Out of the Ruins? Ireland’s Crumbling Castles and Empty Ghost Estates as Shadows of Domination

May 1, 2012

Ireland, as we all know, is dotted with ruins. Crumbling old walls overgrown with ivy, where the caw of rooks overhead adds plaintively to the romance of standing amidst time so long past it is alive only to the imagination. Linear stone ledges, their foundations hardly distinct from the rock out of which they were hewn, are now broken open by trees reaching towards light where once a proud roof held the elements at bay. Shaft-like window slots remain, which once provided cover for defensive bowmen, who enjoyed the elevated vantage point provided by the lords of this powerfully built edifice. The ruin in Ireland, like everywhere, represents a dominant perspective over the surrounding landscape and everything upon it. Sometimes restored to touristic magnificence, it dots the Irish town and countryside so ubiquitously that it may also be found, as was this example, unmarked at the end of an unremarkable cul de sac.

We look back at these ruins with mixed feelings; respect for the skill of their constructions, but sometimes also a feeling of shame at violent overlords and their inevitable crimes against humanity and nature; with honour at the durability of formerly proud holdings but also with a pang of recognition in the realization that all things must pass. So what is so different about today’s ghost estates, banged up in the rush of the Celtic Tiger, often by unscrupulous developers with an eye only for quick profit and no care for shoddy and environmentally careless workmanship? What eerie shiver runs down my spine when I consider them, lying empty in a country counting pennies to pay the bills, across a land that also features so many crumbling old ruins of former greatness and domination?

The ruin is always some kind of fortification; a stone wall (all traces of timber or other organic materials long gone) built to withstand weather and attack – or anything that might threaten the surplus stored up against another long winter of privation. But of course the castle – or other stone ruin, like the ring fort, which is built on the same principle – defends ownership in quite particular ways. It is not just the result of an intelligent animal building protection around the fruits it has gathered from the autumn harvest; the stone wall always also represents divisions amongst different ranks and kinship alignments of the people. Put simply, you’re either in or you’re out. The castle is the property of the king, who profits from having managed the land, or the prince or lord who has ordered the countryside into submission. Their position of privilege means they can take the pick of the next generation for improved breeding. They are prepared to kill to protect their wealth; and we all know that defense begins with surveillance, which soon turns to attack (aka the pre-emptive strike). The driving force is power, specifically power over, in this case political/technological power over other people, the land and its creatures.

Religion desires the view from the heights also, ostensibly to position its sacred space as close to possible to the god on high. But this remains a situation of power – the view over the people and the land, the dominion enjoyed from above, the call to the faithful who look up to the exalted ones, cloistered or otherwise, a conduit to their highest hopes and dreams. Doubtless this position is often filled with sincerity; but it can also be seen as part of the history of assuming cultural authority over people and land, a new kind of force to either replace or augment the military and its arms. This can be seen when churches are built over pagan sites of ritual or consecration, as well as when they work hand in glove with a monarchy or other form of ruling elite.

The ghost estate may not enjoy the same lofty sites as the ruins so often do, but the attitude – towards the land, its nonhuman inhabitants and other people – reveals the same sets of bias. The developer, financed by almost invisible funding corporations, looks over the land, with an eye towards profiting from it. He considers other people, the consumers to whom he markets the secular dream – of new homes, beautifully built and insulated, with neat yards and freshly painted walls and brand new washing machines – as numbers in his soon-to-swell bank account. The customers, in turn, buy into the dream of the elite, purchase their part of the aspirations shared by so many of us – to live like royalty – and thereby help to shift profit up the pyramid to the overlord. This, ultimately, is the bank, but on the way the developer will climb another couple of notches on the social scale, too. And on the way the land and its other creatures will simply be cemented over, more lost habitat, more polluted streams, less arable land, less insects on trees for birds and foraging grounds for mammals.

And the surveillance? The new overlord – the developer – protects his client vassals (while they can afford the mortgage for the dream) with 24/7 cctv. Like archers at the stone window slots, this operates to keep the outsiders outside, to give the almost gated community that feeling of security they would have had when they saw the king’s men line up, well armed and ready to fire on raider or starving peasant alike. Those who profit the most get to protect their investment with the best arms, whether that be crossbows or video cameras backed up by the police and the law. Someone at the top always enjoy the best pickings and someone below – servant class and peasant both near and far, as well as otter and songbird and beast of burden – always struggles more just to survive. The empty ghost estates reveal the shadow of this play of domination just as the crumbling ruins do. And while the people suffer unnecessarily under the yoke of cruelly selfish leadership, so too does the land, which is denuded by the pressure to produce more in lean times.

A rook caws overhead, flying tumbles in the wind, which whispers in my ear as I look over both sets of empty homes, just a few miles apart outside of Limerick. Little has changed, it says to me, since civilization began its quest to enjoy conquest over the earth, which still cries itself a river for the poor and downtrodden, human and otherwise.



  1. Excellently written. Nothing has changed.

    • Thanks Steve. Hopefully we begin to learn to live with less and be happy with it before we are forced to. Current events do not bode well for the earth and those who love it, i’m afraid; so it is even more important that we stay true and resist the forces of domination, in our own humble ways.

    “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”

    • Haha, nice one, though i would have to add that i feel very comfortable being afraid of the light when Plato holds the floor. His Philosopher Kings would escape the Cave and rule over a populace with force of arms at disposal. The poets would be banished, for fear of their wayward influence over the youth.
      We never would have had The Doors! He can keep it.
      The best combination for me is the spirit of the pagans with the critical thinking of the philosophers. But that’s another story…

      • “To understand tragic myth we must see it as Dionysiac wisdom made concrete through Apollonian artifice. In that myth the world of appearance is pushed to its limits,where it denies itself and seeks to escape back into the world of primordial reality”
        Nietzsche ,The Birth of Tragedy

      • Apollo sculpts the shimmering haze of ecstasy, which manifests spontaneously with life on earth. Or, as Monty Python once put it, ya come from nuffing, ya go back to nuffing, waddaya lost? Nuffing! Existence itself is the greatest gift.

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