A peek inside abandoned Tyrone farmhouse housing a treasure trove of love letters and evidence of a mystery man
This weekend Rebecca is recreating two rooms from the home in a Belfast warehouse complete with furniture, photos, letters and clothing, and relating the fascinating backstory of the family who lived in the property. Ivan Little reports
A Co Down woman who spends her spare time taking photographs of abandoned homes, factories, hospitals and even mortuaries in Northern Ireland is bringing an old house back to life and revealing its hidden secrets including love letters, hundreds of never-read magazines and a copy of the Ulster Covenant.
The enthusiastic archivist who runs an organisation called Abandoned NI is recreating parts of the forlorn farmhouse in a disused Belfast warehouse which is itself steeped in history.
The working mum and mother-of-two who prefers to be known only by her Christian name Rebecca will also take her audience on guided tours around the imposing four-storey Riddel's warehouse in Ann Street.
It was constructed in 1865 for the Musgrave Iron Foundry, who moved out in the 1960s before the police moved in, acquiring it as a storeroom and de facto security buffer zone beside Musgrave Street RUC station during the Troubles.
People who are privy to Rebecca's ambitious plans for her exhibition, talk and tour say while the warehouse itself is fascinating, it is overshadowed by what she is duplicating inside it, a spine-tingling revisiting of an old abandoned house that she discovered near Cookstown.
The pictures that Rebecca has already released of the interiors of the house are like something from a Mid Ulster Marie Celeste.
Her evocative photographs are frozen-in-time images of the way the house was left immediately after the death of the owner, whom she is identifying only as Dessie and who had been living on his own.
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Poring over Rebecca's new collection of old times is a stirring journey through the past, and into the life of a solitary man who kept huge numbers of copies of the Reader's Digest magazine for company, though he never read them.
Scattered throughout the house that was a home for decades to Dessie and his brothers who pre-deceased him are what were once cherished memories of the family, the black and white pictures of three generations standing side by side with smiles that will never vanish.
Elsewhere in the house are clocks and stopwatches that are stilled forever.
In another room a transistor radio with its aerial extended ready for action sits incongruously beside a set of weighing scales, while on the wall there's a fading two-a-penny picture with a Biblical verse.
In a bedroom there's another holy quotation on a pillow at the top of an unkempt bed with its still-in-situ but rotting bedclothes, not to mention the unmentionable but obligatory chamber pot on the floor next to an old pair of brogues.
The kitchen is a complete hotchpotch, a sprawling and dusty gather-up of a bachelor's kettles and cooking utensils plus a sorry looking box of Oxo cubes on a shelf.
Rebecca visited Dessie's home in the middle of nowhere in Tyrone in 2017 just before it was knocked down to make way for a modern new home.
She was alerted to the house by an artist who uses the Abandoned NI images on her Facebook page for inspiration.
A relative wanted Rebecca to document a farmhouse that his aunt and uncle lived in, but he also pointed her in the direction of another dwelling just up the long laneway… Dessie's home.
"Dessie was still living in the house and I was told he would love to have a chat with me, but he wasn't well," says Rebecca. "Sadly, he passed away and the house was willed to his neighbour.
"The plan was to knock down the house and build a new one but all concerned wanted me to record Dessie's place before it was demolished. The house was a nondescript storey-and-a-half cottage, so I wasn't really expecting much when I went there one early winter Sunday morning with the snow on the ground.
"Once I got inside I could see the house was full of clutter and a lot of rubbish. Each room was stacked high floor to ceiling with Reader's Digest boxes, unopened. There were up to 200 magazines but they weren't in great condition because of the damp.
"The neighbour explained that Dessie subscribed to the magazine through loneliness as he didn't have many visitors and he was the last surviving member of the family. He apparently didn't cancel the magazine because he felt that someone was sending him letters, which is quite sad."
Rebecca's first impressions of the house were totally misleading. She says: "Once I took a walk through each room and had a proper look I was blown away by the historical items that were left here. This literally was the diamond in the rough."
She was intrigued by newspapers from 1811, old money and clothing from the Victorian era, and any doubts about where Dessie's loyalties lay were quickly dispelled by a copy of the Ulster Covenant, the declaration signed by thousands of unionists opposing Home Rule in 1912.
And Rebecca also found an invitation to a meeting in Cookstown addressed by the unionist leader Sir Edward Carson. Plus a drawing of King Billy crossing the Boyne. And the odd bowler hat here and there.
But away from politics the real treasures for Rebecca that she uncovered were cupboards full of love letters of a more recent vintage.
She says: "The letters were between Dessie's brother and his girlfriend. They were supposed to get married but they never did. I was mesmerised. It was like a house from the folk park at Cultra but this was genuine."
Rebecca returned a week later to clear out the house but it was a herculean task and it wasn't finished for well over a month of weekend visits..
She says: "Eventually I had the place back to the way it would have been and I was excited to photograph and document the lives of Dessie and the rest of the people who had lived there previously."
In the middle of her clearout Rebecca found traces of a mystery man who had no obvious family connections to the house.
"I later established that he was a police officer based in Co Armagh and there was a military box with his letters, diaries, medals and certificates," she says.
Rebecca then threw herself into finding out more about the man who she now thinks married into Dessie's family not long before his death. "I'm planning to say more about him at my talk in Riddel's," says Rebecca, who also came across correspondence in the house between Dessie's mother and her sister in the States, who also sent over pictures of herself… the forerunner of selfies.
Rebecca also discovered letters from Dessie's uncle who had been in the Canadian Air Force and was based in South Africa for a spell.
By now Rebecca was captivated by Dessie and his relatives.
She spoke to local people to piece together their history, which she will share with her audience at Riddel's.
But she won't just be talking and showing her photographs.
Rebecca says: "I am creating two of Dessie's rooms in the warehouse and replicating the house with furniture, photos, letters and clothing.
"It will be the first time that I have ever done a presentation talk like it and I hope to give the audience the chance to experience what Dessie's home was like, plus I will share a little bit about the backstory too."
Rebecca, who has expanded her pursuit of abandoned buildings to Belgium, says long forsaken houses like Dessie's are quite common in Northern Ireland.
She says: "A lot of people aren't aware of dwellings like this one where so much material has been left behind after a death.
"But if there's no kith or kin the line simply stops and everything can go to wrack and ruin with no one to undertake the upkeep of the house."
Rebecca says she wasn't spooked as she went into Dessie's house, adding: "Some buildings have very different atmospheres but I felt welcome in Dessie's house, which was surprisingly quite warm, even though there hadn't been any heating in it for a long time."
- Abandoned NI's presentations and tours of Riddel's take place this Sunday between 10am and noon and between 2pm and 4pm, and at the same times on Sunday, September 1. For tickets go www.facebook.com/pg/AbandonedNI