In time for Halloween, one of the biggest parties on the calendar, Tourism Ireland just launched their “press the green button” campaign to encourage North American travelers to book their long-delayed trips back to Ireland this month after the country finally - and fully - reopens on October 22.

It's a timely reminder of just how much we have missed. From theatre to festivals it's been hard to remain stateside for over eighteen months but that's all changing just in time for Halloween, which is one of the big and best Irish cultural events (and parties) on the calendar. 

Originally called Samhain in the Irish language, it's a night when the barrier between the world's of the living and the dead are at their most permeable and no place on earth does it better – from costuming to celebration – than Derry city in Northern Ireland.

The city hosts the biggest Halloween street carnival parade in Europe attracting some 25,000 enthusiasts.

Perhaps because winter and night seem especially dark up in the northwest the locals like to push back with their colorful costumes, painstakingly created, and a big party to literally wake the dead. If you haven't been to it you have no idea just how raucous it gets - think Mardi Gras meets Irish fleadh (festival) - and the whole city gets involved in the fun. 

Be warned though, this isn't your run-of-the-mill quick dress-up night. People don't just pop into their local Ricky's to buy some off-the-rack costume here. This event is planned meticulously all year long so prepare to be dazzled by parades and outfits.

No subject is off the table for some spirited local mockery, from politics to history to folklore to science fiction, you'll see countless unforgettable and highly imaginative - and often screamingly funny - social commentaries in all the dress-up and wry Derry wit they can muster on every street.

But this being Derry, and Derry being fiercely proud of his history, it's not just a night about costumes and partying, it's also a place where the more serious side of Samhain is discussed and debated. What role did it play in our history and are we staying true to its original spirit? Expect to see spirited public debates, fortified by traditional Samhain time baked goods and meals.

From events as diverse as a Halloween origins tour to a RuPaul's style drag makeover tutorial, you'll see the walled city come alive as a massive digital portal signals the start of all souls night. Attend this event and you'll never forget it. Derry seems to have Samhain in its bones (the city's mascot is a walled skeleton nicknamed Walter after all). 

Derry City hosts the biggest Halloween parade in Europe

Derry City hosts the biggest Halloween parade in Europe

Meanwhile, it's true to say that Ireland is a communal country. Over there it's “we” more than “I.” We say we're going out to the pub, we're going out to the theatre, we're going out for the night. It's almost always a thing we do with a plus one. People will start to think you're odd if you prefer to go to events on your own. 

That's why the pandemic has been especially hard for an island culture that depends on big social gatherings to mark the changing of the seasons. So news that the Dublin Theatre Festival (now through October 23) has returned to live performances again has been greatly welcomed.

Standout shows to catch include Philip McMahon's critically acclaimed Once Before I Go at the Gate Theatre, which tells the story of Irish LGBT rights activists now in their 60's and the Ireland that they once struggled heroically to change in the 1980s. 

The show introduces us to Lynn, Daithi, and the bright star Bernard, whose friendship and love affair plays out against the backdrop of Dublin’s burgeoning gay rights movement, taking them from Dublin to London and Paris.

Exploring the until now overlooked stories of Irish queer lives across four decades, Once Before I Go recalls the frightening early years of the AIDS crisis and contrasts that with today’s spirited Irish LGBTQ community, who live in a brave new era of marriage equality, gender self-determination, and untransmittable HIV.

But how do you live through that much social and political change, and the damage that sometimes accompanies it, without wanting a reckoning or two? Once Before I Go puts marginalized lives center stage at one of the most prestigious theaters in the country and asks and answers the hard questions.

Over at the Abbey, Ireland's national theatre, Caitriona McLaughlin begins her term as Artistic Director by presenting Marina Carr's new play iGirl, starring theatre legend Olwen Fouere. A journey into the lifelong preoccupations of the author, the play includes figures from mythology like Antigone, Oedipus and historical people like Joan of Arc, in an effort to explore the origins of creativity and the ways we assemble ourselves from the stories that precede us all. 

Meanwhile across the border the Belfast Arts Festival (October 6 – November 7)has had a breakout success with The Border Game, a riotous new play that explores the damage done by partition to a farm on the border, explored through Sinead and Henry, two damaged and damaging souls who live on either side of it, each with their own respective attitudes to the destructive severance and everything that followed. 

Inspired by 100 testimonies collected by the writers from real people living along the 300-miles of the border, this is a play that surprises you it has taken us this long to see.  Sinead hails from a nationalist background and Henry comes from a unionist one and we soon gather they have been lovers in the past, but now that former closeness flickers to life again as Sinead asks Henry to help her rebuild a wall on her farm (the metaphors arrive on stilts). 

With up to the minute satire on issues like Brexit and the Northern Protocol, the play is ripped from the headlines but also as old as the Troubles. The question the show asks is the only one that matters, will the two find a new way to live together or will the forces that shaped their past also shape their future?

Music fans will not want to miss the one-night-only celebration of the Irish songbook presented by the group Dervish with special guests like Oscar winner Glen Hansard, Brian Kennedy, and Cara Dillion. 

Traditional music luminaries who hail from County Sligo, the band will perform in the newly restored Belfast’s Grand Opera House for a gala show taken that's based on their 2019 album The Great Irish Songbook (the show has the same name).

The star-studded lineup of guests will join the Open Arts Community Choir for an unforgettable night of music, in the kind of live concert that we worried we would not see again for years. It's time to press the green button and return.