If you’ve been following this blog for the past while, you’ll know that on most weekends for nearly two years now, I have been visiting the abandoned national schools scattered across the rural Irish landscape, taking photographs, and posting what I encounter online. I’ve already written notes which contextualise the socio-economic background to the environments I’ve been photographing (you can check these out here). The folk I meet along the way are generally curious about what I’m doing, and I guess the most frequently asked question I get is ‘Why?’.
It’s a very good question, and just about every time I’ve been asked, I’ve replied with a stock response, something along the lines of ‘I have no real explanation for why I began doing this; it began by accident’. This is true for the most part, but as time has gone on, I’ve begun to ask myself the same question, wondering if there is perhaps something more meaningful to it. And understandably so; I’ve just gone through my archive and there are about 170 school houses in there.
In a previous blog post I casually remarked (to myself really) that ‘I wouldn’t say that I’ve become obsessed with these abandoned buildings, but it recently occurred to me that in the past 12 months I’ve visited just over 100 tumbling down ruins of old schools, and that at the moment I feel compelled to stop and take a quick look around when I accidentally stumble across one. I guess this compulsion is part of being engaged in the project, part of caring about what you’re doing. Or, of course, perhaps it’s just an oddness. Regardless, the question is why do I have an interest in these ruins.
Contemporary ruins can provoke an unusual emotional response that is difficult define. A familiar environment that has fallen into decay can be both unsettling and intriguing, inspiring fascination and fear as a tangible reminder of the scale of your own lifetime. Kate Brown talks of the concept of ‘rustalgia’ in her book Dispatches from Dystopia: Histories of Places Not Yet Forgotten (2014). For her, while some people speak of their ‘lustful’ attraction to such sites, ‘others will speak in mournful tones of what is lost, what she calls rustalgia.’