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Book review: Ghosts of the Faithful Departed

A broken stove, a cracked pudding bowl, a rusting Jacob’s biscuit tin, assorted dusty kettles, tins, teapots and glassware scattered about the floor, itself buried under old newspapers and decades of debris.Vivid green paint peeling from the walls and a holy picture propped up below the open cupboard doors, a cupboard where once two of the good teapots and the decorated plate may have been proudly displayed, to be taken out when visitors called.


This is the startling image on the dust cover of a remarkable book of photographs of the interiors of abandoned houses in Ireland, beautifully photographed by David Creedon. David Creedon is a talented photographer who has already established a reputation as a photographic artist of international renown. Born in Cork, David has exhibited in many countries and is the winner of  several prestigious prizes. He currently  has work in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Having first heard him interviewed on radio in which he explained how he became enthralled by abandoned homes, I was thrilled to find his book under the tree on Christmas morning!


This large format book is lovely to look at, with over 70 original full-page colour photographs of  kitchens and bedrooms, – once warm, lived-in private spaces – and of items such as clothing, boots, letters once cherished, intimate possessions. Each photograph occupies a full page with short, unobtrusive, explanatory text on the opposite page. This large picture format in a way accentuates the intrusion into the private lives of people in what was their own secure space, and also underlines the sadness of the crumbling remains of homes, where people once lived, laughed, loved and were loved.


On first reading, I went from page to page looking at the pictures and was struck by how familiar these places looked to me. I can remember relatives and neighbours living in similar welcoming kitchens, with heat radiating from either the open fire or the Stanley range (stove), the aluminium kettle always on the boil; the aluminium teapot always ready for the spoon of tea, the good china lovingly exhibited in the corner press (cupboard). I wondered what had happened to the occupants – had a last surviving member of a family passed away, or had an entire  family emigrated? Some of the images however contain items that had come from abroad, letters,  items of clothing, perhaps ‘sent home’ by an emigrant.


In the foreword, Dr Breda Grey contextualizes these pictures in an Ireland of 50 years ago, beset by emigration. Her work at the Irish Centre for Migration Studies at University College Cork in 1999- 2000 saw an oral history of people who stayed behind in Ireland  collected, adding a further dimension to these abandoned homes. She states: ‘Individual preferences with regard to staying or migrating were rarely openly articulated. To do so would be to break the communal silence, to challenge the collective denial and to name the pain caused by difficult familial dynamics of staying or going‘.


Readers will be struck by the number of religious artifacts  in these pictures. Statues and framed pictures with their stylized images  once had pride of place in these homes, and were probably a great source of comfort, or perhaps the only comfort to those who gazed on them. They have now fallen of f the walls and stand abandoned in these silent spaces.


This book will appeal at many levels: those interested in photographic art will delight in the photographic composition with page after page of  technically pleasing images. The photography conditions were challenging –  these old abandoned houses were often dark, having been overwhelmed by trees and bushes, with no additional means of lighting.  One image in particular that of the Star Spangled banner with only 48 stars hanging next to a green dress required an exposure time of 6 minutes!


In these pictures the people are gone. Absent. With them have gone their memories, their stories, their joys and their sorrows. This book will not enlighten the reader about who these home owners were, or what became of them. It is part of the attraction of this beautiful book, that the observer must complete the story of what led to the abandonment of these once cherished objects and these homes.  The spaces and artefacts of  lives have been skillfully presented by David Creedon and  will stand as a social historical record of  mid -20th Century Ireland.




Ghosts of the Faithful Departed –  A selection of  images from this book can can be seen here at David Creedon’s website..

Breaking the Silence: Staying at home in an emigrant society . The UCC archive  – read or listen.

Ghosts of the Faithful Departed is published by The Collins Press


Filed under Family History, Genealogy, Irish American, Irish Australian, Living in Ireland