‘Ireland is the country for ruins’: Why I seek out our abandoned homes

Johann Georg Kohl, a German writer and geographer, visited Ireland in 1842; the following year, he published a report on his travels. “Ireland is the country of ruins, out of all the countries in the world,” he said. From the Phoenicians to the present, every historical era is represented here in ruins; the ruins left behind by each century serve as a monument to its progress. Indeed, it might almost be said that Ireland has seen a decade-long decline, as evidenced by the numerous crumbling structures scattered around the landscape, remnants of buildings that once stood.”

Not much has changed since then, except that the ruins discovered here about 180 years ago have been supplemented by those discovered in later decades.

It’s difficult to say if Kohl was making an observation or a critique. Or if, in reality, what he had observed throughout his visit of Ireland satisfied him. Because ruins have always held a special, sinister appeal for some people. Pleasure of Ruins, a complete novel written by English author Rose Macaulay, was published 65 years ago. Reading it is similar to going through a list of the deceased, when you are both celebrating their passing and lamenting their passing.

I have been enjoying what Macaulay called the morbidity of ruins for almost as long as her book has been available for purchase. I am able to fuel my addiction to this phenomenon in Ireland since there is an abundance of material to work with. Some of the places I’ve been over this time were well-known and even popular. While they may be satisfactory in their own right, a true enthusiast is unlikely to be satisfied with a popular ruin.

No one should delight in decay, and yet there is a kind of pleasurable grief in coming across an abandoned building

“Look on my Works, ye Mighty and despair!” exclaimed Ozymandias in Mary Shelley’s work. By which he did not mean the interpretive center, coffee shop, or coach park. A well-preserved ruin, with ivy removed, stone cleaned up, and gravel roads set in between well kept lawns, will certainly have a longer life in the twilight, but it will never satisfy those of us who need our ivy to climb and our masonry to crumble.

The chance for imagination disappears with the sweeping of the greenery. There’s a hint of capriciousness here, as the lovely ruin is a neglected ruin. In Italian Hours (1873), Henry James acknowledged that “to delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime,” and that “the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity.”

While it is wrong for anyone to take pleasure in ruin, there is a certain type of satisfying sadness associated with discovering an abandoned structure that may be used to project many made-up histories.

For those of us who enjoy them, ours typically comes as a surprise, just like all the best forms of fulfillment. Frequently, a brief glimpse of what appear to be the remnants of a once-significant edifice can be seen over an untrimmed hedgerow on one of the numerous secondary roads throughout the nation. There’s then a certain bit of seeking as more fleeting clues about what might be in store are revealed. The difficult part is usually figuring out how to go to the building in question. If fortune favors you, you might occasionally find the run-down lodge, the rusting gates, and the worn path leading into overgrown forest just around the corner—a sign that the treasure is close at hand.

When a location is located, it must be investigated. This usually entails frightening rooks that have been accustomed to the building being theirs alone, as well as occasionally cattle that moved into the land after the human occupants left; a confrontation with bullocks is not unheard of. There will be intricate patterns of crumbling wood and deteriorating plaster covering the floor, and if the ceiling is still there, there will be peeks of a sky that was never meant to be seen. There might be pieces of furniture still in place, some wet bedding, and an image hanging shakily on the wall. Who lived here once, and why is no one living here now? The creative juices start flowing.

In September 2012, after years of complaining about these websites, I started expressing my interest on The Irish Aesthete. Since then, like a modern-day Mr. Kohl, I have traveled the nation with just a cell phone in hand, recording and posting what I see. The 32 counties that make up the Irish Aesthete showcase the entire spectrum of Ireland’s architectural history, but ruins have always been heavily represented. This is unavoidable. I defy anyone to travel more than a mile in Ireland without encountering at least one dilapidated building.

Ireland is known for its jilted buildings, which are usually replaced by newer, more appealing models. Makeovers are uncommon. Frank O’Connor stated in 1947 that “life is too short to discover the reason for all the ruins in Ireland,” yet he subsequently suggested that perhaps the Irish don’t have “any instinct for conserving things.”

A fresh crop of ruins is left for each generation, no doubt partly due to bad conservation practices. This should not be the case since laws such as the 2000 Planning and Development Act are in place to make sure that dilapidated ancient structures are practically nonexistent. But as is often the case in our nation, there is a significant disconnect between theory and reality, as well as between legislation and implementation. Because of this, several of the photos I’ve shot since 2012 are now regarded as historical documents because the buildings they depict have since experienced additional damage.

Unfortunately, it appears that this situation will persist. There are undoubtedly properties around Ireland that have been placed on the protected list by the appropriate local government and that will be added to the list of destroyed properties in the upcoming year, providing more material for the Irish Aesthete to document. Mr. Kohl made a prediction in addition to an observation in his remarks.

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