Magnet fishing: ‘An engagement ring, a gold coin – the crowd willed the fisherman to draw something valuable from the water’

Casting a line for something other than fish is a long-odds game but, fleetingly, all shared a sense of hope

I had rarely seen someone so present. Had the world around him begun to dissolve, combust or collapse, I had little doubt he would have continued lifting and lowering his fishing rod into the water. Had sparks begun to fly, he would have merely noted them before continuing to inspect whatever sundry the magnet attached to the end of his rod had drawn from the Royal Canal.

But, of course, he knew, as I did, as did the crowd who had gathered to watch, that at that moment the world around him would not dissolve.

If energy is neither created nor destroyed but transformed from one form to another, the fisherman’s contentedness radiated a harmony around him. His presence in the moment felt invulnerable, and as though he himself was the magnet, his safety drew us in.

This wasn’t a normal fishing rod, nor was it fish for which the fisherman was fishing. He was magnet fishing – a pastime that involves lowering a magnetised rod into the water, before sweeping it along the sea or canal bed to attract potentially valuable objects (beer cans and shopping trolley parts for the majority).


The sun had decided to play ball that day. She beamed beatifically upon the weary lunchtime strollers, to deliver a sense of hope that had become elusive in those early pandemic days. Something of the grey had been lifted.

Beside me, another man sat with his lunch to observe the affair. We had both positioned ourselves on the opposite side of the bank, close enough to observe, but far enough away so as not to be part of the action. It reminded me of my favourite childhood sensation of falling asleep in a crowd, lulled by the safety of their presence, uncalled-upon to add to their chat. The man and I stayed close enough to one another to share the moment, far enough away that no conversation felt necessary.

On the opposite side of the canal, a mother and son stood closer to the fisherman. There was a lightness about them and as they engaged in good-natured chat, I felt a sense of privilege in witnessing a mother and preteen son become so excited about the same affair. The duo intermittently asked the fisherman questions, to which he willingly obliged answers, though his gaze remained on his rod and the water below. Their laughter passed like a breeze over to our side of the canal, where more of the lunchtime crowd had gathered to watch.

The fisherman continued with his activity, lifting, lowering and sweeping his magnetised rod. His movements were repetitive but not automatic, and without any sense of urgency. He seemed aware of the crowd that had gathered to watch, as though this was the most natural thing, yet he did allow this to impair his presence in the activity. Nor did he take any ownership in the outcome of the affair.

An engagement ring, a gold coin, an important historical relic – the crowd willed the fisherman to draw something valuable from the water. Still, as bike spoke after working tool were drawn from the canal, I could register little disappointment.

Sometime later, a council worker approached the scene. I felt a sudden sense of rage that this bureaucratic figure would terminate our excitement. Did he not understand our need for this moment? The desperation that leached upon us in the Covid-19 pandemic. Had he too not felt the despair? But the council worker merely inquired how the fisherman was doing and replied with laughter when the fisherman pointed to a pile of bicycle parts that he had gathered by the bank.

Soon enough, the lunchtime crowd began to dissipate. The energy became restless among the few stragglers who couldn’t drag themselves from the scene before witnessing the moment where a valuable item was retrieved.

Had the fisherman registered the energy shift, he didn’t give in to it. He merely continued to lift, lower and sweep his rod. It was as though he intuitively sensed what the crowd needed from him, perhaps before we did.

Treasure was never what we were after.

For a moment, we just needed to share in a collective sense of hope.