I first came across the phrase “Urbex” a few months ago. Beyond the obvious abbreviation of urban exploration, what I could see on a local level, here in Belfast, was a great love for photography, adventure and a story telling aspect that suggested a lot of research and genuine care for these places so beautifully documented. I decided to get in contact with the guys over at Irish Urbex, wanting to know a little more about their experience from inception to date, the Urbex community in Ireland, the processes involved and of course, the photography.
Sasha Ferguson and Matthew Culbert popped up to the studio in LOFT earlier this week, where we held this conversation, with the promise of checking out some of the other abandoned studio space we have access to adjoining our building. The first response I got from Matt awaiting the okay for the interview put a smile on my face,
Below is the biography for Irish Urbex, a mission statement of sorts and sets the context for our chat.
Abandoned buildings in Ireland are becoming more common, we aim to capture the beauty of these deteriorating, once loved buildings and discover the history of the building and why it was left to the elements.
Urbex - "is the exploration of man-made structures, usually abandoned ruins or not usually seen components of the man-made environment."
Based in Northern Ireland but travelling the Isle of Ireland & further in search of abandoned spots.
Locations will not be disclosed. Any comments in relation to the location will be deleted.
We do not break the law when entering a site & entry is never forced. We don't encourage trespassing or unsafe behaviour. Your actions are your own.
DB: Who or what planted the seed for urban exploration and at what point did it grow into what it is now?
SF: Well, I studied architecture. I’ve graduated now obviously but that’s what started me off. I always had an interest in old buildings and my course didn’t ever really cover that. Myself and a couple of people from my class ended up at a mill one night. We found a way in. That was it, from there. I saw his post (Matt) on Instagram of another abandoned building, started talking to him and that’s where that started.
MC: You knew where it was though but yeah we said we should go visit somewhere together. “ I know this Mill, let’s go! ”
SF: That’s seriously how it started and we just kept finding more and more places, doing more research online then we started meeting other people. We started meeting people in abandoned buildings.
DB: As in just messaging people and they would come along or?
MC: It’s just other people on Instagram. That’s where we find them. They’ve been to places we’ve been, then we’ll talk about it and all go together again the next time. There was one time, there were two kids in one of the places on the ground floor. We saw them walking past and decided we’d try and scare them. They heard us rustling around and thought we were chasing them. (Laughing)
SF: They thought we were security coming to try and kick them out! (Laughing)
DB: And where was this, The Mill?
MC: Yeah, this is like the main mill that everyone knows about. They live close to it so it was a bit of fun.
SF: We’re actually good friends with one of those guys now, Cameron. We’ve done some explores with him since then. He said aw there’s a place up the road and got into the car with us and decided to take us there. (Laughing) The next time we met up, we decided to go down South with him and his girlfriend.
DB: So is that just a conversation where if someone knows somewhere new, they’re giving it up sort of thing, it’s natural or…
SF: Kind of, it’s depends what kind of people you are or you’re dealing with. I’d say that people our age are more reluctant to help others out. Having said that, since we’ve been on Facebook, we’ve met other explorers that are lovely and willing to help. We met one guy who’s idea that he keeps as a rule is that, if he finds it, he can share it, but if someone else has given it to him, he doesn’t give it to anybody else. We think that’s a fair way of working it.
He’s given us a couple of places and now I wouldn’t tell anybody else about those because there’s an element of trust with that. It’d be the same vice versa but if we find it, I have no problem telling someone a place they can explore.
DB: From an outsider perspective, Photography is obviously a massive aspect of it, if not paramount. If you’re not out there doing it yourself, you just see it through your lens. So is that a tandem thing again?
SF: That was both of us yeah, that was our main interest and how we started talking. Through the love of photography and taking photos of abandoned buildings to make them look pretty. People could walk into one of those mills and question why they’re even there whereas we walk in there and think, I can get amazing photos here. The light, the shadows, the way the paint’s peeling…
DB: And did you ever study photography Matt?
MC: No, I was doing Computer Science. I just wanted to take photos to start posting them online. I just started one day, walking around everywhere and ended up at an old driving range out at Shaws Bridge. That’s the first place I really started taking photos. It wasn’t that great but it was a start. So then we went to the mill. I was looking at my photos and just thought I wasn’t doing it justice and went out to buy a camera.
DB: And has that developed?
MC: Buying cameras, buying lenses, getting better photos, yeah.
SF: I already had a camera. It was about a month before I started talking to him, I went to Berlin. My friends know that I’m into Urbex and there was a girl in my class who mentioned that there was an abandoned theme park there, Spreepark, look it up.
DB: I’ve been there, it’s crazy. This is the place with the dinosaurs and…
SF: The Ferris Wheel that blows in the wind and the tea cups.
DB: I’ve got a snap hanging off the giant Triceratops in there, it’s great. (Laughing)
SF: But there’s security in there and you’re doomed if you’re caught by security. They clear your photos apparently. We’re going back in February. When I was there, we went to abandoned breweries and Spreepark, probably the highlight playing on the tea cups.
DB: There used to be an art squat that would have been great to see in Berlin (Les Tacheles) that’s since moved. Hundreds of artists basically occupied a building or multiple buildings unfortunately it’s gone now…
SF: There’s a children’s hospital that we went to. It’s on Irish Berliner’s page as Zombie Hospital and a Swedish graffiti artist has went in there and covered entire rooms, like painting bananas or cupcakes and just crazy stuff. So we’re going back there to hopefully get photos because I didn’t get the graffiti part last time. But with Berlin, you were meeting people in the buildings, taking photos. Whereas here, if you were to meet someone, it’s either security, police or a farmer. (Laughing)
MC: You’d be scared everytime you hear a noise in an abandoned building here.
SF: And there, it’s just normalised.
DB: Do you think that’s a cultural thing? As in, it just pertains to here or is it a city thing. I don’t know if you’ve done as much exploration in the city. It seems the locations you’re finding are a bit further out…
SF: The city is more of a problem. There is one spot closer to the city that we’ve been caught by the police in. The city has more security, there’s more people to report you and if you do get into a city building, more often than not, it’s trashed. Look at the bank down the street. There’s almost no way of getting in there unless you scale the roof. I know someone who’s done it, he said he was scared for his life and I wouldn’t be able to do it. Damn right. (Laughing)
DB: So there’s the love of photography and the adventure aspect, do they both hold the same weight or do you feel like you’re chasing a photo opportunity sometimes?
MC: There’s a couple of times we’ve went out looking for a specific photo.
SF: You know the cinema photo?
DB: Yes you’re sitting together on a ledge?
SF: It’s the top balcony of the cinema. I had the idea for that photo for about 6 months I’d say. It was after the first time. that’s what normally happens. You visit, go home and look through wishing you’d got that, that and that. But we went there again twice afterwards. There’s a garage across the road and the guy running it was sitting watching it. We went back on a Sunday, garage was closed, got straight, took the photo and left again.
DB: What do you guys shoot with?
SF: Canon. He has a good lens, I don’t.
MC: I’ve got the good lens, yeah.
SF: Yeah, I mean you get people that pick and choose but I think it’s not the camera, it’s the person taking the photos. Having the creative eye for the shots is more important.
DB: Yeah I suppose you wouldn’t get certain shots without the right equipment. (At this point I forgot the word tripod) You know you never would have got that cinema photo without the tripod…
MC: The lighting in there was awful as well so you’d need that to set it up or everything would be blurry.
SF: Well that tripod was only a fiver off Ebay…
MC: It keeps you right…
SF: The one I have, i just got because I knew it would get wrecked. And it has done. It’s been trailed everywhere, through the muck and everything.
DB: That’s something I was going to touch on as well is that it looks quite dangerous sometimes…
MC: Yeah I put my foot through the floor in the cinema. The ground was all soggy and I just put my foot down and got stuck on my side (Laughing)
DB: Is it something you take into consideration though or do you just not think about the dangers?
MC: If it happens it happens. I never really think about it. We’ll laugh about it unless it’s really serious.
SF:I think about it but I think that’s more of an Architecture thing where you’re looking at the building knowing there’s beams here, here and here. They should be sturdy. The Mill is an example where we went with a guy and he was asking how we were walking in certain places ‘cause it’s been burnt out in parts. But that’s all ancient Victorian brick, it’s about 150 years old, it won’t cave in. I kind of worry but he doesn’t, he just goes on ahead.
MC: Yeah I just assume it’ll be fine. It’s lasted this long.
DB: Obviously the people make the buildings what they are. Abandoned schools, hospitals, cinemas. It seems like there’s a story telling aspect on the page. What process or research goes into the buildings before and after you get there?
SF: It starts before hand with the research. I’m not big into doing houses. The first house we’d been to together, we found a dead cat in the attic. There had obviously been kids gone in, or burglars, whatever, stripped anything of importance and people had clearly gutted the house and the cat was left dead upstairs. It kind of stopped me so that sort of stuff just never even went up.
MC: There’s all of the memories in the houses as well. It’s just personal stuff and it can make it a bit weird. Made for good photos though!
SF: That one the other day, The Gamble House. It made for great photos but it’s still really sad thinking about it, that you’re in somebody’s home. That’s why I prefer the big industrial ones. And you get the history on them whereas the houses, you’re making up your own history or what people have told you.
The Linen Mills, if you google them, you’ll find them easy enough but there’s tonnes. The one that we go to at the minute is up for sale. I know Crumlin Road, not the jail, opposite the courthouse. It was sold to some body for a pound and it’s just sitting there lying empty. Whereas, the public sector bought the jail and that’s why it’s been redeveloped.
DB: It must be interesting from the perspective of studying Architecture. I’m not sure what the course is like but maybe being told this is how you should be doing design and these are the things you should care about. But you’re more about the history and preservation?
MC: That’s definitely how you’re going about it. You hate new architecture…
SF: I don’t like new architecture at all. It was something I never intended on doing. That was just the University Of Ulster course. It’s not about refurbishment or anything, it’s about starting from scratch and building something new on CAD, and it’s square. There’s loads of buildings that if they’re listed, they’ll just try and burn them down so they can start from scratch. I’m convinced that’s what is happening to the Mill at the minute because no one that’s going in there to take photos is going to burn it down.
There’s plenty of people I’ve met though that don’t do architecture and just love the photography, almost like Walking Dead aspect. That’s cool as well, I like that side of it. I don’t like new architecture though, everything used to be cared for whereas now, it’s seems it’s just value for money now. That’s it.
DB: Yeah, it’s a colder approach I suppose.
SF: It’s copy and paste. I don’t like that, it’s not for me, but they don’t teach you about the old.
DB: Do you think you got a lot out of the course? Will you continue with it in some way?
SF: That’s a question I’ve been asking myself since 2nd year really. I was tempted to drop out. I wanted to do photography but at the same time, we’ve been talking about it. Photography is a hobby for us. Unless you make it big you’re not going to make any money out of it, and once you do, it becomes serious then.
DB: Yeah, it becomes a job then and passion becomes tainted a little.
MC: You’re doing anything to make money from it and then it stops being fun.
DB: And are you on the same level?
MC: Yeah, I did think for a while, I want to do photography. But if I started doing it as a job then I would have to start doing things that I don’t like. Then I wouldn’t want to go back to it as much and take more photos for myself.
DB: I suppose that’s the battle for a lot of creative people. Once you start trying to monetise what you do, it can compromise it a little.
SF: It’s not your love going into it anymore, it’s what your buyers want. Not what you want. Who wants a picture of an abandoned asylum up in their front room?
MC: I do. (Laughing)
DB: Well this is probably the most contentious question, but have you ever been caught?
SF: By who?! (Laughing)
DB: In your little bio you guys state, “We do not break the law when entering a site & entry is never forced. We don't encourage trespassing or unsafe behaviour. Your actions are your own.”
MC: We’ve never broken in…
SF: The buildings have all been open that we’ve walked into. We don’t even carry tools with us to gain entry in other ways in case we’re caught with it on us. We were caught one time in a morgue.
MC: We were almost caught in the other hospital as well. Hospitals don’t go well for us. The alarm went off while we were inside and the alarm went off so we just had to jump in the car and drive away as fast as we could.
SF: We were with Ryan that you know. He decided to try and open the front door. We went in through a window. The window was open but he tried to open the front door. (Laughing)
MC: I was in the kitchen at this point and you know the little cafeteria windows? The only way out was back through that hole again so I just had to run and slide through it Indiana Jones style, grabbing my bag out of the way. It actually worked! (Laughing)
SF: I don’t know how I managed to get out of the window as well, I just seemed to levitate towards it and get out.
MC: It’s just the adrenalin of an alarm going off while you’re inside it.
SF: We weren’t caught there thought but the morgue, there was about 8 of us. Everyone had just came up to take photos as we’d been there before and the hospital beside it. I’m not given out locations on purpose, just in case. We were in there anyway and Cameron had a cast on as his girlfriend had kicked him and broke his wrist. (Laughing)
DB: Woah. (Laughing)
MC: That’s another story (Laughing)
SF: He walked out and saw the police car and two policemen looking at him.
MC: We were all going mental in there doing like long exposures of lights and someone lying on the table. He said the police were there and we just though no they’re not let’s keep going!
DB: Lightwriting and stuff?
SF: Yeah, and the police were out there. The colour just drained from all of our faces thinking what are we going to do?
MC: Do we hide and wait for them to leave or do we just jump out?
SF: Ryan said we should just go out and I agreed because they’d just call for backup and it’d get messy so they were searching round. Ryan went to the window we got in through and just said look lads, then about 8 of us just piled out like a clown car. (Laughing)
MC: They were really angry to begin with then when more people started jumping out, two girls and a kid, he was just like, how many of you are there? Oh that’s it, just all 8 of us. (Laughing)
SF: They asked what we were doing and because of the age of all of us as well, it just looks like anti social behaviour. We said we were taking photos and they were just like, what?
DB: Did you explain the whole Urbex thing?
MC: We just explained and said you know we’re not stealing anything, we’re not breaking anything, we’re just taking photos.
SF: They bag searched us incase the owner of the property tried to claim we were stealing anything so they seen all the SLRs in the bags.
MC: This is one expensive hobby (Laughing) One of the policemen was really interested swell. He seemed like he wanted to do it. The most you can do is get fined for it. You’re not breaking the law, it’s a civil offence, you know…
SF: You can get done for breaking and entering but it was open. You can get done for damage. There was no damage to the property. You can get done for loss of business, but there was none because they’re all abandoned.
DB: Is that the biggest group of you guys that have been out together then?
MC: It’s usually us two and Ryan comes along sometimes. There was another time there was 6 of us.
SF: That was the holiday village. That ’s a funny story how we got caught there as well. Me and him when down the first time. It was an eery wee place, it was like dorms and a make-shift church. Out the back, it had been burnt down…
MC: There was devil worshipping stuff all over the place…
SF: Yeah, there was an Indiana Land and swimming pools as well. We were creeped out, doors slamming and everything was boarded up so there was no wind getting in and I’m a chicken. I get freaked out at anything. But we got the photos, cam back up, ‘cause it’s down south. Talking to the guys, decided to go down again, get more photos, didn’t see anything wrong with it. Posted the photos. Landlord messages us.
DB: Oh. Holy shit.
MC: He messaged the page and was really nice, asking had we ever been to this holiday village. We said yeah, we’ve got photos on the page if you want to have a look at them. He said, yeah, well I’m the landlord! (Laughing) Oh noooo, what should I say?! (Laughing) I messaged Sasha asking what should I say?! What should I say?! What should I say?!
He replied again saying look, it’s fine, just let me know the next time you’re coming down.
SF: I got talking to him them and he said he would have showed us around. I heard somebody does ghost tours down there and apparently it used to be owned by the catholic church. Apparently there was loads of child abuse and kids had killed themselves and now it’s haunted. It was scary enough when we went down without that. He doesn’t like people coming in without permission but we just apologised and said look, we didn’t even know somebody owned it.
DB: Yeah I suppose with asking about the group, we had a little chat before about the community aspect to Urbex, if it exists here.
MC: There’s a bit of a community within it. Some people are friendly enough in it and will talk to you about it…
DB: So there’s Abandoned NI…
MC: Yeah, that’s the biggest one.
SF: And Forgotten Ulster. They’ve really supported us now and I have to say their work is lovely as well. The person who runs Abandoned NI, and likes to remain anonymous, she has thousands of followers and people love what she’s doing. Robert, who runs Forgotten Ulster has been really supportive as well and we’ve even met up with him recently. On the other side, there are people that don’t like what we’re doing because we’re getting to places first and…
MC: It’s not even that we’re getting to places first, it’s that we’re going to places that they’ve been.
DB: I suppose because you’re making it more public?
SF: They have Facebook pages as well. It’s just that they believe they started it first. The people on Instagram seem to want to meet up. The community is quite small in Ireland and people come and go to it.
MC: Some people won’t put the effort in and do the research they’ ll just ask where is that?
SF: That’s annoying…
MC: Where’s that? Where’d you find that one? Whereas you’ve put in hours of effort scrolling through the internet looking through archives trying to find where something is and then you finally find it, Ah yes, let’s go!! Then someone says, Where’s that?
SF: You can understand why some other explorers get annoyed if they think you’re just telling people. That’s what I was saying before about Robert’s rule. If he finds it, he feels like he can tell someone else, if someone tells him, he keeps that to himself. You’re constantly asked, you know we get messages from people in England asking to come over and do stuff, guys from America telling us they’re coming over and asking about doing an Urbex tour. It’s really really big.
DB: When did this whole thing blow up?
MC: A lot of it’s being going on, on Flickr and no one really looks as that as much. But Facebook and Instagram in the past few years have really pushed it.
SF: Yeah, just scrolling through the hashtag #abandonedni starts you thinking about where things are…
DB: What do you guys think about the urbexxers dangling their feet of sky scrapers or scaling cranes?
SF: I know Ryan’s climbed up a crane and hung a hammock off it. Have you seen that photo? They’re into that at the minute. I wouldn’t want to get caught…
DB: Or kill yourself…It’s its own little subculture of exploration I suppose. The city is more of a playground.
MC: They get great photos of the city. Some of the ones at the top of the cranes looking down at the street with the cars going past, long exposures. Some of those are really really cool.
SF: I know people that have scaled Victoria Square and the Albert Clock. Their photos are class but I wouldn’t be doing it. (Laughing)
DB: Are there any places you’re dying to go to and explore?
SF: Back to Spreepark. Berlin is great for urbexxing. Belgium would be good as well. The only difference is the different trespassing laws depending on where you go. Even here, down south is a lot stricter compared to up here which makes me worry a bit more. Belgium looks class. There was animal testing labs recently that people broke into and there were still animal heads in all he old pots. Dog heads and pig heads, animals still floating about. I was reading there was someone recently who broke into a mental hospital and stole all these brains.
MC: Sold them on Ebay for Halloween. (Laughing)
DB: What? Seriously?
SF: Yeah there’s some crazy stuff that goes on but definitely back to Berlin. The graffiti there as well. When you walk through those buildings, it’s almost like an art gallery and I thought it was amazing. We’re wanting to travel anyway.
MC: Anywhere new we travel we always search “Abandoned…” whatever city it is. I tried Helsinki and Budapest but there isn’t much there online…
SF: The ruin buildings in Budapest have been bought over dirt cheap and they’ve really done some cool stuff with them. There’s one called Szimpla…
DB: Yeah, I’ve been there! There are ruin bars everywhere. I went couple years ago and saw those. If more people did that, tried to keep the raw aesthetic of the old and modernise it with integrity, I think that could be more interesting.
SF: A serious issue in this country is the rain. Damp proofing some of the old buildings would be almost impossible. You’re be better knocking it down.
MC: There was one we went to where they started doing it. The roof was all modern, then it just cost to much to finish it and they just left it.
SF: There’s just dead pigeons everywhere. They’re flying through the building, trying to get out, hit the glass die. It’s stinking in there. Poisoned at the top of that room.
DB: So what do you see as the future of Irish Urbex?
MC: We don’t have many more places to find. We have a couple more places to post up on the page but we have to go further a field from the north ‘cause there’s not much left that we haven’t explored.
DB: This is in the space of how long?
MC: Less than a year
SF: We still have 10 or 12 albums that we haven’t posted on the page, places we want to go again.
MC: Overtime you go somewhere, you see new stuff. The amount of times we’ve been to the mill and got different lighting or angles.
SF: We’ve now ordered one of those plague doctor masks.
MC: You know the old medieval ones with the big beaked nose. Just hide in the corner with one of those and play around with that. (Laughing)
DB: And how about Urbex Tours?
SF: It gets into the issue then of when does it become too commercialised and even that little house, The Gambles, for example, it would be raided. There’s identity cards in there from the war that should be in a museum. And then there’s 28dayslater in England where everything is posted on it, it’s just here, unless you’re in the community, you don’t know. It’s a weird one, it depends who you’re liked by and we just do our own thing. It’s hard to get the balance right, like, I don’t want to tell you where this is ‘cause you’re being lazy but at the same time, thanks for supporting my work. We’ll probably just end up keeping it as a hobby.
DB: Well thanks guys, pretty much covered everything, the only thing left to do is try and get into this next building! (Laughing) Cheers for that. Did you bring stuff to take photos?
MC: Always yeah!
SF: Of course!
DB: Thanks for doing that.
Keep up to date with Irish Urbex on their Facebook page, here, and cheers for reading.