The Ghost House project started in summer 2007 when I found by chance an abandoned house near our rented holiday cottage, and decided to explore it. Inside I found personal belongings left behind by the previous occupants (household items, clothes, many religious objects and even drawers full of letters). I did not touch or read the letters, I felt it would be indecent, but read the stamping dates and sender’s address on the exposed envelopes. From those and also from the design of the clothes and items, I deducted that the last occupants either died in the 70’s or left to join family in America. I began to wonder why those houses were never cleared after their last occupants died. It seems those people either had no descendants (I later heard of a tradition of “bachelor-farmers” in Ireland) or their descendants had emigrated (mostly in the USA) and had no desire for a small old fashioned house in the middle of nowhere in Ireland (in the 70s, Ireland was not yet fashionable as a get-away-from-it-all holiday destination … ) Then I wondered why the local authorities did not clear away those houses to make something useful out of them, or at least keep them in shape for future use.
A dear friend is the son of Irish economical migrants and studied the history and heritage of Ireland. From discussions with him, I started to understand that the locals did not see the “Ghost Houses” the same way the outsiders did. They were all but invisible to them. During the Famine of 1845-1850, out the 8 million Irish, 1 million died of starvation and another million emigrated to escape Death. The population was abruptly reduced by 25%. During the Famine itself, the living (or rather surviving) were so underfed they were too weak to bury the dead, therefore the dead were lined on the shore to be washed away by the sea. One can only imagine what a trauma it was to see those Ireland beaches filled with rows of corpses, and to abandoned your loved ones to be washed away. Yet the surviving could not afford any weakness if they wanted to try and survive a little longer themselves. Then the Famine ended and empty houses scattered the landscape, reminding the survivors of the people they knew who died or emigrated. Yet, even after the Famine, conditions were still harsh and people could not afford any weakness. The death of 1/8 of a country’s population in 5 years is such a major trauma it could not be “dealt with”. To go on with their daily business and ensure their own subsistence, the survivors both during and after the Famine learnt to ignore the dead lined up on the beach and then the empty houses. It is as though the country had developed a form of collective amnesia as a form of self protection. Like the way victims sometimes wipe out from their conscious thoughts the memory of a traumatic event, but at the unprecedented scale of a whole country. Today still, it is considered impolite to mention the Famine in daily conversations. It is just Not Done. The Famine may be discussed in political and academic circles, and artworks made about it, but it is never discussed by ordinary people, despite the fact that all families were affected by it. The Famine may be present in the conscious thought as an abstraction belonging to the realms of Politics, History and National Identity but on the human and emotional levels, its consequences are so huge that it was never “dealt with” and the collective amnesia is as strong as ever.
The Ghost Houses I’ve visited may not date from the Famine, but they are reminders of a recent past where, economically, Ireland was mostly rural, poor and lagging behind the rest of Europe and where many people still emigrated to the UK and America to find work. Today’s Irish people see themselves as citizens of a modern, booming “Celtic Tiger” and do not want to be reminded of this recent past. So their eyes scan over the landscape without registering the Ghost Houses who become all but invisible to them. The Ghost Houses are not even “eyesores” like abandoned buildings might be in Britain, they are invisible. The contemporary Irish people deliberately ignore the Ghost Houses and build themselves brand new houses right next to them that project the right image of success and modernity with which they identify. The Ghost Houses stay lying there, waiting to be explored by artists or bought by rich foreigners in quest of picturesque.