Ten objects that define modern Ireland
THE SIMPLE noun “object” has a surprising, somewhat contradictory, range of meanings. It’s a thing, a yoke, a material entity that can be touched and seen. It’s something that’s there. But it’s also something that’s not really there at all: a kind of abstraction. It can be a focus for emotions: an object of contempt, an object of desire.
It can even be a kind of aspiration: the object of the game, the object of a journey, the object of one’s life. It is, in this sense, not a thing at all but a purpose or intention. This uncertainty of language says something in itself, for many objects work on both levels. They are material things: concrete, physical, tangible. But they also touch on emotions and aspirations. They move us in odd, unpredictable ways. They hint at larger designs.
There is, of course, an entire industry – advertising – based on this idea that an object can stand for much more than its physical self. One might go farther and say our whole consumer society is based on it. We are persuaded that things have meanings and values far beyond their mundane, perfunctory purposes; that they can make us happy and sexy or bless us with status and fulfilment. And this in turn, because we are contrary creatures, makes us wary of the magic of objects. The idea that an object can radiate meaning or emotion is dulled with overuse.
And yet it is still a rich and enriching part of ordinary experience.
Whenever someone says they mourn the loss of something because it has “sentimental value”, they are alluding to it. If you lose your wedding ring and someone asks why you can’t just buy another exactly like it, you suspect that some part of their brain is missing. If you open a long-locked drawer and find your grandmother’s rosary beads, it is not their usefulness or the monetary value of the bits of wood and metal that bring a tear to the eye.
So there is some real magic beyond or behind the ersatz magic generated by advertising, some basic impulse to attach a large human value to inanimate things, even things that are not innately remarkable or beautiful or rare. It is not a rational impulse, but it does go deep – all the way back to our earliest ancestors, who became fully human when they started to make things into symbols.
Much of the magic, though, is generated by the thrill of being brought into contact with the past. The Italian critic Francesco Orlando wrote of the ambiguous relationship between things and time: “Time uses up and destroys things, breaks them and reduces them to uselessness, renders them unfashionable and makes people abandon them.” But time also does the opposite. It “makes things become cherished by force of habit . . . endows them with tenderness as memories and with authority as models, marks them with the virtue of rarity and the prestige of age.”
Sometimes, age alone gives radiance to an object. If you saw the fish trap with which we started the History of Ireland in 100 Objects lying in the street, you’d step over it. It is a tangle of interlaced twigs that could be, at first glance, the bottom of a discarded wicker basket from a cheap furniture shop. What makes it astonishing is time: it dates to between 5210 and 4970 BC. Its aura emanates from our ability to imagine the hands that made it and to realise that there is as long a distance between the time when it was made and the construction of the Egyptian pyramids as there is between us and the birth of Christ.
This is what complicates the idea of picking a contemporary object to end the History of Ireland in 100 Objects. When we look at things from our own world, they don’t have that aura of time. Nor do they have a sense of rarity. When you look back on old objects, you don’t just see remarkable survivors. You see rarities from times when objects themselves were, by our standards, few and far between.
For older objects, therefore, much of the work of selection has already been done. Time and destruction have already winnowed out so much. The backward glance of history has told us which objects will be redolent of significant events. For contemporary objects, though, none of this work has been done. And we have to choose from within a culture that has more stuff than any culture that has ever existed. The range of objects in any ordinary suburban house today is vastly greater than that which could have been found in the palace of the richest high king or even in the hoards of the most successful Viking raider. Some of them – flatscreen TVs, smartphones and wireless laptops – are of a sophistication that could scarcely have been imagined even 20 years ago, let alone 200.
SO HOW DOwe choose? We need some criteria. Firstly, an object, in the sense that has been applied throughout the series, is a single, portable, tangible entity. It is not a building or a motorway, although it could be something that would be found in or on a building. Or it could be, for example, a car. Secondly, the object must be suited to public display. A shredded secret document might well be symbolic of our times, but it’s not of much practical use to the project. Thirdly, we’re looking for an object that is redolent of Ireland in the 21st century, ie in the period since 2000: not the most beautiful or precious thing, but the thing that seems to speak most clearly of what life was like in that time.