Vintage view: the gorgeous and crumbling

from the Irish Examiner – Saturday, June 20, 2015
by Kya deLongchamps

Since my schooldays, with a fist of Tayto in one hand and a faded photocopy from the OPW scrunched in the other I have been lumbered with a weird devotion to ruined buildings.

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Spilling out of the tour bus at holy sites, shoulder high in ferns and caged by lichened crags — there was an instant primal ‘bong’.

That spotted face clamped in thick, myopic face-furniture, was raised in praise to this or that ancient wreck. My pre-teen stomach would flip amid the low groans of my adolescent companions. 

No-one had to remind me that these were the remains from generations of real lives. This often confused, purple-passion would persist, taking me as far as a history degree in TCD.

Ruins are part of the cultural loose change, rolling around in all our heads. In stone, they are our most dramatic material remains as a society. 

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In the 18th century important classical sites across the British Isles, mainland Europe and North Africa were being reassessed, raised from the earth and excavated. 

Some were tenderly brushed into view by museums and scientific institutes, others were ravaged for their artefacts and taken by crate to the family seat by aristocratic vandals.

The lingering song of these structures lives on in myth, oral history and real primary sources. In venerable collapse, their beauty and mysterious exoticism in places like Petra and Pompeii, spurred poetry and prose.

The 18th century Romantic poets, reminded us prettily of the fragile, transient nature of a human life. 

Gothic literature which set Victorian hearts thrumming against creaking bone stays, used titillating themes of urgent young gentlewomen restrained behind the ragged ramparts of castles or mossy mansions.

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The idyllic landscape of the grander garden bordering a great house would often include a dilapidated building of some kind in its parkland. 

Where one didn’t exist on the demesne, a few walls or full folly would be thrown up as focal point to stir the imagination, to suggest ancient roots and most of all — to ornament the view.

The odd thing about ruins, is that like the perfect arrangement of a hedge gone wild, they fall apart in such an aesthetically pleasing way, with no intervening hand but the pull of plants and the influence of the weather.

From the slap of a million sandals on the tourist trail, to vampire lairs in the Hammer House of Horror, ruined buildings offer evidence of the past in a very present, moving way.

More modern buildings in ruins in Europe and the US are already gaining iconic status through ghoulish photographs of their decay in magazines and slideshows circulated on social media.

Detroit’s many commercial and industrial temples now split with ivy and shattered by fire include the Beaux Arts Classical style, Michigan Central Station (1913-1988), parts of which were modelled on an ancient Roman bathhouse.

One of the many fabulous sites I was able to visit legitimately in the US, was the small, abandoned mining town of Bodie in Mono County, California (1859-1942). 

The clapboard houses winding over a few acres of sagebrush, are held together with termites and hand-made nails, and are still collapsing into the sand.

The front doors of many premises were nailed shut as the silver was depleted and the inhabitants rattled off across the brush. www.bodie.com

In Ireland, with a curly copy of Peter Harbison’s Guide to the National Monuments vibrating on the dashboard, I lived out my downtime duelling with trespass and acting out dangerous athletics to explore forgotten reaches of our shared architectural heritage. 

The sight of an interpretative centre was then rare, and would repel us to other less popular, rustic quarry.

Scaling a half-collapsed spiral stair, thighs pulsating with nettle stings, my then fiancée once cried out in fear. 

Today, many of these shaggy places are properly curated for visitors or quite rightly out of bounds for reasons of safety, conservation and management by the National Monuments Service ( www.archaeology.ie  , including the Archaeological Survey of Ireland).

If you don’t’ fancy heading off in wellies, you can explore ruins throughout the country virtually through the work of several ‘ruin hunters’, including the elusive blogger Castlehunter of Irelandinruins.blogspot.ie.

His pages offer superb pictures plus the history of many fabulous neglected sites. He includes useful information on legal access and parking for all sorts of elderly oddities throughout the country. 

Chris Deakin of Nobody’s Home ( www.nobodyshome.ie ) has stunning imagery, but don’t follow him to his subject matter without making full enquiries, as some of these ancient buildings are in not available for public access.

The site is linked to Former Glory ( www.formerglory.ie ) a property site devoted to the sale, restoration and tourism potential of older buildings around the country, including some genuine castles in private hands (rather than castellated buildings).

Photographer Ciaran McHugh presents some of the most interesting pictures of ancient sites in Sligo, Galway and other ranges of the West of Ireland.

Taken in infrared, they capture the ruins most metaphysical presence in what he calls a ‘spirited landscape’.www.ciaranmchugh.com 

For anyone interested in the fate of the ‘big house’ step into the pages of Tarquin Blake’s mesmerising ‘Abandoned Houses of Ireland’, published by Collins Press. €27.99.

A wide catalogue of his images and descriptions are available at www.abandonedireland.com

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