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Abandoned NI's haunting snapshots of lives that have turned to dust [Photos]

Photographer's nostalgic images of derelict properties have stirred memories and become a cult Facebook hit

By Ivan Little

Published 19/11/2016

Decaying dwellings: inside a rundown farmhouse
Decaying dwellings: inside a rundown farmhouse
The wedding dress that inspired photographer Rebecca
Forgotten relics: inside the abandoned farmhouse
Rebecca from Abandoned NI
Forgotten relics: the abandoned farmhouse
Forgotten relics: inside the abandoned farmhouse
Forgotten relics: the abandoned farmhouse
A chair languishes, unused in what used to be the Drum-Na-Greagh Hotel, perched high above the Antrim Coast Road
The former Drumsill Hotel, near Armagh
Shadows of grandeur in a property which Rebecca named Veronica’s House

Faded, forlorn and forgotten, the once-stylish wedding dress hangs sadly in the dusty and deserted bedroom of an abandoned farmhouse, offering no clues about who wore it. Or where. Or when.

A nearby album of pictures of the happy newly-weds and their smiling guests shines no more illumination on the identities of the couple on their joyous day.

The reminders of that time-warp wedding from an indeterminate era can't unlock the secrets of a forsaken life which lie undisturbed in a rundown, ramshackle Co Antrim house that's falling apart, a pale shadow of its former grandeur.

Elsewhere, the carcases of crows, which are eerily tied to windows, send a chill down the spine of the young woman who is photographing the decaying relics of a bygone time.

Yet, despite her understandable unease as she stands amid the ruins, the camerawoman's heart beats just a little bit faster as she comforts herself with the realisation that she has unearthed yet another treasure for her collection of images that she posts on a well-befriended Facebook page called Abandoned NI.

For seven years now, the woman - who wants to be identified only by her Christian name, Rebecca - has been chronicling empty houses, factories, hospitals, morgues and asylums that have been cast aside by the unrelenting quick-march of progress.

Rebecca's photos are a spell-binding journey through the past, and her passion for documenting dereliction was sparked by her early interest in the paranormal.

She explains: "I was in a ghost-hunting group and we were going to all sorts of places where I was doing the photography.

"I was particularly fascinated by the old houses which had been abandoned, and I decided to break away from the ghost hunters to search for more of the buildings."

Her favourite "haunts" nowadays are farmhouses and her pictures of some of them have a ghostly, Marie Celeste quality about them, snapshots of mundane everyday lives which have been interrupted by unforeseen circumstances.

Rebecca says: "Many of the houses have been abandoned, because the owners have died without any family to leave them to. And it can be quite emotional to take it all in as you're standing there. Some of the dwellings are like museums, with a lot of history that has been left behind. You'll find old furniture, clothes and newspapers - I came across one publication dating back to 1936 - but I've also discovered food in fridges and cupboards, brands that disappeared off shop shelves long ago.

"I'll leave with something of the sense of the lives that were lived in the houses. But I rarely get the full picture and I find my imagination working overtime to try to complete the puzzles.

"Sometimes I post little stories, which I have made up beside the photographs in a bid to bring them to life, and other people add their own comments.

"Abandoned NI has become a popular Facebook page and, for me, it's an addictive hobby."

Rebecca sometimes re-arranges items in the houses, but only to enhance her pictures. But she resolutely refuses to take any "souvenirs" from the buildings, which she doesn't identify because she fears that intruders with less honourable intentions might follow in her footsteps.

But some of her locations are well-known, like the old Drumsill House Hotel on the outskirts of Armagh, and the former Drum-Na-Greagh Hotel, perched high above the Antrim coast road.

One of Rebecca's best-loved big houses is Cairndhu House, outside Larne, which she first encountered on one of her paranormal trips. The boarded-up building, with a roof that has been stripped of its lead, is the former home of Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon. During the Second World War, it was visited by the future Queen and her sister, Princess Margaret.

Nowadays, it's a vandalised shambles, but Paranormal Ulster has called it "Northern Ireland's most haunted house".

Rebecca concurs "When I was at Cairndhu, there was a big, loud crash in one of the rooms," she says. "We froze and then we heard footsteps, but there was no one else there.

"My companion was a sceptic, but he wasn't a sceptic after that. Neither of us could explain it."

Just as big a mystery to the uninitiated is how Rebecca finds the subjects for her photos.

"It's a mixture of things," she explains. "People send me messages, inviting me to take pictures of their properties, or I might spot somewhere as I drive past. I also do some research on the internet."

Rebecca has lost count of the number of buildings she has photographed for her Facebook page, and she says the possibilities for shoots are endless.

"I know of scores of abandoned places and there are probably hundreds more that I have yet to discover," adds the intrepid archivist, who boldly goes where others might fear to tread. But she doesn't go alone.

"No, I always have someone with me," she admits. "God knows who you might meet in some of these buildings.

"My visits are usually in the morning, particularly at weekends, when most people are having a lie-in. The morning light is usually better and there are fewer people about.

"Sometimes, I have had to go down laneways and clamber into old farmhouses the best way I can, but they can be the most rewarding and fruitful visits."

Rebecca has travelled the length and breadth of Ireland in her quest for 'new' old abandoned buildings.

One gem was at the other end of the island. Rebecca calls it "Veronica's House", but initially she thought her four-hour drive was going to prove to be a wasted journey.

"We couldn't get in, but a neighbour opened it up and gave us a tour and told us the house's history," she says. "Veronica had been a maid in the massive home and she eventually 'moved upstairs' from the servants' quarters with the owner, Peter, who was a wealthy military man.

"Tragically, she got dog dirt in her eye while she was working in the garden and went blind. Peter died before her and the house went into disrepair. People were breaking in to vandalise it while Veronica was still alive and powerless to stop them."

Rebecca was deeply moved by her visit - especially after she found pictures of Veronica and little yellow canisters that had recordings of her voice identifying what food was contained within them.

"I pushed a button and heard her saying 'beans'. It was very emotional and it sounded like Veronica was talking to me. Down South, there are also lots of abandoned asylums and workhouses, as well as hospitals. Some of them are very spooky, but they are all very rich in history and most of them are wide open.

"I don't try to get into any buildings that are locked up and secured, but if I am particularly keen I will drop a note through the letter-box leaving my contact details in the hope that someone might come along and find it.

"That has worked for me in the past. When people realise what I want to do, they are generally co-operative and supportive. But I don't break the law. I don't want to get into trouble."

Rebecca's photographs transform the ordinary into the extraordinary - the cobweb-covered jacket that was probably a farmer's Sunday best, the dilapidated Peugeot cars that have almost vanished beneath the briars and the bushes in a field, the stark mortuary slab that is still in pristine condition long after it hosted its last 'client'. And then there are the clocks on which time has stood still.

On a rare personal level, Rebecca gained access to her old, shut-down primary school and photographed a chair at the very spot where she once sat.

Rebecca, a working mum with two children, believes documenting abandoned buildings is an important job. "In another 30 or 40 years, those buildings might well be gone completely, and I think it's crucial that we have some record of them," she says.

Her concerns are shared worldwide and what are known as urban exploration groups are becoming more popular. But asking Northern Ireland's urban explorer which country she'd like to visit brings an unexpected answer - Belgium.

"It's an amazing place with some lovely buildings that I would love to photograph," says Rebecca, who has produced a calendar of 12 of her most striking images and has already had orders from as far away as America. One photo she didn't include, however, was one of the strangest - a shot of a magazine with a drawing of a couple, fully clothed, under the title 'How to Do Sex Properly', with advice on "who to do it with" and "how to kiss right", along with tips about "living with acne".

For more information, go to Abandoned NI's Facebook page: www.facebook.com/AbandonedNi

Belfast Telegraph

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