Haunted by our dark history
Photographer Tarquin Blake captures the controversial heritage of Ireland's 'big houses'. By Geraldine Lynagh
Finding Castle Saunderson had been a struggle, but when Tarquin Blake first set eyes on it, he knew his efforts had been worthwhile. Hidden deep in Cavan woodland, the huge neo-Gothic pile was one of the grandest ruins he had ever come across. Amazingly, few seemed to know that it even existed.
"It was like something out of a haunted-house horror film," Tarquin recalls. "I was completely surprised at the size and scale of it."
It is thought that parts of Castle Saunderson were designed by the architect Edward Bore, who also worked on Buckingham Palace.
In its heyday in the 1800s, up to 15 servants would have been employed to keep its 55 rooms in order.
The castle's 20,000 acres were rented out to tenant farmers, generating a healthy income for the Saunderson family.
In today's money, it's likely that they made the equivalent of up to €5m a year in rent.
Castle Saunderson is one of many ruins that Tarquin has photographed and documented in his book Abandoned Mansions of Ireland II.
He describes himself as a cross between Indiana Jones and Alice in Wonderland, using old maps and pushing through undergrowth to uncover houses that haven't been touched in decades.
It's not known exactly how many of these ruins exist, but in 1900 there were 2,000 stately homes in Ireland. Less than 200 remain standing and occupied.
The 'big house' represents a dark era in Irish history, when Anglo-Irish Protestant landowners owned most of the farmland.
"If I had done this book 20 years ago, people would have asked why I was bringing up that period," Tarquin says.
"But as one generation moves on to the next, memories are fading. Period dramas like Downton Abbey have really helped awaken an interest in these big houses."
Some of the ruins Tarquin documents hold a special place in history, like Elsinore House in Co Sligo.
WB Yeats and his brother Jack spent their childhood summers there and it features in their poetry and paintings, although today it is almost completely covered in ivy.
A ghostly encounter at Elsinore fuelled a lifelong fascination for WB Yeats in the paranormal. In his autobiography, he recalls hearing "three loud raps" on the drawing-room window, which he believed was a signal from a dead smuggler who had once lived there.
S everal of the ruins featured in this book are said to be haunted. The ghost of a little girl roams Athcarne Castle in Co Meath, her hands dripping in blood.
The spirit of a girl who was run over by a carriage at Elm Hill House in Co Limerick has been seen desperately tugging at the front door.
He has never seen a ghost himself, but Tarquin admits he is sometimes spooked. He had heard that Woodlawn House in Co Galway was the most haunted house in Ireland, so he was apprehensive about exploring it.
"I stashed a crucifix and a bottle of holy water in my pocket, because I was absolutely scared from all the stories," he laughs.
"As I made my way around the ruin, I felt gradually more at ease. I talked to a descendent of the people who built the house and he told me the stories were completely made up."
It's likely many of the ruins Tarquin has photographed will completely disappear in the next few decades. But such is his fascination that it would take more than a mischievous ghost to deter his work.
'Abandoned Mansions of Ireland II', by Tarquin Blake is on sale now, priced €27.99