Ten icons of contemporary Ireland

Sat, Oct 20, 2012, 01:00

The ‘Irish Times’ History of Ireland in 100 Objects project is drawing to a close. The 100th item in the series, representing 21st-century Ireland, will be drawn from the items featured below and overleaf. Which one best sums up our country today? Read our shortlist of 10, and vote at 100objects.ie

IMAGINE IT IS 2112 and a visitor arrives at the National Museum of Ireland. She sees objects that open a sudden window on to a past world. A fish trap woven out of twigs puts her in touch with the hunter-gathers who first occupied the island. A polished Neolithic stone axe gives her, at a glance, a connection to the earliest Irish farmers and their sense of beauty and awe.

A beautiful little golden boat, full of realistic detail, takes her on to the high seas with ancient traders and travellers. The stunningly elaborate patterns on a brooch or a cross take her into the mindset of early medieval artists and scholars. An old pike immediately brings to mind the cataclysmic violence of 1798. A cheap suitcase evokes the experience of millions of 20th-century migrants.

But what does she see in the museum that makes this immediate connection to our own time? What’s the single object that, more than any other, captures the essence of the past decade or so in Ireland? That decade, of course, does not have a single theme. It was, in Charles Dickens’s phrase, the best of times and the worst of times.

It contains soaring hopes: the historic peace agreement that culminated in the decommissioning of the IRA’s deadly arsenal of weapons; the economic boom that seemed to promise an end to the equally historic burdens of poverty, shame and mass emigration; the brash cultural self-confidence epitomised by the continuing phenomenon of Riverdance; the extraordinary transformation of Ireland into a destination, rather than a point of departure, for hopeful migrants.

It also contains despair and anger: the failure of the boom years to produce a socially just society, encapsulated in the inadequacies and inequities of the health system; the excesses that gave prosperity a hysterical edge; the cheap credit that proved a toxic drug.

It was a decade of huge, long-term cultural shifts, such as the spread of mobile communications, that changed us in ways that may be clearer to our visitor in 2112 than they are now. It was the decade in which one of the great constants of Irish life over centuries – the dominance of the Catholic Church – was undermined.

The 10 objects presented here are drawn from public suggestions for the last object in the Irish Times series A History of Ireland in 100 Objects. They will go on display at the National Museum’s, Collins Barracks branch, on Tuesday. One of them will be chosen to sit alongside the other objects that tell the story so far of people on this island. It is actually what our visitor will encounter in 2112. She will see it as our answer to that short but profound question, Who do you think you are? FINTAN O'TOOLE

The First Communion dress

The price of property is generally taken as an accurate barometer of the wild excess that marked the Celtic Tiger period in Ireland. But nothing quite illustrates the vulgarity of that time as effectively as the Big Fat First Communion, particularly the Big Fat First Communion Dress. You might say nothing illustrates the descent from a sense of the sacred to the profane as well as this annual extravaganza of crude expense with a child as its excuse.

What for centuries was a celebration of a child’s arrival at the use of reason and the altar rails has become, instead, a more accurate reflection of the decline of and disregard for Catholicism among the Irish than is Mass attendance. A blessed childhood rite of passage has become like a Little Miss Sunshine child beauty pageant, with its stretch limos, fake tan, fake curls, fake pearls, designer dresses and photographers recording every little darling’s every move.

Families in the Republic spent about €45 million on First Communions this year, with a further €26 million collected by about 60,000 children. All that in the middle of the worst recession in modern times. It’s awful, but, clearly, we like it. PATSY McGARRY

The smartphone

Head down. Eyes on the screen. Thumb wiggling. Fingers pinching. Reading. Tweeting. Texting. Posting. Listening. Deleting. Snapping. Just about avoiding walking into that lamp post. Upload. Download. Look up for a moment. Take in the streets around you, the life going past you. Wonder if you’re missing something online. Head down again. Eyes on the screen.

Ireland has become a mobile nation, with phone penetration now reaching 120 per cent of the population, and smartphones gradually becoming dominant. Texting, a pivotal step on the phones journey away from speech, coincided with the turn of the millennium, and it unleashed a flood of jabber. We were not alone in grabbing the new technology, but we did so with a vigour that was practically unparalleled. Quickly, Irish thumbs became the busiest in the EU. A country famous for its words and for its love of talking found a way to combine both, instantly, in shortform and acronyms and smiley faces.

Since then, no single device has so shaped the generation that has grown with this century: their language; their expectations of information, of communication, of images and of self-image; their notions of friendship; their hobbies and habits; their lives. And if you want proof, all you need to do is tear your eyes off your phone for a moment and look around. SHANE HEGARTY

Jean Butler's 'Riverdance' dress

It is made of navy silk velvet, delicate crochet and pearl beads, and in 1994 it was like no other Irish dance dress ever seen. Jean Butler wore it during the Eurovision Song Contest interval act, and in seven minutes she changed the image of Irish dancing forever. Her first dance – soft-shoe and delicate – looked traditional, but her sexy off-the-shoulder dress showed how Irish culture could be reimagined for a modern, global audience.

After Michael Flatley’s solo she came back wearing hard shoes, and their kicks, clicks and taps created a percussive power that resonated farther than anyone could have imagined. The unusual choice of couture fabric hinted that if fashioned in a certain, more international way, there could be serious money in Irish culture. And so it proved. The spin-off show, Riverdance, has been seen by 23 million people worldwide and has recruited pupils for classes in Russia and Belarus, Dubai and the Bronx.

Irish dance at competition level isn’t as restrained as the dress. It has been influenced by the showbiz, not the simplicity. Although the dance style is more traditional than Riverdance, young girls wear garish make-up, polyester wigs and ever more lurid solo costumes in neon and leopardprint. Remembering this powerful dress might rein that in . BERNICE HARRISON

The euro

It might have been a bad omen that, in order to type the euro symbol on a keyboard, you sometimes had to press three different keys at the same time. And it was an even worse omen that the inspiration for the € symbol itself came from the Greek letter epsilon, as Greece would turn out to be the most problematic member of the euro zone.

The Greek letter was, as the designers explained, “crossed by two parallel lines to ‘certify’ the stability of the euro” – a statement of confidence that turned out to be rather misplaced. For the currency itself had serious design flaws.

The creation of a single currency for the Economic and Monetary Union was as much a political as it was an economic project. When euro coins and banknotes replaced national currencies on January 1st, 2002, they were largely welcomed as tokens of freedo to travel, of optimism about European integration, and of the emergence of a common European identity. But the euro also seemed a clear economic blessing, bringing down interest rates and making loans and mortgages much cheaper.

For Ireland, though, this blessing was decidedly mixed. Access to cheap money from European banks fuelled a consumer and property boom that became, in 2008, a traumatic crash. For Europe as a whole, a crisis of public debt underlined the problems of having a monetary union without economic integration. The big question about the euro became who owed how much of it to whom. FINTAN O'TOOLE

The Anglo Irish logo

Anglo Irish Bank viewed its arrowhead logo as “a true merger of past and future, of security and progression” when it chose the design, more than a decade ago. Since then it has come to symbolise something far more malevolent. The signs were removed from Irish streetscapes in April 2011 so that the Government could rebrand the bank with the unwieldy if somewhat redemptive title of Irish Bank Resolution Corporation.

The Anglo sign represents the avarice that gripped Irish bankers and the hubris that dragged the country in their wake, creating the false belief that people could get rich quickly by selling land and buildings to each other at prices they believed would only go in the direction the arrowhead pointed.

The sign is Ireland’s answer to Enron’s famous crooked-E logo, a symbol of US corporate greed and another 21st-century financial scandal. But Enron doesn’t hold the dishonour of being the world’s worst bank in a crisis when many US and European institutions were vying for that title.

Arrowheads in Native American culture symbolise alertness, capturing the spirit of the hunter. If only our gamekeepers had been alert to the dangers of this big-game financial poacher, the Anglo sign would not be our wall-mounted trophy reminding us of a dark period of greed in Irish life. The Anglo bankers were right. The logo is our past and also, tragically, our future – at least until the €29 billion bill is paid, along with the billions more in interest. SIMON CARSWELL

Certificate of naturalisation

The economic collapse relegated many boomtime trends and fashions to the status of curiosities, artefacts of a weird historical parenthesis that turned out to be as brief as the edifice behind it was brittle. But not every change was ephemeral. Perhaps none will be as lasting as that represented by the certificate of naturalisation, which was presented to the latest intake of 2,300 new Irish citizens at ceremonies in Dublin on Monday. Census results show that between 2002 and 2011 the number of foreign-born people living in the State rose by 143 per cent. They stood at 12 per cent of the population, encompassing 199 nationalities. Virtually overnight, one of postwar Europe’s most homogenous states became one of its most diverse, a profound shift whose effects have been felt in schools and churches and on main streets across the country.

Ireland’s experience reflected a broader trend. With new technology, cheap air travel, EU enlargement and globalising economies, the early years of the 21st century were an era of mobility in Europe. It was a different, more fluid type of mobility. Polish doctors commuted to Dublin. Irish people retired to Spain. Then, when the downturn came, tens of thousands of young people traced an old path by leaving the country in search of work. In so doing they made migration the mirror for Ireland in the tumultuous first decade of the century. RUADHÁN Mac CORMAIC

Katie Taylor’s gloves

A hallelujah moment of London 2012 and a gold medal in women’s boxing moved Katie Taylor from the ExCel Arena to the sitting room. Her celebrated hands and gloves ensured interest swept through schools, offices, homes and gyms, where even hardcore boxers fell teary-eyed.

Taylor’s gloves represent a pioneering spirit, a battling life and success in the face of discrimination. In the control of Taylor – firstly a Christian, secondly a boxer – they are powerful symbols of hope and encouragement in a sport or life where people might have struggled.

Her gloves are the Victorian woman in an ankle-length dress who dared to play tennis; they are the 30-year-old mother of two Fanny Blankers-Koen, who defied the buttoned-up conventions of her time to win four gold medals at the 1948 Olympics.

Battling along a similar path and in her way breaking through 21st-century conventions, Taylor fought in the first women’s match sanctioned in Ireland and, latterly, against contemptible efforts to sexualise the sport.

When she fights, she says, her gloves glorify God, as her boxing ability is God-given. A largely cynical world has bought old-fashioned notions of faith, modesty, grace and athleticism.

Her gloves have broken much more than the ambitions of her opponents: they have given voice to issues beyond the ropes. JOHNNY WATTERSON

The decommissioned weapon

It’s a hackneyed phrase, but “Peace in our time” certainly applies to the destruction of IRA weapons that ended the 30-year Northern Ireland conflict, in which 3,500 people died. Small dissident groups remain active, but the mainstream of the militant republican tradition has accepted peaceful methods as the only way forward. Instead of having an AK-47 or an Armalite in one hand and a ballot paper in the other, they have opted exclusively for the latter.

Tony Blair used the term, “seismic shift” and the earth has moved for both traditions in the North. Their swords have been turned into ploughshares and the former young tiger of unionism, Peter Robinson, now leads the Northern Executive in partnership with the one-time IRA leader Martin McGuinness. It’s an outcome that many longed for but few dared hope would happen.

The decommissioned weapon is the rock on which the power-sharing arrangement rests, and the former instrument of destruction has become a symbol of optimism for the future.

Much credit is due to all who helped bring it about, not least the Canadian general John de Chastelain, who had the difficult task of overseeing the decommissioning process. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN

A hospital bed

They say Ireland is the sick man of Europe these days. But what of the sick men and women of Ireland? No one wants to be sick. But when we are, we want to be in a hospital, getting the care that will make us well again.

Yet as every Irish family knows, it hasn’t always been easy to slip into that coveted hospital bed. For many patients, gaining access to care is an obstacle course. First there are long queues and overcrowding. Those lucky enough to be admitted may find themselves not on a bed, but on a trolley.

In recent decades, the trolley has come to symbolise all that was wrong with our health services. Patients in their 80s and 90s were forced to spend successive nights on trolleys in side rooms and corridors as hospitals struggled to deal with their caseloads. Some died before reaching the wards.

My late mother actually liked her spells on a trolley. There was the relief at being treated at last, the sense of shared hardship, the communal spirit. The staff were always great.

When the bed space arrives, the care is often excellent. Yes, there has been overcrowding as well as cases of misdiagnosis and the occasional scandal, but most patients are treated to a high standard. To the hospital bed, therefore: in sickness and health. PAUL CULLEN

The patio heater

Ah, sure, we all partied. Or at least we had friends who did. You knew something strange was going on when dinner-party invitations started to arrive along with sheepish reminders to “bring your togs”. It could only mean one thing: the neighbours had splashed out on an outdoor hot tub.

Hot tubs. Hammocks. Decking. Spotlit shrubbery. The ultimate Celtic Tiger garden accessories. And the daddy of all these outdoor symbols of excess? The patio heater. These gleaming spires of cosiness were an essential part of the lifestyle. They allowed us to sit outside in the damp talking shite about property prices and black-olive tapenade until the very small hours instead of just talking shite in the newly extended kitchen. Dodging rain in the dark beside the “sleek”, sometimes “telescopic”, always “ultradurable” patio heater felt extravagant somehow. But when the canisters ran out, these gas guzzlers soon lost their lustre. There must be thousands of them rusting in forgotten corners of back yards across the land, the breadmakers of the garden-furniture world.

We remember them fondly. After all, if we closed our eyes really tightly they allowed us to believe that we were somewhere else marginally warmer. Under their suffocating glow it felt as though nothing bad could happen and the bubble could never burst. ROISIN INGLE 

What is 'A History of Ireland in 100 Objects?'

The History of Ireland in 100 Objects series began in The Irish Times in February last year. Written by Fintan O’Toole, it examines our past through a series of articles and portraits of historical artefacts, most of which are on display at the National Museum. The series will end in January. Today’s entry, a late-19th-century reclining Buddha, on page 6 of this supplement, is object number 89.

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