, remembered their dead on All Hallows Eve and celebrated Christ’s victory over death and the after-life: in the Middle Ages, for instance, people often acted out the story of Jesus’ victory over Satan by wearing unusual masks and costumes (effectively the source of the medieval mystery play).

In Irish folk custom, however, Halloween is just one of four very important celebrations in the Celtic calendar (coinciding with or heralding the change in seasons), during which all laws of space and time are suspended, allowing the spirit world to intermingle with the living, and at which time anyone in transition from one stage to another – pregnant women, the elderly, the very young, the ill – are susceptible to the spirits, good, evil and mischievous. Dressing up in costume, and wearing a mask was the major means of disguising yourself so as not to be ‘taken’ by a malevolent spirit. This is also evident in the mumming tradition in Ireland and Scotland, which is also associated with masking or guising and visiting from house to house. The point is that within Irish folklore, for instance, the period of Halloween represents a time when the barriers between the living and the dead are removed – it offers itself as a window or opportunity for communication between the material and the spiritual worlds. Just as Christmas, Easter and a number of other pagan or folk customs and traditions were absorbed and changed by the church, then, so was Halloween: but the key is that they were changed/absorbed/ assimilated/ accommodated through the association – they were not eliminated. Just as European Christianity attempted, unsuccessfully, to replace pre-existing pagan cult worship, so the Christian church replaced the Druid celebration of Samhain with All Saint’s Day – a process that did largely succeed.

In addition, the English Reformation in the sixteenth century had significance in Ireland that went far beyond religious upheaval. Put simply, Ireland remained Catholic and so religion, particularly in the shape, ultimately, of Roman Catholicism, came to represent everything that was not English and Protestant. Nationalism in Ireland – equally oppositional in a colonial context – came to align itself with the Catholic religion as joint oppositional forces against the spread and dominance of English Protestantism and imperialism. As a result, the unofficial policy of the Catholic Church in Ireland was to turn a blind eye to those folk customs associated with pagan festivals such as Halloween, because such customs were seen to help resist the proselytising of the Protestant religion. Superstition, then, worked to the advantage of Roman Catholicism in maintaining a community of people who were fearful of the consequences of straying too far from a religious affiliation that, albeit unofficially, acknowledged their known folk customs.

Curiously, Halloween has never been a time of inherent evil in Irish folklore, despite the often-popular representation of the event as somewhat sinister and threatening. These modern notions of evil associated with Halloween undoubtedly came from two sources: first, the fact that wherever there is the potential for a merging of good spirits there is also the potential for the emergence of malevolent ones, and, second, that after the English reformation, the Protestant churches became much more distinctive in their definitions of good and evil – there isn’t a great deal in-between – and, so, if a spirit wasn’t unambiguously good, then it must be evil. This demarcation is not nearly so clear in Irish folk customs or, in fact, in Roman Catholicism.

Halloween, traditionally, has been celebrated throughout the rest of Ireland, but, in Northern Ireland generally, there has been a much greater emphasis on 5 November – Guy Fawkes night, which also incorporates fireworks and communal celebrations – and, of course, 12 July, when Protestants celebrate with bonfires and marching bands. Until relatively recently, then, the Halloween celebrations in Derry can be located in the context of keeping the folk customs of a people alive: Halloween allowed the Catholics of Derry to keep in touch with their Celtic/Irish roots and, at the same time, permitted a form of subversive activity in the midst of political repression. In this reading, the allocation of the name ‘carnival’ to Derry’s Halloween celebrations is very fitting since the source of carnival, in its very many manifestations, is, in essence, a subversive activity.

There are many carnivals throughout the world, of course: the Day of the Dead in Mexico, which equates to All Soul’s Day in the Christian religion, and the Carnival of Venice, a more secular celebration brought about by the achievement of political independence for Venice, and ultimately associated with the Commedia dell’Arte and masquerade. But the two geographical regions of the world most closely associated with carnival in its subversive form are Trinidad/Tobago and Rio de Janeiro. Trinidad, in fact, is known as ‘the Mecca of Carnival,’ and the event itself is a bringing together of Trinidad’s mixed religious heritage: Roman Catholicism (French, but some Spanish and Irish), Anglican, Islamic (primarily Sunni), Hinduism, the Church of Scotland, the East Indian Presbyterians, African religions, Spiritual Baptists, Pentecostals and fundamentalist Christians (Riggio 1998:26). Central to its development was conflict among the elites of Trinidad, especially the ruling Anglicans and the Roman Catholic (largely French) planters who owned most of the estates. The European theory of carnival in Trinidad suggests that it is a pre-Lenten festival of the elite French and French Creole population, who permitted African and Afro-creole masking and costuming, but only as part of the dominant Christian festival. After emancipation, Africans celebrated their freedom in the festivity known as cannes brulées (canboulay), which ultimately became central to the carnival space, resulting in a withdrawal by the white elites. Carnival in Trinidad today, then, is a form of cultural coup by Africans who changed what had been a Euro-Catholic festival into an Afro-Trinidadian one (Riggio 1998:30). Some revision of this story suggests that canboulay was probably celebrated by the enslaved Africans long before emancipation, but, either way, there is evidence to suggest that emancipated Africans living in a place where masking and disguise were prohibited, except for Carnival Monday and Tuesday, actually appropriated the event for their own subversive purposes (Riggio 1998:12).

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is different again, although it too is linked to the Christian Lent. It starts on a Saturday, 40 days before Lent and ends on Fat Tuesday (with Mardi Gras). Its origins are unclear, but most seem to agree that it, too, started as a pre-Christian celebration in ancient Rome or Greece, possibly the remnant of Saturnalia, an ancient pagan holiday that occurred around Xmas. Some readings suggest that Christian leaders who didn’t want their followers to be lured away by the promiscuity of paganism during Saturnalia created a ‘Mass for Christ,’ or Christmas, which ended the festival of fun for many countries. It is generally thought that Fat Tuesday, the day of Mardi Gras, gets its name from a return to indulgence after the deprivation of Lent.

Rio’s first masquerade carnival ball was held in 1840, its street parades began in 1850, but had their golden era in the 1930s with the legendary balls at the Copacabana Palace, while the Samba carnival was first seen in 1917. The Samba Parade (the expensive floats that we are familiar with), which is now a central part of the carnival in Rio, also began in the 1930s, as did the involvement of the gay community. However, there has always been a strong communal or street element to Rio’s carnival.

It is possible to see both of these carnival traditions as evolving and incorporating styles from within their respective and very different cultural and industrial communities. Trinidad, for instance, is one of the oldest oil producing regions in the world, dating back to 1857. By 1910 the oil industry was linked to an international economy, and by the 1930s and 40s, the islanders had begun to use the discarded oil containers (that were both easily available and free) to make drums, hence the birth of the steel drum, now the official symbol of the Trinidad carnival (Riggio 1998:36). Similarly, in the eighteenth century, Rio was an extremely rich city with stocks of gold, coffee and sugar cane. However, its native population had little input or involvement in the commercial competition between Portugese, French and other economic invaders, nor did they have any political clout against the powerful Jesuit missionaries, who, despite their best efforts, never managed to extinguish the indigenous customs and beliefs. But the African slaves protected their own music and culture in Rio, and all of these features can be seen in its carnival today. For instance, Samba in Rio – in many ways the equivalent of the Trinidadian steel drum – is a mixture of Angolan semba, European polka, African batuques, along with Cuban habanera and other carribean styles (Volz 2003:1).

In this reading of cultural diversity, carnival has always allowed for a celebration of cultural, religious and political diversity. It depends on display, confrontation, competition, and (annual) reconciliation of many differences and backgrounds. By definition, then, it also allows for differences of a positive and negative kind to play its part in the celebration, just as the malevolent spirits are always a possibility during Halloween in folk custom. Nor can subversion in this context be the property of any one group. And so, we have the potential for carnival to be used for all manner of political goings-on – including, in the case of the Greysteels shooting in Derry, for sectarian murder.

Dan Baron Cohen has carried out some very important work in the area of community performance in Derry and his conclusion about the Halloween celebrations takes the following form:

Uniquely in Ireland, Derry nationalists celebrate Halloween over two nights by dressing up in the most morally, politically and culturally extreme grotesque costumes (nuns, prostitutes, devils, British politicians, police, British army squaddies , etc.). This carnival of the oppressed during the conflict clearly allowed an extraordinary release from the pressures of war and often repressive morality of the Catholic church. But, as with carnival in Brazil, behind the mask of the grotesque, the wearer can experiment with more illicit empathies and desires, even the highly complex fascination in, and attraction to, the oppressor. (Brewster et al. 1999:186)

The final allusion here is to Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, in which Fanon argues that violence is a cleansing force which frees the native from an imposed inferiority complex and from despair and inaction. While there is no doubt that elements of Derry’s carnival population would see the opportunity to participate in these identity rehearsals – and, sadly, the violence that often accompanies such events – as a liberating force, I think that there is little evidence to suggest that the behaviour of those who participate in Derry’s Halloween celebrations, represents any sort of postcolonial collective belief in the liberating potential of anti-colonialism at the local, community level.

Of more use, I think, in understanding the growing success of Halloween in Derry, is Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of carnival, articulated in Rabelais and His World, in which the carnival and its grotesque manifestations of excess form part of a rupture to existing social and political structures (in much the same way that Halloween does in the context of Irish folklore), and in which authoritarian views and hierarchies are challenged by the physicality of the human body. A summary of Bakhtin’s conceptualisation of the carnival of the grotesque includes a celebration of: the excessive (grotesque) body and its lower orifices; bisexuality and transvestism as escapes from socially imposed sex roles; obscenity in language and a favouring of common speech; and, perhaps most importantly, carnival as an event that demands participation even from its spectators – there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – but, rather, a performance which blurs the line between spectator and performer. Like the folk custom of Halloween itself, the carnival creates a window of opportunity and communication between different worlds.

In this context, then, Derry’s celebrations and the transformation of the city for the month of October, can be seen as more closely related to the level of folk custom than it can to a politicised post-coloniality – not that I’m suggesting the two are mutually exclusive. Rather, I think that the excesses of Halloween in Derry form part of a broader cultural and potentially subversive platform which would include a discourse of anti- and post-coloniality amongst other ‘political’ issues. There are those who participate in Derry’s Halloween celebrations for whom politics simply doesn’t play a part – those who dress as fairies or ghouls, for instance. But, the ‘politicisation’ of certain costumes for Halloween, such as that of nun or priest, for instance, allows the possibility of both Protestants and Catholics to utilise the concept of the identity rehearsal for their own, quite different reasons. The wearing of an identifiable (though usually fundamentalist) politician’s face blurs or obscures the defined boundaries or binaries that are such an entrenched part of life in Northern Ireland: would the wearer of a grotesquely caricatured Ian Paisley ‘mask’ or an English military uniform be more likely to be a Protestant or a Catholic? But, beyond these known and limited binaries of Northern Ireland there are the politics of sexuality, for instance, which rarely, if ever, get a cleared space in the discourses of Northern politics. Pepes nightclub in Derry holds an annual Halloween ball, which, needless to say, in the shadow of Rio de Janeiro’s Mardi Gras looks quite limited in its subversive potential. But in the context of Derry and Northern Ireland, where homosexuality remains a taboo subject and gay bashing is a regular hobby of the bully-boys, the ball becomes a highly subversive activity.

The thought of people wearing costumes and masks to disguise themselves in a place where the wearing of masks is, traditionally, associated with paramilitary activity is enough to put fear and dread into even the bravest soul. And there is no doubt that there currently always exists an element of fear amidst the festivities in Derry: I have collected a number of personal reflections on Derry’s Halloween celebrations and all include an acknowledgement that if you haven’t found yourself a private party or a comfortable spot in a pub or hotel by around 11pm, then the safest place to be is off the streets and at home. Terms like the ‘witching hour’ take on a new meaning when the young and the young-at-heart are confronted by late-night drunken revellers dressed as military or paramilitary personnel, and, as a consequence, have to confront the question as to whether these people are authentic or part of the carnival of the grotesque. And this is where the line gets drawn. The politics of subversion in Derry cannot accommodate – at least not yet – the possibility of the extremist elements from both tribes in Northern Ireland integrating even within the temporary rupture of the Halloween carnival. So, while ever the politics of subversion equally allows for two gunmen – masked and to all intents and purposes dressed for the Halloween celebrations – to shoot 7 people in a bar, then the ‘territory’ of subversion still doesn’t belong to any one group. But it is an interesting thought that we may be witnessing the early evolutionary process of a truly politically-liberating event: Derry has not developed a symbol of integration, for instance, in the way Trinidad or Rio have (there was the millennium drum in 2000, of course, but this wasn’t strictly associated with Derry), but it has created the space for a cultural way forward when it is clear that the political, military and paramilitary paths continue to struggle. We know that Halloween in Derry can incorporate the grotesque, but it remains to be seen whether, at some point in the future, it can be stretched to accommodate Bakhtin’s largely utopian notion of carnival as a celebration of a second reality.

I am very grateful to Dr Anne O’Connor for her comments on an earlier draft of this article. Her expert advice in the area of Irish folk customs was invaluable.

Rebecca Pelan is Director of Women’s Studies at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

References Cited
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Brandes, Stanley. 1998. ‘The Day of the Dead, Halloween, and the Quest for Mexican National Identity.’ Journal of American Folklore 111(442): 359-380.
Brewster, Scott, Virginia Crossman, Fiona Becket and David Alderson, eds. 1999. Ireland in Proximity: History, Gender, Space. London: Routledge.
Cowley, John. 1999. Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso: Traditions in the Making. London: Cambridge University Press.
Derry City Council Halloween website.
Dudley, Shannon and Bonnie C Wade. 2003. Music in Trinidad: Carnival-Experiencing Musing, Expressing Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fanon, Franz. 1990. The Wretched of the Earth. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin.
Korom, Frank J. and Peter Chelkowski. 1994. ‘Community Process and the Performance of Muharram Observances in Trinidad.’ The Tisch Drama Review 38/2: 150-175.
McGee, Nuala (Festivals Organiser. Derry City Council). 2003. Personal correspondence with author.
Riggio, Milla C. 1998. ‘Origins of Rituals and Customs in the Trinidad Carnival: African or European?’ TDR. 42.3: 7-23.
Volz, Joe. ‘The Carnival Capital: Rio de Janeiro.’>

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