PRINT April 1981


In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland

ALMOST ANY IMAGE OF IRELAND is an eye-catcher. Surely no country is more beautiful, but rarely has a country been more cursed. Yet, this book, including a brief introduction by Duncan McLaren, (a director of Sotheby Parke Bernet) draws no conclusions. It merely presents on every second page a Simon Marsden photograph of yet another spectacular ruin. For instance, a once great house in Ireland faces a short surreal statement by McLaren which is—like other entries—of little historical relevance. Included with each statement is the name of the ruin, its location and dates of construction and demise.

This is an eccentric picture book, but it does evoke the Irish tendency to delightful irrelevance and instant folklore.

Marsden’s photographs are equally mannered. Using infrared film, with its pronounced grain, and a black frame-line, he creates heavily atmospheric “period” photographs to achieve a Romantic mood. It almost works, but the degree of effort exceeds the quality of the idea and detracts from the genuine poignance of these buildings. The fierce contrasts of light and dark—sunlight, brilliant as fresh snow against black shadows and blacker skies—evoke a Mediterranean passion more than the soft damp reality usually associated with Ireland.

In light of Ireland’s current history, the elegy implicit in the book’s attitudes is misguided. The ruins of a bygone privileged class do not help us to understand the situation in Ireland today. The real ruins, if you can stomach the pictures, are the devasted rows of burnt-out council houses and shops in Northern Ireland—not “The Once Great Houses of Ireland.”


Simon Marsden, In Ruins: The Once Great Houses of Ireland, ed. and text Duncan McLaren (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 86 pages, 41 photographs.