Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.
Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles; Ed Mooney in front of the ruins of Ducketts Grove, County Carlow (photo credit: Ed Mooney).
My guest this month is 38-year-old Irishman Edward (Ed) Mooney. His story is quite different from previous guests for several reasons, the main one being that he is not an expat. On the contrary, he travels within the confines of his native Ireland.
That said, Ed does cross boundaries, at least in a temporal sense. He loves nothing more than to immerse himself in an obscure historical site, exploring Irish history, lore and mythology while also photographing the surrounding ruins, to keep a record of what remains from generations past.
I really like the name Ed has given to his hobby: “ruin-hunting”. Ed tells me that ruin-hunting merges Past, Present & Future. By researching the history behind a place, he pays tribute to the Past. By writing about the experience, he brings it into the Present. And by posting his article, along with his photos, on his blog, he preserves his findings for the Future.
I have been following Ed for some months and love the way he weaves historic research into (mostly) black-and-white images.
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Hi, Ed. Thanks for joining me at the Displaced Nation. I know you live with your young family in Kildare, but where were you born and what gave you the urge to travel around Ireland photographing ancient ruins?
I was born in Dublin, where I lived until flying the coop at 17. I moved to Kildare for work. I only got into photography seriously three or four years ago. With a young family, I don’t get to go abroad very often. But I am fortunate enough to travel within Ireland itself, which with its rich heritage offers an abundance of fascinating sights. And the crazy thing is, the majority of them are relatively unknown and rarely visited. It is these off-the-beaten-track places that I tend to concentrate on while traveling the country, attempting to capture them with my DSLR camera.
“I love everything that’s old…” —Oliver Goldsmith
You seem to have found an interesting niche. Can you tell us a little more about this “ruin hunting” hobby of yours?
It all started in 2011. I had just gotten my first DSLR and joined the local camera club, but had very little opportunity to get out and about shooting. I wasn’t into wildlife or landscape photography like some of the other club members. I guess I was searching for my niche, as you put it. One day a flyer came through the letterbox, which had an image of a nearby historical site called the Rock of Dunamase, in County Laois. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was the beginning of what would become an obsession. A few days later, I located Dunamase and went exploring. Now, looking back at the photos, I cringe—but at the time I thought they were the best shots I’d ever taken. Around this time I had starting blogging and decided to post a brief essay on the history of Dunamase, along with the images. Next thing I knew, I was spending all of my spare time searching out new sites. Now that the kids are a little older, I have been able to take them on some of my trips. To date I have explored sites in nine counties with plans for many more over the coming months.
When you said “a flyer came through the letterbox…,” I immediately thought of a WWII fighter pilot. I would love to know more about what inspires you to spend so much of your spare time visiting historical places.
My inspiration comes from my deep love of history. In my early twenties, I joined what was then known as the Heritage Awareness Group, or HAG. We visited sites such as Newgrange, Tara and Baltinglass Abbey. Nowadays my favourite ruins are castles and Neolithic sites such as stone circles and cairns, although I am forever coming across many ecclesiastical sites which are interesting in their own right and make for some stunning shots. It’s quite hard to find the locations so I’ve created maps for each county, and make a point of recording every site I visit on my blog along with an interactive map showing the exact location to assist other travellers.
It’s great that you record your findings in so much detail and include exact locations in case others are inspired to follow in your footsteps. Ireland is a small country, unless you get lost. Tell us, where are you now, how did you end up there and what is life like in that part of the world?
We have been in Monasterevin, Kildare, for almost seven years now and absolutely love it. It’s a different way of life to Dublin. If I didn’t have to commute daily to the City to work, I would probably return there rarely. The great thing about Monasterevin, besides the relaxed atmosphere and close community, is that I am situated almost in the centre of Ireland. I can travel to any part of the country in two to three hours, which is great considering the amount of travelling involved in “ruin hunting”.
Rock of Dunamase. Photo credit: Ed Mooney
I’ve never been outside Dublin but I hear the countryside is beautiful. Other benefits are that you never run out of Guinness and you just won the Six Nations rugby! Thank you for sharing some of your photo shots which capture a few of your favourite memories. Can you describe the story behind them and what makes them so special?
These three are from recent shoots. The first, of the Rock of Dunamase, is a special place not just for the stunning views and fascinating history but also because it’s where my journey started.
Church ruins in Laois; photo credit: Ed Mooney.
The second photo is of another site I discovered in neighbouring Laois, which, with its stunning views, constitutes a ruin hunter’s paradise. This one is special on a personal level as well, being the first ruin I visited with all three children. In the chancel to the rear of the church is an old iron gate blocking the entrance to a vaulted mortuary chamber. Ryan, my eldest, had an interesting observation on the chamber: “Daddy, that’s where the Vampires live.” Now how the heck did he come up with that? Have you ever tried convincing an eight-year-old that something doesn’t exist?
Skryne Hill Church; photo credit: Ed Mooney.
The third is of the church that sits on Skryne Hill, the site of an early Christian settlement. To this day my memory of Skryne remains vivid. The tower is inaccessible due to a very heavy iron gate that on examination appeared to be rusted shut. I shone my torch through the bars on one of the windows. Inside were a number of interesting stone artifacts that I wanted to capture. So I set up my flashgun and shot through the bars. On the second or third flash something physically grabbed my camera strap and pulled it into the tower. It all happened so fast, but somehow I managed to pull that camera away from the window while shouting a few expletives. At first I wondered if it might have been a draft of some kind that had caught my strap, but it could not have been as I was pressed right up against the opening and there was no wind to cause a draft. Then I thought that maybe someone was inside, but there was no way for a person to get in or out of the tower. To this day I still can’t explain what happened. But it certainly left a lasting memory.
“Memory, in widow’s weeds, … stands on a tombstone.” —Aubrey de Vere
Great memories—and that last story is quite eerie. But I suppose you would expect the odd ghost or two in buildings so old? Now, out of these many destinations, do you have any that stand out as your favorites?
If you haven’t already guessed, old ruins are what attract my attention, be it a crumbling castle, a neolithic stone circle or standing stone, or an ancient church overgrown with ivy. Here are three of my favorite places:
Can you explain why these particular places inspire you?
It’s kind of hard to explain but once I set foot on the site of an ancient monument, something about the atmosphere affects me, and a flip switches in my head. I feel as though I’m stepping back in time. The modern world disappears for a while and I get to experience something really special. With my photography I try to capture that experience and hopefully portray it to the viewer. Mood, atmosphere and a sense of the past are the most important elements for me to enjoy shooting at a location.
I can assure you, Ed, that, for me, you usually achieve it. Your photos make me feel as though I’m there, not you. I know people aren’t a part of your ruin hunting but I want to ask you all the same if you ever feel reserved about taking photos of people on your travels, particularly when they are conscious you are doing so?
I still enjoy getting out and doing some street photography from time to time and I have never really had an issue with shooting people, but then again I have had plenty of experience ranging from large events in Dublin down to small country festivals. I guess at the start I was a bit shy and unsure of how to approach shooting strangers, but once you learn how to engage with a subject it becomes fun. Some of the best shots I have taken were the result of strangers coming up to me wanting to have their pictures taken. Parades and street festivals are probably the best for doing this as everyone is relaxed and having a good time.
Do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs?
Most times I don’t have to. I find it amazing how people start posing once they see a camera in your hand. Obviously, with children you have to be really careful these days and should always get parental permission.
“Ireland’s ruins are historic emotions surrendered to time.”—Horace Sutton
Interesting—that last point would never be considered in Thailand, where I live. So would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
Absolutely, I would say that most photographers constantly strive to get that once-in-a-lifetime shot. In my case the deeper motivation is to capture historic sites for posterity. As in many other countries, Ireland’s local and national heritage sites continue to disappear for good. Most people don’t care and the government is only interested in money. Take my home town of Tallaght, a suburb of Dublin. There were several castles in the area up until about 40 years ago. Now only a part of one remains. This scenario recurs with alarming regularity. So if I can capture the essence of a place before it is wiped away for good, I have done my job.
I see you use the word “job”. But I see it more as a calling and you, as a preservationist and historian. Either way you are doing an excellent “job”–one that incidentally reminds me of my last interview subject, Gaetan Green. He is trying to record China’s traditional landscapes before they fall to the forces of modernization. So when did you realize this deeper purpose?
Right from the start. The need to preserve the past was a major factor in motivating me to choose this path for my photography.
Now for the technical stuff at which I am far from proficient. What kind of camera and lenses do you use? And which software do you use for post-processing?
I still use my trusty Nikon D40 with kit lens. Yes it is outdated by today’s standards, but it has served me well over the last few years and taken a lot more punishment than it should have. I am planning to upgrade later this year and hopefully the D40 will be converted to shoot Infra Red, which is something I really want to experiment with. For my raw images ACR is a must, but my one stop shop for post processing has to be Photoshop. I currently use CS6 and it does everything I need. I still have various other programs sitting on my desktop but these rarely get a look-in.
Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
If I was starting photography now I would say take the time to enjoy what you do and most importantly, research, research, research. Find out as much as possible about the place you are travelling to. Look at as many images of the place as you can, take inspiration from them and don’t go and shoot the same scene as everybody else. Look for a new angle or view. Don’t be afraid to get creative.
Thank you, Ed. It has been a real pleasure to interview you. Your story so far is fascinating. I say so far because I know one day you will run out of ruins in Ireland and you’ll be dreaming up your next historical project in places further afield.
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Readers, what do you make of Ed’s experiences and his photography advice? And do you have any questions for him on his photos and/or experiences? Please leave them in the comments!
And if you want to know more about Ed Mooney, don’t forget to visit his excellent photography site. You can also like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, or shoot him an email.
(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, the start of a brand new column on travel and fantasy writing, by Andrew Couch.
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