Tarquin Blake and the Irish Gothic

Tarquin Blake read at UCC on the 12/11/14 at 7pm in West Wing 9. Ominous music echoed throughout the corridors as I approached the chamber. That, combined with my clicking heels sufficiently set my mood before approaching what I knew would be an insightful and interesting talk by one of my favourite photographers. Blake has published a series of books detailing Ireland’s abandoned mansions and supposedly haunted ruins; combining literature, history, architecture and photography. His presentation began with a recitation of ‘The Listeners’ by Walter de La Mere (an English writer of psychological horror and the supernatural) and a consideration of the relationship we have with space. In this respect, the presence of absence is what is most interesting to viewers of Blake’s photographs, offering poignant reminders of what once was, and how it can linger. This ‘lingering’ translates in the imagination as horror. At the borderland between the real and the unreal, our imagination often uses this liminal state to create ghosts, demons and vampires.

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
   Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
   Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
   Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
   ‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
   No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
   Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
   That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
   To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
   That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
   By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
   Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
   ’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
   Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
   That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
   Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
   From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
   And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
   When the plunging hoofs were gone.

Tarquin went through his favourite images, detailing the horror stories going along with them. The images selected very much explain the Irish preoccupation with the gothic which existed in Ireland far longer than it did anywhere else. Cork sites featured include Belvelly Castle, Cork District Lunatic Asylum, Castle Lyons, the Hag of Beara and Sing Sing Prison.

In the light of my studies of the Irish Gothic within my Masters programme, I was keen to see how the supernatural manifests itself just as poignantly in contemporary art forms as it did in the gothic tales by the likes of Sheridan Le Fanu and Charles Maturin.

View along asylum interconnecting corridor ('Haunted Ireland', 78)
View along asylum interconnecting corridor (‘Haunted Ireland’, 78)

Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful purported that “[t]he passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror…No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear” (57). Just as Burke’s enquiry informs our reading of Le Fanu and Maturin it also provides insight into how we can interpret Blake’s photographs. Using census records, newspaper archives, manuscripts and libraries, Blake uses history and folklore to source sites for his photographs and frequently reports uncanny experiences while undertaking his work.

The Hag (of Beara) flying on her broomstick (from 'Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft' by Sir Walter Scott, 1930).
The Hag (of Beara) flying on her broomstick (from ‘Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft’ by Sir Walter Scott, 1930).

Whether you’re a cynic or not, it’s undoubtedly interesting to explore why legends, fairy tales and ghost stories pervade in the Irish imagination. The Routledge Companion to Gothic goes someway to answering this question, claiming that “the intellectual pleasure offered by the topic” (84) as well as “the desire to disclose political phobias supposedly secreted within troubled texts” affords those interested in the gothic with a wealth of texts in which to indulge in their curiosity. Historically, estrangement issues, and the intersection with Freudian theories of repression can be read into many texts such as Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September and arguably W.B. Yeats’ Purgatory. Much more could be said about this but I’m more interested to explore the ‘lived’ experience of the supernatural which Blake’s book attempts to survey and capture photographically. Themes of eerie apparitions, curiously dead phone batteries and camera batteries, the marvellous, the strange and unexplainable occurrences pepper Haunted Ireland making it a fitting forum for discussion as to the extent to which the gothic horror has pervaded Irish society and the Irish psyche.

Blake was not short of material for his book, “Ireland: politically oppressed, underdeveloped in the far west and southwest, disrupted and distressed by famines, clearances, uprisings, and the depredations of the rural secret societies, devoutly Catholic in its majority population, and full of romantic scenery and prehistoric, not to say feudal, ruins, 19th C Ireland was an impressive candidate for Gothic treatment. The country was in fact sometimes seen as a sort of living Gothic, or agonised Gothic romance that had turned real” (Moynahan, 111). With this in mind, Blake’s Haunted Ireland is clearly a much needed and rich repository of visual images to correspond with the wealth of historical and literary ghost stories which live in the Irish landscape. A curious power of the Irish gothic has been its staying power, as evidenced in this recent and popular collection which panders to the supernaturally inclined and those interested in architecture alike.

Blake’s website provides more for this interested: here

Works Cited:

– All photographs courtesy of Tarquin Blake.

– Barry, Aoife. “Many Irish ‘ghost Stories’ Are Untrue… except These Ones.”The Journal.ie. N.p., 27 Oct. 2014. Web. 17 Mar. 2015. <http://www.thejournal.ie/tarquin-blake-haunted-ireland-2-1738973-Oct2014/>.

– Blake, Tarquin. Haunted Ireland. Cork: Collins, 2014. Print.

– Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful. London: Routledge Classics, 2008. Print.

– De La Mare, Walter. “The Listeners.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, Web. 17 Mar. 2015. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/177007>.

– Moynahan, Julian. Anglo-Irish: The Literary Imagination in a Hyphenated Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1995. Print.

– Spooner, Catherine, and Emma McEvoy. The Routledge Companion to Gothic. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.

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