Monday, 17 March 2014

In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland

I believe that another dimension, a spirit world, runs parallel to our own so-called 'real' world, and that sometimes, when the conditions are right, we can see into and become part of this supernatural domain - Simon Marsden
In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland is one of the great treasures of my library. This pictorial book, first published in 1980 collects together a number of photographs taken by Simon Marsden of large country estates, mansions and castles that have fallen in disrepair, and ruin. The book also includes scene-setting liner notes by art expert Duncan McClaren, revealing the history behind each property and how these once great houses met their demise - in many cases, they were willfully destroyed during Ireland's Civil War, while other houses were simply abandoned by their owners. Simon Marsden who passed away in 2012 had a lifelong fascination for ghosts and haunted spaces, and it powerfully resonates in his photography. Much of his work was achieved using infra-red film which gave his photographs an instantly unique, surreality and when applied to gloomy landscapes and dilapidated buildings, the results were often stunning. The images found in the pages of In Ruins, lean heavily towards the Gothic and one can imagine one of MR James' gentleman-scholars exploring these spectral vestiges in search of ancient manuscripts. The following images and captions are taken from the book:

Menlough Castle Gates, Near Galway, County Galway
Built in the 17th century. Burnt in 1910

Thomastown Castle. Near Golden, County Tipperary
Built in 1670. Fell into disrepair after 1872

Moydrum Castle. Near Athlone, County Westmeath.
Built in 1812. Burnt in 1912 during the Troubles

Old Castle Hackett. Near Headford, County Galway
Built in the 13th century. Abandoned in 1705

Fans of U2 might recognize the photograph of Moydrum Castle from the cover of the band's 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire. The photo on the record sleeve was not in fact a Marsden shot, but rather an excellent facsimile by Anton Corbijn. However the framing and style of Corbijn's shot bore such a resemblance to Marsden's own work that the band were compelled to pay Marsden compensation. When Marsden passed away he left behind 13 books of photography, some of which are still in print. Sadly In Ruins is now out of print but copies might still be found in second-hand stores. (the book was revised and expanded in 1997). In the meantime, Marsden's official website is a good place to begin...


  1. I absolutely love the infra-red photography, and I was recently listening to a podcast with a director who made a documentary on Marsden, I believe. Pity the book is out of print, though. Saying that, there is plenty of room for a new chapter of Infra-Red projects in Ireland; the unfinished 'ghost' estates. Something very creepy about them at night time. Places that should be full of life and humans become very surreal when they get emptied out...

  2. Or not so empty as I once discovered... We happened upon a ghost estate last summer at Garryvoe, a little beach town in East Cork, and after some snooping around we came across one house that had squatters in it, which made us beat a hasty retreat before we were spotted. Very creepy ! That's a fantastic idea though to shoot the ghost estates in the Marsden style.

    For the long weekend, we took the M8 to Dublin, which ultimately led to the top of the Sugar Loaf, and the day was fine enough to see the Poolbeg chimneys in the distance. There are a few abandoned farmhouses and cottages along the M8, but you don't see as many as when you had to wind through all those towns like Urlingford and Abbeyleix, so I kinda miss that. I don't remember where I saw it, somewhere in the midlands I think, but there's a house visible from the road which has a round tower pretty much at the end of the back garden, which I think is great. The Marsden thing was my slightly corny idea of a Patrick's Day post, but it was probably connected with this book I'm reading at the moment. A visit to Newgrange is in the works...

  3. Jaysus, that would be creepy, stumbling across squatters! Like something from a Richard Laymon novel...

    Oh man, I agree with you on missing those small towns... as convenient it is to drive top speed from one end of the country to the other, you certainly don't get a feel for the land at all. I've discovered some great buildings over the years location scouting, sadly we never ended up filming in any of them. A real pity, as there is definitely 'beauty in decay' and would probably have been the last time anyone paid attention to these places before they crumbled away completely.

    Newgrange has changed dramatically over the last decade or so, not sure when the last time was you were there, but it is a hub of commercialism these days. I guess visitors centres, etc are important enough for tourism, and at least they aren't built too close to the mounds (I think you get a feeder bus to it) but the others at Knowth and Dowth are still the same as before, fairly untouched.

  4. Yeah, I've never been to Newgrange so I'll have to take it as I find it, but I know exactly what you mean about the commercialism of the place - they done the same thing with the Cliffs of Moher - where once it was a wild, elemental place, it's now commercialized to the point of extinction - you can't even get near the edge, and all around are tourists leaden with the worst kind of Paddy tat... I think of those lines Jim Morrison wrote for When the Music's Over
    What have they done to the earth?
    What have they done to our fair sister?
    Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
    Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
    And tied her with fences and dragged her down

  5. *sighs* I would love to get my hands on a copy of In Ruins. I seem to recall you telling me about it before, Wes. The last time I was skulking around my local Waterstones I noticed a similar book (there are now two in the series) but I can't recall its title. I also love the idea of a similar presentation of Ireland's ghost estates; much like Anthony Haughey did a few years back...

  6. Yes, it is a fantastic book and I see a lot of books in a similar vain in bookstores but they don't quite have the ghostly magic of Marsden's work... James, with all sincerity, your Cemeteries series is one of the best things on the Web, and I look forward to each new entry - the photographs are just incredible and the accompanying text really makes for a great immersive experience. I think it's fair to say the Marsden post was chiefly inspired by your series... Thanks for link to the Anthony Haughey page - those pics are great and really evoke Werner Herzog's notion of the embarrassed landscape...