Maghaberry photographer Rebecca Brownlie sums it up succinctly in the introduction to her recently published book Abandoned Ireland: it’s about “who lived there, what the building had been, and ultimately why it was now abandoned.”
Abandoned Ireland contains over 150 haunting color photographs of abandoned houses, schools, churches, prisons, dance halls and more, from across the island of Ireland.
Each building is accompanied by a synopsis of its history (thanks, in many cases, to Rebecca’s determined research).
Rebecca, a mother of two who works for a pharmaceutical company by day, explains how her obsession with old, dilapidated, abandoned and forgotten buildings came about.
“Over a decade ago, I was in a paranormal group, I was the team photographer and location scout. We would try to find haunted places and we would sit up late at night and try to get any kind of evidence through audio or video.
“This took us to castles and hotels and there was a house I found called Cairndhu House in Larne.
“At the time it was abandoned and dilapidated, but not to the extent that it is now. I couldn’t believe we had something like this in Northern Ireland; it was like something out of a horror movie, it was very gothic and unique in history. architecture.
“I set about trying to find the owner, who was a real estate developer at the time. He gave us a set of keys to come and go. For a couple of months we were there quite often trying to get evidence of something paranormal.” But he also wanted to know more about the history of the house: who lived there, what was going on in the house before it was abandoned.
“I found out it was owned by Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon. They loved to entertain and had also been used as a depot for war supplies. Princess Margaret came there for lunch when she was on tour[for NI].
“They (the Dixons) donated the house to the Hospital Trust, then it was a convalescent home until the late 1980s, then for lack of funds it was abandoned.”
Rebecca was more hooked on the history of the place than any spooky event.
He left the paranormal group, focused on photographing abandoned buildings, and started a Facebook page, Abandoned NI, which now has nearly 50,000 followers, a clear indicator of how such images exert such influence on the collective imagination.
“The more I started posting pictures of places, the more people were commenting on them. It was nostalgia for the people.”
Abandoned Ireland is a visually striking book with bleakly beautiful images that send shivers, nostalgia and wonder, for there is something compelling about decaying buildings, particularly once magnificent ones: grandeur is still evident amid decay. and cobwebs, like Miss Havisham’s. House.
Rebecca traces her passion for photography back to when she was 12 years old and won a camera on a TV show called Sussed.
“Since then I became interested in cameras and always had one.”
Ironically, for a person so immersed in photography, he doesn’t like to get in front of the lens; for her it is about her subjects.
And the equipment he uses to capture his evocative images is nothing particularly fancy, but his instincts are extraordinary.
“I use an SLR and a tripod. I travel light. I also have a drone now, which gives you that extra perspective of the buildings from above, which is really nice.
“It’s not the equipment, it’s how you see the image you want to produce.”
Seeing his book on shelves in Ireland is, he says, “really surreal.”
“It just doesn’t feel like it’s my book, even though obviously I know all about it. I think it will take time to sink in, but I’m very happy with it.”
Rebecca took thousands and thousands of images, but had to pare down her massive catalog to just 150 for the book.
“I chose the ones with the most history,” he says of his herculean task.
And he selected his favourites, like Dessie’s, a country house in Cookstown.
Each building has been given a new name, and Dessie’s photograph is titled ‘Country Living’.
“It’s the little cabins that have a rich family history, those are the ones I really like.
“As soon as I walked in the door, I was blown away. It was like something out of Folk Park.”
“The history we discovered was incredible. We found certificates from the 19th century, there were newspapers from 1911, there were clothes from the Victorian era, old money, big trunks full of love letters.
“Dessie really made an impact and I wish I could have met him.”
Edendork Dance Hall, Co Tyrone, (titled ‘The last dance) is another striking sight and venue that captured her imagination.
“There is no other ceiling like it that I have found to date. On the whole island of Ireland I have never seen one like this, so it is very unique, although the building is not that old.
Rebecca gives talks about her photography, something she really enjoys.
“I love getting up and talking about them. Then you talk to people and they tell you about new places or somewhere they own.”
He has also appeared on various local television shows.
“I would love to have my own TV show, because there is a lot of interest in abandoned buildings.
“Everyone wants to know who lived in that abandoned house and once you tell them the story they are amazed.”
Of course, old buildings can be creepy, and Rebecca has had some creepy experiences.
“I think when you go into these places, when you’re not looking for it, then things happen.
“There was an adventure center in Co Meath called the Tain Adventure Centre. I visited it about eight years ago and there is a section of bedrooms.
“I knew it had been a convent before it was an adventure center – you can see the figurines outside and there’s a big bell tower.
“There was a bedroom and a hallway and on either side were bedrooms and inside were old bunk beds.
“My sister was with me and she was filming on an iPad. There was no one else in the corridor or building except us, I got to the end door, opened it and we both heard a voice that sounded like she was next to us.
“She recorded it and it could be heard faintly. At home we put it on the computer with headphones, she’s a male voice and she says ‘You’re crazy!’
“Every time I was giving one of my talks in Belfast, I would play the video and people could listen to it. A girl in the audience said that the building was not a convent, it was a training college for priests. She couldn’t understand why the voice had an Ulster accent, but it turned out that Belfast priests used to go and train at that university.”
Something like that would turn most people away from the creepy old buildings, but not Rebecca.
“This is a life project for me. It’s not something that bores me.
“As long as I can do it, I will.”
*Forsaken Ireland, published by Merrion Press, is priced at £24.99 and is available in all good bookstores and on Amazon.