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Safe Building/Missing Building

April 13, 2009

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This sign is outside the ruined Kilmacurragh House in Wicklow, a nice enough gaff dating from the latter years of the 17th century all the way up to the mid-19th century, and, from some of the features, at least a little bit into the 20th. I’m ashamed to admit that I kind of find most of this whole date-range of formal architecture a bit boring, and I was more into the doctored sign than what it described.

There are pockets I find interesting — Georgian townhouses, grandiose Palladian piles, a lot of the vernacular stuff, and the now-mostly-gone Dutch Billies — but there’s something about this stuff that’s neither plain nor stately enough for me. I’d much rather an industrial building of similar age. But this is probably the medievalist in me, requiring some kind of clearly articulated decorative vocabulary to keep my interest. My attention span for the building would also have been affected by the presence of a quantity of baked treats, which made me far too hyper to stand still and pretend to indulge the historic buildings nerd in me for very long. Anyway, Kilmacurragh.

Kilmacurragh House

Kilmacurragh House

In a strange twist, I pretty much ignored the architecture and paid some genuine and not-at-all-feigned attention to the gardens, which I would normally find pretty but boring. But here: spring!

Difficult to ignore, unlike the house, which just hasn’t decayed well, and it’s ironic that an era so obsessed with romanticising decay would have left us structures that erode with so little drama.

It’s easy to forget that plants themselves can be archaeological and historic, that they represent human intervention in the landscape. Even though they are ephemeral, they frequently last longer than features of the built landscape (although maybe we should start including them in our definition of ‘built landscape’?).

Gonna Rock Down To Rhododendron Avenue

Gonna Rock Down To Rhododendron Avenue

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There’s also an avenue of yew trees, which is pretty cool. I always say I find gardens boring, but it turns out I’m usually lying when I say that.

Whoooooo are yew?

Whoooooo are yew?

Normally we distinguish between the planted past and the built heritage, but the yew is one tree that has been deliberately planted for a lot longer than most other types. They’re native to Ireland, but they’re also normally found in graveyards or planned gardens, and can probably be interpreted as an assertion or expectation of longevity of the place. They’re slow growers and can live for millennia, even if they don’t reach the impressive heights of the California Redwoods.

Ireland has little native deciduous woodland left, and a lot of the conifers have been frequently harvested, so there’s little old-growth forest to wander and witness the centuries of management you can sometimes see elsewhere. I’ve only ever really grasped the use of trees to archaeologists when I was in Shropshire a few years ago, where you can see hundreds of years of coppicing, pruning and other types of woodland management, even when the buildings are long gone. The yew in particular would have been deliberately retained through many changes to the lived landscape, in part, perhaps, for its antiquity, reminding us that people in the past had a past, too. And the Actons, who planted this garden, certainly wanted to extend the arm of history forwards and backwards, since the now-ruined house once featured this cool-ass pair of antlers on its wall.

So fine, I like nature, but I’m still only all that interested in it when humans have had a little fiddle with it. On its own, I’d rather appreciate it a bit more passively, by running/walking/cycling through it, or laying in the grass, contemplating some of these.

Nature, Greatly Improved

Nature, Greatly Improved

And there was more nerd excitement at the Devil’s Glen, where we found more irony on the art-fringed wooded trails.

Behold! The door to nowhere. Since the woods are filled with specially commissioned works of art, it was hard to tell if this was part of it, but I’m pretty sure it’s not. If anyone knows different, I’d love to know for sure.

Either everybody's home or nobody is.

Either everybody's home or nobody is.

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Please forward.

Please forward.

This door is my new favourite thing. Kev mentioned that only a couple of years ago the paint job was fresh, so it’s kind of interesting how it could accumulate a patina of a more advanced age in such a short time.

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