Unidentified Floating Objects

Sculpture has long been the art form of the playful, and never more so than in the hands of Irish sculptor Donnacha Cahill. Douglas Pyper evaluates the mystery and enduring attraction of his work, Exploration III, which recently turned up in Hanoi’s West Lake.


Cathal Denis is a 60-year-old retired teacher from Ireland. Not much else is known about him save that one day, while walking his dog Molly along Carraroe Beach in county Galway, he saw something strange floating in the waters of the Galway Coast. With a teacher’s natural inquisitiveness and a retiree’s excess of free time, he called the Daily Star, who quickly sent a reporter to investigate. The next day, the discovery was run under the headline Unidentified Floating Object and it wasn’t long before people began writing in with explanations.




I am writing in regards to the Unidentified Floating Object article. Fortunately I am able to help in your quest to find the identity of this floating object.


It seems that the object was one of the first man-made underwater discovery devices. Similar ones have been used to discover the debris of the Titanic and some have been lost to the world of the deep sea. The one Cathal discovered could be 100 years old and may have artifacts inside.




I think it is the Top section of a very old lighthouse that has fallen into the sea when the coast eroded. The handle like notches would have sat on a cog and the window shone the light.




Seen a show on discovery a man invented a ball that looks like that for tsunamis the ones I seen were orange but looked the exact same as the picture.


Yet the above hypotheses were all wrong. Despite existing in the Irish press, Cathal Denis doesn’t exist in real life. What really happened that day was sculptor Donnacha Cahill took Exploration, his sculpture inspired by old world bathyspheres, out to the beach, chucked it in the water, then called The Star advising them to come and take some photos. Naturally, when the hoax was revealed, it resulted in a fresh bout of free publicity for the playful artist from Galway. Since then the bathysphere has been all over Galway County and appeared in both Belfast and Dublin, before eventually turning up in Hanoi’s West Lake in May 2013.


As the readers’ hypotheses attest, the sculpture’s great strength is the reaction it causes. While the object stays essentially the same, its setting and human encounters vary. In Galway, the locals were shy about the object, walking by full of questions without ever coming over to find out more. In contrast, passing Americans didn’t hide their curiosity. “The first question,” Donnacha recalls, “was ‘are you guys scientists?’ I, of course said ‘yes’, and told them we were launching in an hour and leaving for an island off the coast.” In Hanoi, the reaction was different still.


“I loved the Vietnamese reaction to Exploration III,” says Donnacha. “They were totally unfazed by it. They acknowledged it, touched it; it actually felt like they understood it, and that it was a very natural thing that it was there.”

Unidentified Floating Objects

The Narrative


Exploration III’s journey has taken it to Work Room Four, a new creative space in Hanoi which houses The Learning Project Asia. Colin Campbell and Gareth O’Hara are the founders of this new company offering educational workshops in Vietnam’s capital. Sitting with them on the top floor of an old penicillin factory in the centre of the city, I’m aware of Exploration III’s presence behind me as it dominates a large corner of the open plan office.


The Learning Project Asia is an ambitious project aimed at providing a form of education that most students in Vietnam can’t access. “We’ve developed a programme,” says Gareth O’Hara. “[We’re] getting kids involved in projects to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Things that we noticed aren’t very prominent in the education system in Vietnam.”


These projects are based on real world situations and are often supplied by real world organisations such as the UN and IBM. The key learning objectives are practical skills like critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and digital literacy. “Rather than just be passive consumers of material on the web,” Gareth says, “they are actually creating their own material.”


Donnacha Cahill created his own material. But after forging the Exploration sculpture, he knew that just to make the object wasn’t enough. After making a piece of work, “I am left with an object and I am figuring out its next step,” he says. The invention of Cathal Denis and the UFO was his attempt to flesh out the object’s narrative, “to give the sculpture more life, give it a story.” The unveiling of Cathal Denis as Donnacha Cahill was just the next of many chapters.


For Colin Campbell, this is true for his students. From piecing together Exploration III’s narrative, students cannot only be taught critical thinking, but be alerted to their own narratives. “It’s part of the digital identity thing,” says Colin. “They have to get more conscious that — even if they don’t like it — when they present themselves now, whether it’s on Facebook or on more sophisticated social media, they are sort of painting a story about themselves.” Hence one focus of The Learning Project Asia’s courses is the increasingly relevant skill of learning to control your digital identity in the internet age.

Unidentified Floating Objects

Enter Mystery


The author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell wrote that “mysteries require judgment and the assessment of uncertainty.” Exploration III has done this, challenging minds from Vietnamese beer sellers, to Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins, who according to Donnacha, “looked as bemused as anybody else” when he saw the sculpture.


It will continue to incite assessment on the next stages of its journey. Permission has already been received for the sculpture to appear in London’s Thames River, Newfoundland in Canada, and plans are afoot for a tour of Europe’s capitals. To Donnacha, mystery is key to the work’s success. As the piece’s mysterious form invites judgement and thought, it satisfies Donnacha’s personal artistic goals of stimulating imagination, getting the viewer thinking and starting dialogue.

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