‘Of all the countries in the world, Ireland is the country for ruins’

Jonathan Self reflects on the abandoned, forgotten and lost objects that dot his neighborhood.

On one of my usual walks, I pass a ruined tower house that, oddly enough, although it has no windows, still has a massive oak door. I have a habit from time to time (I admit it’s a little eccentric, but it gives me pleasure) to stop and, after making sure I’m alone, recite a few lines from Listeners, complete with banging and smoking. Be that as it may, yesterday I just had time: “And the bird flew up from the turret, / Over the traveler’s head,” when I felt something touch my leg and, returning to the ground (I am a jumping soul), I noticed a small tabby kitten . Too clean and well fed to be wild, too far from the nearest farm to get lost, I recognized the poor girl for what she was: an unwanted Christmas present taken to the countryside and abandoned. It was in the right place. The landscape around here is knee-deep in abandoned objects.

Offhand, I can imagine a huge unfinished yacht in the field, several rusty tractors, a megalithic stone circle, various unnecessary agricultural equipment, a dozen old bee hives and a rotting gypsy caravan. That’s before I start listing abandoned buildings. In 1843, the German geographer Johann Georg Kohl published an account of a voyage to Ireland the year before. “Of all the countries of the world,” he wrote, “Ireland is the land of ruins.” Little has changed in 180 years.

Old ruins at Skellig Michael, County Kerry, Ireland.

Our town has a ruined mine, a ruined school, a ruined mansion, a ruined church, two ruined castles, one ruined village, about a dozen ruined farmhouses, and more ruined cottages, barns, cowsheds, and sheds than I can count. In one abandoned house, the ceiling of the dining room had apparently collapsed onto a fully set table. It seems like everyone just got up and went somewhere else because even the napkins are still there. There is a cottage where only a wall with framed family photos remains. I imagine the conversation of the last residents when they left: “I forgot the photos.” – We’ll be back? – No, it’s too late.

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Some of the abandoned houses are nothing more than piles of stones. Others, though empty for years, are crammed with furniture and personal belongings. It’s easy to see why there are so many of them. One hundred years ago, seven out of ten people lived in the countryside. Today, seven out of 10 people live in cities. As 18-year-old Oliver likes to say, “Do the math.” According to Longfellow: “All the houses where people have lived and died / Haunted houses.”

Ruined castle in Ballycarbury, County Kerry, Ireland.

The ruins bring us closer to the invisible world, remind us of our mortality, awaken our curiosity and stimulate our imagination. Even if they are invariably the result of tragedy—hunger, failure, poverty, or death in particular—there is something irresistible about an abandoned house. When Rose Macaulay wrote The pleasure of the ruins 70 years ago, she had an idea.

We ourselves have an abandoned building. For the past few months, my wife Rose has been renovating the abandoned gatehouse, which had fallen into such disrepair that you could see the sky through the ceiling of every room; Next month, we will be welcoming a family that has been forced to leave their home. The dogs, which have expressed their attitude to the abandoned cat very clearly in 24 hours, hope that our new Ukrainian guests will give her a home.

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Jonathan Self at the end of the world, ancient battlefields and friendly pigs.

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