Ten icons of contemporary Ireland
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.ieIMAGINE 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
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.
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.