Urbex Factor

For many of us, a day exploring Dublin might involve a picnic in the Iveagh Gardens, or a trip to Glasnevin Cemetery... For others, it means investigating the hidden interiors of the city’s abandoned buildings. Lenny Antonelli meets some intrepid “urban explorers” Published by The Dubliner, April 16, 2010

Most people visit Dun Laoghaire for some sea air, a walk along the pier or a trip to the market – only a rare few go to explore the dark innards of the derelict Dun Laoghaire Baths. Dave is an “urban explorer” – one of a growing number of Dubliners who venture into the city’s derelict buildings, tunnels and other hidden spaces. A young photographer from Tallaght, he asked us not to reveal his surname – trespassing is illegal, after all.

Dave isn’t some strange creature of the night though, just a 20-something armed with the tools of his trade – a camera, a torch and a portable sat nav programmed to his favourite exploration spots. He describes the inside of the baths: a warren of dark passages, rusting stairs and decrepit pools, saunas and changing rooms, with badly painted cartoon characters on the walls and drug paraphernalia scattered on the floor. Once among the most popular bathing spots in Ireland, they closed for good in 1997.

It was here that Dave’s enthusiasm for urban exploration – shortened to ‘urbex’ by its enthusiasts – was born. “Me and my friends were just walking about, we just saw the place and thought we’d head in,” he says. His curiosity was piqued, but he thought there wouldn’t be much more to explore after this. He was wrong. “I’d say we’ve seen about 100 places over the last couple of years.” The photographs that accompany this piece were taken by Dave and Tarquin Blake – more about him anon.

Dave’s favourite derelict building is Bolands Mills on Grand Canal Dock, though it’s now inaccessible. The imposing flour mill was occupied by Éamon de Valera and others during the 1916 Rising; the company went into receivership in 1984. He says that unlike other abandoned buildings, there’s little graffiti inside – and the views from the roof are superb.

“All the machinery is still in place; there’s just a really good history to it. It’s so big you’d spend a whole day there. Every time we went we found something new, a whole new section that we missed.”

Redcourt House in Clontarf, which Dave managed to visit and photograph before it was demolished, has a grizzly past; it was the site of two murders over the years, and was dubbed the “Hammer House of Horrors” by locals.

Dave’s closest brush with the law came at a derelict industrial estate in Tallaght. He and his friends were exploring an abandoned factory when a voice boomed out of a speaker, telling him he was being watched, and that the guards had been called. “We legged it and ran all along the Luas track,” he says. “It’s a shame, there’s no way you can do places like that anymore.”

Although breaking into private or public property is illegal under the 2002 Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, Dave makes sure to operate by a simple code of conduct – don’t damage or take anything. The only time he broke this was when he used a crowbar to prise open a window of the derelict La Touche Hotel in Greystones, parts of which were damaged by a fire in 2006. Inside, he photographed the old restaurant, nightclub, conference room and some of the dozens of bedrooms. Others might have been tempted to take some of the valuable furniture; all Dave wanted to leave with was photos.

He’s explored countless other abandoned buildings – Grangegorman Asylum, the Clontarf and Blackrock baths, the Hellfire club in Rathfarnham, Martello towers – but is still keen for more. He’d love to get inside the old mine near Killiney beach – the passage in is small, but he’s heard that there’s a huge cavern inside with a bridge stretching across. He’d like to explore some of the ghost offices and apartment blocks left by the building boom too, but presumes they’re all heavily secured. Dave’s dream exploration surprises me: “The place I’ve always wanted to see is Chernobyl – a whole abandoned city. There are animals living in office blocks and trees growing up through houses, crazy stuff.”

The term ‘urban exploration’ was coined in 1996 by Infiltration, a zine dedicated to the subject, but its history stretches back much further. In 1793, Philibert Aspairt got lost while exploring the Parisian catacombs by candlelight. – his body was found 11 years later just feet from the exit that eluded him, and he’s now considered the world’s first “cataphile.” American poet Walt Whitman described a visit to an abandoned railway tunnel in New York in The Brooklyn Standard in 1884. In the 1950s, a group of students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began exploring steam tunnels and rooftops around the campus, a practice they called ‘hacking.’ In 1994, the Diggers of the Underground Planet – an urban exploration group in Moscow – claimed to have found the city’s fabled Metro-2 subway system, allegedly built so that Stalin and his officials could evacuate the city quickly in case of attack.

In 2001, urban explorers found a maze of utility tunnels under Minneapolis and its sister city Saint Paul – they dubbed it “the labyrinth” and explored and mapped it fully over two years. And during the noughties, urban explorers from across North America organised conventions they deceptively titled ‘Office Products Expo.’ In the past, urban explorers communicated through zines, but the Internet dominates now, with message boards such as urbanexploration.ie, 28dayslater.co.uk and online magazines like Jinx and Explonation.

So far, urbanexploration.ie doesn’t get much traffic, according to Dave, and there’s not a community in Ireland as such – more individuals and small groups of friends who go out together. He’s an old hand at urban exploration at this stage, and is interested in its natural offshoot too – rural exploration. He’s visited castles in the greater Dublin area, and is thinking of compiling a book of his photography. “I went out last week with my dad and went to this place at the back of a housing estate in Navan. It’s like a big mansion ruin, it’s amazing... A demesne, there are derelict farmhouses around it. It’s just crazy that stuff like that is there.”

Photographer Tarquin Blake is an experienced rural explorer – his first book, Abandoned Mansions of Ireland, to be published later this year, will feature photographs and historical background on 50 derelict mansions across the country. Working from old 19th-century maps to find the sites of abandoned mansions, Tarquin was blown away by what he found. “The loss of heritage and architecture is pretty staggering. Some of the mansion houses rate among the largest and grandest ever built in Europe. And they’re completely in ruin now.”

One of the mansions he photographed is Westown House near Naul, though all that really remains now is a shell. “It’s hard to picture the place in all its grandeur, but it was said to be the finest mansion in Fingal.” Built in the early-18th Century, the house was owned by the Hussey family, who couldn’t afford to stay there after the Land Commission took it over in the 1920s. Various tenants rented it in the following decades, including former Fianna Fáil TD PJ Fogarty – they had the run of its 32 bedrooms, three kitchens, orchards and walled gardens. “Apparently a guest fell from one of the upper windows and was found the following morning in a pool of blood,” Tarquin says. “His ghost is said to haunt the place.”

Tarquin started out exploring Magdalene Laundries and asylums in Cork city before switching his focus to the countryside. He’s photographed various Dublin city buildings too, but says rural exploration is a lot more relaxed. “You need to have your wits about you and be a lot more cautious in the city!”

We remind you that exploring abandoned buildings is illegal – do not try this at home please. Tarquin has met enthusiasts more interested in stealing than documenting, but for most urban explorers the goal is simply to capture the history and decline of forgotten buildings, and to record places that we all get close to but never see.

Tarquin is protective of his favourite buildings, and admits he sometimes prefers to be vague about their exact locations to keep them hidden. “I guess the places are special because they have been kind of forgotten.”