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'I'm like Banksy, I want the buildings to take centre stage, not me'

Exclusive anonymous snapper documents old ruins throughout NI and Ireland

By Jade Beecroft

A mum with a passion for old places has been fascinating thousands of followers with her stunning photographs.

Abandoned NI is a website documenting the dilapidation of hundreds of disused buildings across Northern Ireland and into the Republic.

The intimate photos of old farmhouses, cottages, hospitals, convents, schools and workhouses have earned her over 21,000 followers on Facebook.

But the woman behind the project, who spends her weekends travelling the country to take the pictures, prefers to remain anonymous.

"I'm a bit like Banksy," the mum-of-two, from Co Armagh, reveals to Sunday Life. "I don't really want people to know who I am; I want the buildings themselves to take centre stage.

"There are so many beautiful disused properties across Ireland. They deserve to be documented; it's part of our social history.

"I try to keep their locations secret though because not everyone will have good intentions. For me it's definitely a labour of love."

Her beautiful and often moving photos are windows into the past, showing living rooms and kitchens as their owners once left them - albeit with an additional cloak of dust - and buildings with plants growing through windows and roofs as they are slowly reclaimed by nature.

"These places deserve to be documented," she explains. "I've found all sorts of things; newspaper articles, old photos and ration books. It's part of our social history."

The 38-year-old says she's always had a love of photography, and "grew up with a camera in hand".

She joined a paranormal investigation group as their team photographer, but soon realised it was the buildings' histories that interested her more than rumours of any hauntings.

After visiting Cairndhu House, a disused mansion in Larne, with the group, the owner of the property gave her a set of keys and told her to come and go as she wished to take pictures.

"I was fascinated by its history," she explains. "It was built for Sir Thomas and Lady Dixon in 1875 as a summer residence, and the couple held grand parties.

"But after the outbreak of the Second World War it was handed over for use as a war hospital. It then became a convalescent hospital in the 1950s and wasn't closed until the 1980s."

Since then, various plans have been mooted to redevelop Cairndhu House, most recently as a retirement home, but work has yet to begin.

"It's so huge, so sprawling, it just captivated me," says the photographer. "I just couldn't understand why something so beautiful had just been abandoned."

This curiosity was how Abandoned NI was born. She created a website and Facebook page in 2013, and began uploading her revealing photographs of derelict sites.

"It started as a sort of archive," she explains. "A place to catalogue what I was finding. But the response was phenomenal; people loved it.

"There's a process that buildings go through when they're abandoned. Windows get broken, they become insecure and are looted. People steal the lead from the roofs and then water starts to leak in.

"That's the beginning of the end really, that's when it disintegrates and nature takes over.

"I think it's so important to get in and get photos before that happens, because this is our heritage."

The photographer makes a point of never breaking into properties. She has built up such a name for herself that many of the buildings she photographs are by invitation from owners or neighbours.

And she always takes a companion with her on her trips, for safety.

"A few years ago I was invited to photograph an old farmhouse near Cookstown by its owner," she says. "At the time he told me of a cottage up the road, occupied by an 85-year-old man called Dessie.

"In time Dessie passed away and left the farmer the cottage in his will. He decided to bulldoze it and build on the land, but invited me in first to document what was there.

"There were piles and piles of rubbish, but what I found beneath it all was incredible. There were newspaper cuttings of the Titanic sinking from 1912, Victorian clothing, war diaries and ration books.

"I found a chest full of letters from Dessie's late brother to the woman who jilted him at the alter. They spanned from 1958 to 1964 and were full of beautiful historic details, such as when the Queen visited Carrick. I was also able to track down and return black and white photos of a policeman to his family."

The woman behind Abandoned NI is a busy working mum with a full-time job, a three-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.

She spends her evenings researching old buildings when the kids are asleep, and often heads out to photograph them early on a Sunday morning "while the family are still in bed".

The Armagh woman reckons she's photographed over 200 buildings, and has had a few spooky experiences along the way.

"You get a feeling when you walk into a property," she explains. "Sometimes it's welcoming and homely, but other times it can be quite cold and hostile.

"My sister and I once visited an abandoned adventure park down south. It was one of those places that would have held summer camps and school trips; it still had all the bunkbeds in the dorm rooms.

"Before that though it had been a convent, so it had a long history.

"We were walking along this long corridor, checking each of the rooms, and my sister was recording a video as I took photographs. Suddenly we heard a man's voice, as though he was standing right beside us.

"When we got back to the car we played the tape back, and sure enough we could hear this man saying, 'You're crazy'. It was clear as day.

"We were the only ones in the building. Things like that are very hard to explain."

An exhibition of work by Abandoned NI, including photos from Dessie's cottage in Cookstown, will be on show at Portadown Heritage Centre throughout December.

For more information, visit www.abandonedni.com or facebook.com/abandonedni

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