When We Were Kings and Queens of the Road: Fion Gunn

Photo credit: Glyn Jones

Going to school in 1960s Cork

When I googled the journey from my childhood home at 3, Cornmarket St. to St Aloysius Primary School (St Als) which I attended, the solutions were a 12 and 15 minutes journey. Really! This was not the case when I was a child. Walking on my own using alleyways and shortcuts it was a mere 8 minutes, 7 if I did a bit of running. Back in the 1960s St Als Primary School closed and I then went to St Als Secondary. I remember it with great fondness and gratitude.

The route to school

Until I was eight years old my Auntie Cosy (my great aunt who owned the family shop and house we lived in) would walk me to school. She was a wonderfully kind woman and I loved her deeply, but having her walk me to school was a mixed blessing. She would stop and talk with everyone she met along the way, stretching the journey to 20 minutes or half an hour. So I was always late for school and always getting told off!

She had a stroke when I was eight and after that I walked on my own. Unfortunately, the punctuality didn’t improve hugely because my mother hated getting up in the morning and there was always a fight – with my father or grandmother or the children… After the stroke there was a new element of chaos too because Auntie had been in charge of the washing which now didn’t get done on time and certainly wasn’t organised. There was the hunt for clean socks and pants, uniforms not getting washed and gym kits going missing – those mornings were very stressful and it was a real relief to arrive at school. I still feel that stress of looming lateness and it has left me hyper punctual as an adult. If I am late for anything it’s only because a true disaster has occurred!

Fion as a child. “Here’s a photo of me just before my 6th birthday in front of our shop window – at that point I was in ‘High babies’ about to move into 1st class at St Als Primary School (we never said Catholic school because almost ever school in Ireland was back then!)

Living in Cork as a child and desperate to travel I did the best I could in terms of exploration and always tried different routes to and from school. These were: crossing Cornmarket St and walking up Kyle St, crossing North Main St, along St Peter’s Lane, across open ground/car park turning left onto Grafton St, through the junctions with Liberty St and Washington St, over Clarke bridge and along Wandesford Quay and turning onto Sharmen Crawford St. Another variation, not possible now, was cutting through Musgraves where the Fish Market was held a couple of times a week. I also had a shortcut through the North Main St entrance of St Francis Church and with a couple of quick genuflections left via the Liberty St Entrance. Sometimes, this could go wrong if there was a mass or novena being held and I would have to stop a say a prayer which added 2 or 3 minutes to the journey.

In all I had six different quick routes and another four slower routes (for when I came home from school and was under less time pressure), which gave my journey some variety. While writing this I reflected on all the walking across big cities I have done since leaving Ireland – Paris, Beijing, Shanghai, New York, Taipei, Sanaa, Rome, Florence, Venice and others, most recently Cairo and Alexandria. I walk all over London where I live and other UK cities like Liverpool and Edinburgh, in every case I feel impelled to find other routes to destinations, to get creatively lost and find my own way of navigating the urban maze – a metaphor for life perhaps!

Fion Gunn is the first Irish artist to have a public sculpture commission in China, Zhangjiakou and has been an associate at Tate Exchange Liverpool. Her major solo show Arrivals/Departures at Victoria Gallery & Museum, Liverpool in 2022 was funded by Arts Council England and raised visitor numbers by 28%. She is lead artist with A-Maze Artists Collective, her recent exhibition was funded by Arts Council England and she is concurrently online Artist in Residence at the Museum of Childhood Ireland. Gunn’s diverse, socially committed practice encompasses 2D, 3D, new media, installation, performance, curatorial and community projects as well as an AR pop up trail which is part of the Arrivals/Departures exhibition. Her first immersive project with Tate Exchange Liverpool, 2019 won an award from Arts Council England, as have her three subsequent projects. She has an established history of cross cultural and cross disciplinary collaboration, exhibiting and curating internationally with numerous awards from Culture Ireland. Details can be viewed on her website where a full CV is available. www.fiongunn.orgGunn has exhibited at numerous galleries in Europe, China, USA & Taiwan– prior to COVID many of her projects were based in Beijing and Shanghai where she has also curated major collaborative exhibitions of Irish & Chinese contemporary art in an annual project called IRISH WAVE (2009-2016). She exhibited in Cairo and Alexandria in March 2024 and is a featured artist in the Beijing Contemporary Art Expo at Dangdai this May.

YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/FionGunn

Instagram: @gunnfion

Arrivals/Departures AR App available free at Google and App Store https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=uk.ac.liverpool.arrivalsdepartures&pcampaignid=web_share

On behalf of the Museum of Childhood Ireland and Robert Burns, we would like to extend our heartfelt gratitude to all of our wonderful participants for their time and their stories. We are thrilled to be presenting this project and we hope you will enjoy following along with us.

Have a story on this topic and want to get involved? Contact us on our social media sites, or email us at cbrowne@museumofchildhood.ie – we would love to hear from you!

By Chloe Browne

Chloe Browne is an Irish writer, curator and Art Historian, with a keen interest in objects and social history.