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Opinion: What photographing abandoned Ireland taught me about the country's past

An Post Irish Book Awards nominee Rebecca Brownlie writes about what she’s learned through taking photos of abandoned buildings.

Rebecca Brownlie

I’VE BEEN DOCUMENTING abandoned buildings through the medium of photography now for over a decade.

Within this time I’ve visited hundreds of buildings. These could be homes, hospitals, mills, workhouses, churches, schools, courthouses and even castles. Each property always differs from the next.

The birth of this journey started when I found a property in Larne called Cairndhu house. I found this house while I was part of a paranormal research team – I was the team photographer and location finder.

When I first saw Cairndhu I couldn’t believe we had a property like this in Northern Ireland and that I’d never seen or heard of it. It was like something out of American Horror Story, from that moment I wanted to know more.

I don’t think I settled until I found the then owner of house. When I finally traced him I found out he was a property developer and had plans to renovate the house into luxury apartments. These plans had been delayed and he was happy for us to carry out investigations and let us come and go as we pleased.

While researching the house I found out that it was once owned by Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon from Belfast. It had a deep and varied history. It started off as a summer residence and the Dixons were well known for throwing lavish parties in the house. Princess Margaret has even been recorded visiting the house and having lunch there while on a tour of Northern Ireland.

In WW2 it was used as a war supply depot and a branch of the Belgium army were stationed here. Finally, in their later years the Dixons gifted the house to the hospital trust, and it then became a convalescence home. It ran as such until the late 80s, when it closed due to lack of funding.

True passion

It was while researching this property that my love for the houses and the passed lives within the buildings was where my true passion lay. Once I paired this up with the photography, I was hooked.

Not long after I started to focus on documenting the buildings and left the paranormal group behind. At that time social media was still quite new, and I created a Facebook page and website called Abandoned NI and posted all my work there.

It proved popular very early on, with people commenting and wanting to know more about the buildings. They were able to connect with the images and the forgotten history that was attached to them.

I’ve learnt many things on this photographic journey, and one is to never judge a house from its exterior. I stumbled across many tumble-down houses which on the outside look nothing more than run-down cattle shed.

However, when you get inside they are crammed with remains of personal possessions. Each room thick with mould and dust, objects sitting as though its owner upped and left in a hurry.

These properties make it easier to piece together the lives that were lived there, through the lens. On the other hand, you can find a grand mansion, and imagine that it’s full of crumbling antique furniture and the walls decorated with peeling artwork… only to find an empty shell on the inside.

Other things I’ve learnt is how people lived so differently in the not so distant past. Most rural houses that I get to visit will almost always have an old Singer sewing machine in the corner of the room, scissors, and a measuring tape not too far away. This reminds us that people mended and made their own clothes, instead of buying new like we do today in our throwaway lifestyle.

Pianos are also a frequent sight in these buildings; the art of playing your own music has also died out with the Singers. Instead, we have iPhone and VR headsets for home entertainment.

Another common sight would be dwellings with religious symbols and pictures on the walls, bibles, and bottles of holy water on mantelpieces. All are evidence that religion was at the forefront for most homes not so long ago. What a contrast to today.

I try to visit as many of these buildings as possible before they are demolished. I think it is important that we have a record of these time capsules to pass on for future generations.

That way, they can look back and see what was on the site before their housing development was built.

They can also remember the people who lived their days long before they did.

Abandoned Ireland by Rebecca Brownlie is published by Merrion Press and is available from bookshops and online booksellers. It is nominated in the An Post Irish Book Awards in TheJournal.ie’s sponsored category, Best Irish Published Book of the Year. Find the full list of nominees and more information at the awards website

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About the author:

Rebecca Brownlie

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