There’s an exhibition running at one of my old colleges featuring the photographs and articles by Tarquin Blake about the abandoned buildings of Ireland. A good number of the cases are former country houses of the Anglo-Irish ascendency and small Protestant churches, but there are also examples from poorer quarters, such as old workhouses and ayslums.

I can’t make the exhibition just now, but the book is on the way to me.

There’s an absorbing website to go with the work at Abandoned Ireland. Some brilliant use of virtual reality 360 degree views (done using VRML, I wonder? Never mind, just some tech I used to follow).

The cover of the book and the image they’re using to advertise the exhibition is one I recognise. One of the nicer walks around Galway involves driving out east to Oranmore, then take the turn just past the town for the Maree road. Head off to Rinville village and park up. You can take a lovely walk from there along the northern shoreline, up past the marina. It goes on for only a mile or two but the sea air and views are great. Pity they can’t finish the circuit back into Galway itself.

Across the bay on the southern shore you can see the ruins of a great house. After looking at this over the years the last time I was there I decided to find out what it was. I drove around some fairly small roads until I reached this gate. Couldn’t actually get inside the building as there were a fair few warnings not to, and I’ve learnt over the years not to mess with Irish farmers out in the middle of nowhere.

It’s called Ardfry House. It was built in 1770 by the Blake family, they being one of the top families (or “tribes”) of Galway. They bought the land from the Wall family and around 1800 took the title / family name “Wallscourt”.

There is a painting done in 1825 by Thomas Lawrence of Elizabeth, Lady Wallscourt & wife of the 3rd Baron, showing her playing the guitar. The artist, probably the leading portrait painter of the time, was a poor boy made good. They said he was always in love, always in debt. Her husband, Joseph Blake, the 3rd Baron Wallscourt, was also an interesting character – he travelled around Europe and was an early Socialist who tried to set up a commune on his estate.

I believe the painting is lost now, and there’s a rather poignant note that it may have been sold to cover debts. In fact, the wife of the 4th Baron (who had inherited when he was about 8 years old) had something of a problem with gambling. After she’d sold off all the interior decorations (presumably including portraits of her ancestors) she allegedly went on to strip the roof of all its lead.  Not surprisingly I suppose, the house began its fall into dereliction. There was one more Baron in the line, Charles Blake, who died on May 27th 1920 without a male heir, and that was the end of the peerage.

You might think all this dramatic enough – a movie set in the Edwardian twilight as the old world of wealth and pomposity slowly sank into the oncoming quicksand of the impending First World War. While Mi’Lady frantically stripped the house of it’s valuables in a vain effort to slow or prevent a certain end. And in the wings a group of agitated young men were playing soldiers, with their nice new green uniforms and talk of nationalism. Very “Wind That Shakes The Barley” indeed. Most of these big houses would have been dealt a final blow when a small group of the volunteers would pay a visit some dark night and burn it to the ground.

But this is Ireland, and so there are two more movie scripts waiting. Two more dramas to unfold. The first, which I envisage as a quirky little period piece, involves the return of three grand-daughters of the 4th Earl to reclaim their inheritance, around the 1950s. The house itself is broken so they must live in one of the estate houses, a modest farmhouse. They’re known locally as the “three gay mice” and this drama  is an exploration of the interplay between them, and of their sense of longing and regret for that-which-has-been-lost. It’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” the way their sisterly bond is strained by the yearning for the what-might-have-been. Their loss mirrored by the background austerity of a poverty-stricken land. All is quite gray.

And so to the final movie. It’s the early 1970s and a rich American is in the area. He’s in the movie business, or “sum-tin to do with the fill-ums” as the cast extra speaking with obligatory pint in hand in the local pub would have handily told us to develop the plot. There’s money available, so the house is re-roofed and all the windows are put back in. But only the facade of the house is restored. For this is the world of facades – they are making a movie called “The Mackintosh Man” which is to be a cold war espionage drama. It’s to star the Hollywood legend, Paul Newman. This movie is in a Fassbinder or a Herzog style – a movie about the making of a movie. The two worlds of austere Ireland and opulent Hollywood colliding, as a metaphor for Capitalism versus Communism. Love in a cold war climate.

The final scene of the Hollywood movie has arrived. It’s a dramatic scene in which the big old house is put to the flame. The new roof and windows are destroyed in the deliberate torch scene. No doubt a good deal of the irreplacable period fittings of the interior goes with them. Floors collapse. Long, eerie cellar corridors are exposed like the guts of the old house.

And so it ends.

But what’s this? A Brian Palma “Carrie”-like final shocker for the audience? A plan to convert the house into holiday apartments, you say? Keep (what’s left) of the old stuff but make it a boutique little destination on the edge of the western world. Be-jaysus! Ah, but hang on now there a minute. Sure, isn’t there only gone and after being a total collapse of the banks and the economy and the property developers are sitting there with a glass of whiskey in one hand and the shattered dreams of their ambition in the other. Maybe there’s another script out there after all.

Declan de Barra – The Wind that Shakes the Barley