Ruin Fascination

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I spent a lot of time drifting through fields as a child; sometimes with others, but often alone. Growing up in the countryside in the 1980s children had the benefit of space to wander- concerns about the safety of children playing out alone for hours were less prevalent than today, whilst fences and other physical barriers to free movement were either not present or fairly malleable. Added to that we didn’t have digital technologies and social networks to augment our hours, so the lengthy stroll in the landscape was a common pursuit for rural kids- at least it was for me.

Ruined structures in which to spark a furtive childhood imagination were in no shortage on these rambles: the most common were long derelict two storey farm houses and ruined cottages, many of these deserted buildings were used as livestock barns. Some were the result of a legacy of migration from rural Ireland, changes in agricultural production practices, or simply the vestiges of time, growth, change, decay, and renewal. No matter the cause, I loved these spaces- they were entrancing, full of strange bygone objects, brand-names no longer in existence, old withered photographs and letters, archaically fashioned furniture and fittings.

Alone I would imagine a completely different world to my own, using these objects to tell myself stories about past lives and eras I knew barely anything of. On other occasions- alien invasions, war holocausts, strange hauntings or escaped convict narratives played out among the ruins, this depended on what film I was recently obsessed with. In the company of my childhood friends make believe was also a feature of these ruin jaunts, however more often than not we would end up smashing everything in sight- artificially speeding up the slow process of decay. As adults we forget how much rage and destruction are part of a child’s modus operandi.

In teenage years these ruins continued to provide space for transgressive pursuits- drinking, smoking, skipping school, vandalism, early sexual awakening; what politicians and media pundits like to call ‘anti-social behaviour’, what I call growing up. The ruin or derelict as a site of transgression, a space for development of sub-cultures, alternative styles and practices, is well established in cultural studies. Raves, squats, graffiti- all fascinations and spaces of my adult life in a series of cities throughout Europe and beyond, and inspiration to develop the research project and film I am currently working on. However, it was, I think, these earlier adventures in the deserted that has had a more lasting impact on me.

A few years back when I first set out on this research project path, my feelings about the degree of over-development and subsequent property collapse (one of the worst property collapses in recorded history, with the exception of Spain) were very much tied to an anti-capitalist perspective, and an anger at how the people of Ireland had been encouraged to headily take part in a speculative game that defied all logic and reason, as far as I could see. It had been the dominant social narrative of more than a decade- get yourself on the property ladder. During the Celtic Tiger ‘boom’ years I had felt alienated from this narrative; following its collapse I felt a bitter sort of vindication coupled with a sense of distress at how the natural environment had been vandalised to make way for houses and other developments that would never be used.

Despite this vitriol, a fascination with these ruins began to reemerge from childhood reflections. Did I in some way find these spaces beautiful, immersive in a manner that I would not have felt had they been used for their original function? One site in particular continues to spark my imagination. It is the subject of both the short film below and the accompanying extract from an article I wrote for Castles Built in Sand collective two years ago. I have visited Carrigglas on a number of occasions since producing these pieces. My emotional connection to Ireland’s newly built derelict sites continues to change and develop. Rage begins to nuance and provide an insight into destruction. I recommend everyone to visit a place like the failed Carrigglas development. The pieces below were part of my process of coming to terms with my environment, built or otherwise. 

Vacancy- A Short Horror-Doc

Carrig Glas Manor: Aristocracy to Catastrophe 

Longford County has a vacancy rate of 20% according to the DECLG Unfinished Estates 2011 survey. The 2011 Census accumulated the population for the county as standing at 19,351, a rise in population of 2533 or 13.3% since 2006. This is admittedly a strong population growth in such a small county (third smallest in Ireland), however it does not explain nor justify the extent of new housing built in that time period. As Kitchen et al state; The 2006 Census revealed that 216,331 housing units were vacant (excluding holiday homes), but between April 2006 and the end of 2009 an additional c.215,000 properties were built (DECLG 2010)…As of October 2011 there were 2,876 documented unfinished estates in Ireland, present in every county in the state, 777 of which met the criteria of a ‘ghost estate’…the vast majority of estates experienced very little change in the level of occupancy between 2010 and 2011. [i]  Ireland had given itself over to a kind of collective, machine like awe-consuming madness, thoroughly egged on by property supplements in national newspapers and no less a figure that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who in an address to the Dail advised the electorate to keep spending, invest and get credit from the banks, whilst harbingers of doom and economic gloom were told to just go kill themselves.

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Nothing though quite prepares you for the spectre that is Carrig Glas Manor. Once the home of the aristocratic Huguenot Thomas Lefroy, who had built the manor on a vast estate in 1830, these lands had until 2007 been heavily wooded, marshy land of little agriculture interest, but being 5 miles from the town, and secluded from main roads and other infrastructures, a place nevertheless to scale the walls and get lost in childhood adventure. Lefroy himself was a fascinating character, a fierce and vocal opponent of O’Connell’s Home Rule platform; he was a magistrate and Tory MP for the Dublin-Constituency in the mid 19th Century. He was furthermore said to be greatly admired by Jane Austen (not to put it too euphemistically), and it is rumoured that the character of Mr. Darcy from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is based upon Lefroy. The manor, designed in Gothic Victorian manner by Daniel Robertson in 1830s, and its grounds retained for me that distant air of a vague colonial past of which I barely understood but yet it had a presence that one intrinsically grasped as ‘Other’. Clearly the Irish aristocracy had fallen on hard times: the estate was sold to Kearns-Bowen Construction sometime in the mid-2000’s.

Their contribution to the history of this ambivalent place can only be described as ‘scorched earth’. The development was intended as a luxury five-star hotel with golf course, health spa and accompanying gated-community- what remains is something very different. For once you scale the wall over a missing slab in the loosely cemented frontage, narrowly avoiding the collection of broken glass that would be quite a surprise to any unsuspecting intruder, you are confronted by such an eerie sight that it is difficult to reconcile what some had envisioned it as becoming with what is now. You begin along a series of more or less completed, though abandoned, town houses, and continue over the space of a few acres of similar standing constructions in various stages of arrested development. All around lay heaps of rubble and top soil, huge craters of nothingness, a strange and disconcerting silence pervades, plastic insulation coverings of uncompleted houses flap menacingly on a near wind-free evening.  Walled as you are, you feel quite exposed, at the mercy of whatever malign creatures your imagination might speculate resides there. It is less like the set of some high-end Jane Austen adaptation, more like the stage for a zombie-holocaust trash epic. A most bewildering place, and after an hour taking photos of its apocalyptic environs we are more than happy to leave.

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There is little that you could imagine can be done with a catastrophe like Carrig-Glas: a friend suggested using it as an army training ground (though the Irish Army is a sparse force at best), or perhaps as I have alluded above it could be used for zombie film shoot (never a big money spinner and short on the ground in Longford). So I come back somewhat tiresomely to the question of: what the hell were they thinking? [ii]Longford is not Malaga. It has no business with five-star hotels and luxury playgrounds for champion golfers, IT whiz kids or economic high fliers, and nor would I want it to. Carrig Glas is a document of the property bubble, a monument to financial/planning improprieties and misadventure. And it leaves behind is my torn up memories, laid waste in a place where we once, covertly, dreamed and played.

Photos: Paddy Baxter & Huw Wahl

Read Full Article: http://castlesbuiltinsand.wordpress.com/ghosts-and-the-machine/

[1] Kitchen R, O’Callaghan C & Gleeson J (2012) ‘Unfinished Estates in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland’ NIRSA Working Papers Series 67, University of Maynooth

[2] Bizarrely, some more official and tourist industry based website of appear promote the idea that Carrig Glas Manor is somehow an operating concern http://www.carrigglas.ie/ http://www.ireland.com/leisure/culture/museums/carrig-glas-manor/621816

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2 thoughts on “Ruin Fascination

  1. Myna Trustram

    Hello Paddy
    I grew up in rural Wiltshire in the south of England in the 1950s / 60s. My mother was from the countryside near Portrush on the Antrim coast and we went for holidays there every other summer. We’d see ruined farms when we went for a run (those days that meant in a motor). I think one ruin once belonged to my mother’s family. These days we’re aghast at how ugly the newly built houses are.

    There were no ruined farms in prosperous Wiltshire to play in but there was, just a few miles away across the fields, Stonehenge, that ruin of all ruins. In those days at night you could slip under the barbed wire and mess around amongst the stones. Once we did that and a Ministry of Ancient Monuments man came up with a torch and said ‘I’m sorry but the monument’s closed’. Which suggests that maybe even in those days there was 24 hour security.

    The only ruins I played in undisturbed was what must have been a former rubbish dump in the woods near our house. In amongst the humus I found bits of pottery and glass and metal and put them in match boxes in tissue paper. But it didn’t make me an archaeologist or a film maker.

    I’m responding to your posts not just for reasons of autobiographical nostalgia. My writing and research is about the phenomenon of museums from a psychodynamic perspective and I’ve been wondering if museums are a kind of opposite of ruins. Museums and their objects are meant to last forever (though perhaps ruins are meant to as well). What museums and ruins maybe share is a reluctance to leave the past alone, a melancholic hanging about where we’re not quite sure what’s been lost.

    Reply
  2. baxikon Post author

    Hi Myna, thanks for comment. At a recent conference on ruins at the University of Manchester entitled ‘Big Ruins’, keynote speaker and cultural geographer Tim Edensor pointed out that what makes a ruin, or creates ruination, is the absence of maintenance (in this
    instance the physical maintenance of buildings and structures to safeguard them from the elements, from decay). Following this notion, famous ‘ruins’ such as the Acropolis or the Coliseum- perhaps even Stonehenge post-National Trust intervention on that site- are not in fact ruins, but could be thought of as closer to museums- monuments, or heritage.

    In a sense museums function around a different kind of maintenance, the maintenance of historical, national or cultural narratives- some ruins, particularly the recent examples from Ireland, in many ways run counter to these narratives. Notwithstanding the institutional rationale behind museums, I do agree that for the spectator/audience/public the museum is often experienced as a means of connecting with an imagined past, .

    The Irish Times reported a few back that the Irish Government have earmarked 40 ‘ghost estates’ for demolition, however they haven’t indicted exactly which sites are to be demolished, but one would imagine (if it happens at all only one ‘ghost estate’ has been demolished thus far) that some of Ireland’s most striking modern ruins will be obliterated. I am not sure if Carrig Glas is on the list, but I think it would be a mistake to demolish it. Perhaps it should be left standing as a monument to economic hubris, a museum to the follies of the recent past; not maintained in the physical sense, but maintained as challenge to the still dominant doctrine of Neoliberalism and the accompanying narrative of constant growth and development. , .

    Reply

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