Photographer Rebecca Brownlie, whose book Abandoned Ireland was published before Christmas, once had a spooky encounter in the old Tain Adventure Centre on the shores of Carlingford Lough in north Louth.
The Co Down photographer and her sister were exploring in the former adventure centre and holiday village outside Omeath several years ago when they heard a ghostly voice.
The Co Down photographer was working for a paranormal group, scouting locations for investigations, and was visiting the abandoned holiday visit for the first time.
"It was just me and my sister and we were going down a corridor where the dormitories were. There was no one else there and as I opened the very very last door to a toilet I heard a male voice but couldn’t make out what he said. I asked my sister if she had heard it and if she had recorded it and she said yes. When we got back home, we could hear a male voice saying “you are crazy” in an Ulster accent.”
This wasn’t Rebecca’s only encounter with the paranormal, as in her recently published book, she recounts how she was taking photos in an old convent. As she left the canteen, she stopped to take one last photo of the impressive staircase. Later, when she looked at the image, she could see the ghostly silhouette of a woman through the glass door,
“I know that behind that doorway was just an empty kitchen and canteen,” says Rebecca. “There was no other door in, no cupboards that anyone could have been hiding in, it had been completely stripped.”
Rebecca’s interest in photography dates back to her childhood, when she won a camera as a prize on a tv show. “I was twelve and Patrick Kielty was the presenter of SUST. I won a camera and that is when I discovered my passion for photography.”
She became the unofficial photographer for her groups of friends and about ten years ago got involved with a paranormal group, travelling around the country looking for haunted buildings.
"We went all over the country, looking for all these haunted buildings, castles, old hotels and houses, taking photos and making video and sound recordings.”
It was, however, a visit to Cairn Dhu House in Larne that sparked her interest in finding out the history behind these abandoned buildings. As she photographed the sprawling Victorian mansion, she became fascinated by its backstory. It once belonged to Lord and Lady Dixon who were well known figures in Belfast society and hosted glittering parties whose guests once included Princess Margaret.
"I became more and more interested in photography than the paranormal and stepped away from that,” says Rebecca, who is from Moira, Co Down. “I set up the Facebook page Abandoned NI as there is already an Abandoned Ireland page, and began documenting old buildings all over Ireland. It really snowballed from there.”
Her passion for documenting old buildings, from once grand castles to abandoned hospitals, aslyums, convents, schools, hotels, pubs, farmhouses and humble cottages, has grown over the years. She is driven to find out the stories behind the buildings and to discover why they had been abandoned and allowed to become derelict.
"It’s now a life long project and is not just a hobby,” she says.
Her travels have taken her all over Ireland and she has visited a number of buildings in the north east as well as the Tain Adventure Centre. The impressive ruins of Louth Hall, outside Tallanstown, once the home of the Plunkett family, features in the book, as does Killeavy Castle before its renovation into a luxury wedding venue.
A more humble abode known as Maggie’s House at Williamstown outside Slane, is typical of the type of vernacular buildings which Rebecca loves to photograph and document.
"I was invited to take photos of the house by the granddaughter of the woman who had lived in the house. The family are going to do it up and wanted me to photograph it before the renovations started. It's so nice that they wanted me to record it.”
"It’s an old farmhouse and is time capsule of life as it was not that long ago. It was amazing to see all the stuff and the pictures on the walls. There was one of Princess Diana beside the Sacred Heart.”
Rebecca is always delighted when people ask her to photograph old buildings and says that she will always ask permission before entering a property if it has been someone’s home.
"Generally the ones in good condition will be locked and you can find out who owns them by asking the neighbours.”
She has returned to some buildings over the course of several years and her images illustrate the ravages of time on these abandoned properties as nature takes over.
Sadly, many of the buildings are vandalised with furniture and fittings damaged or stolen. Because of this, Rebecca doesn’t share the locations of buildings unless they are well-known properties.
"People said I’d run out of buildings but people are always getting in touch with me, either asking me to take photos or letting me know of somewhere interesting.”
She advises anyone interested in getting involved in this type of photography known as Urbex to use their common sense and not to take any dangers when exploring derelict buildings.
"Be careful going into old buildings as they can be dangers. Don’t go alone as you could fall and be injured.”
She is delighted with the reaction to ‘Abandoned Ireland’ which was published by Merrion Press before Christmas.
While the contents are drawn from her photography over the past decade, she says it took about a year to bring the project to fruition.