Stories of life, stories from the sea

DOROTHY CROSS’S Montenotte and Fountainstown are two complementary volumes of a fascinating publication, one that’s been seven…

DOROTHY CROSS’S Montenotte and Fountainstown are two complementary volumes of a fascinating publication, one that’s been seven years in the making. It’s a book as a work of art. It includes images of a large number of Cross’s own sculptural works, including her landmark Ghostship, so in a way it’s a kind of retrospective between covers. But it’s also intensely personal and autobiographical.

Throughout a mass of documentation, her sculptures are woven into a network of memories of her childhood and the lives of her parents, her father Fergus, who died in 1978, and her mother, Dorothy, now in her 90s.

“Originally I was going to do it in a conventional way,” Cross explains. ”With a text and illustrations, you know, essays and so on.” Her publishers Jim Savage and David Lilburn of Occasional Press gave her a copy of John Berger and Jean Mohr’s Other Ways of Telling, an iconoclastic book that explores ways of using images to tell stories. “It took a while for me to come around to the idea that we could do it primarily in terms of images, but once I had . . .”

Once she had, she threw herself into it with an all-consuming energy. Addressing a vast amount of material, family photographs, memorabilia, her own work, she gradually edited and sifted and rearranged, working with designer Vincent Murphy.


The process took seven years in all. The end result is both novelistic and cinematic; a rich, multi-faceted visual narrative that elucidates numerous links and interconnections but never closes off the possibility of further, different interpretations.

Each volume represents a parent, Montenotte her mother (also Dorothy), and Fountainstown her father (Fergus).

“My father,” she says, was passionate about two things, “the sea, and raising donkeys.”

Circumstances decreed that he take over the family business, Cross Sons garage. He escaped to a hut he built on the sea at Fountainstown, and to his yacht. He was aged 30 when, out sailing, he spotted Dorothy Kinmonth, then 17, on another boat. “She had an English accent – which she’s never quite lost.”

Like Fergus, she was a creature of the sea: “She sailed and swam and did jack-knife and swallow dives.”

When she and Fergus married they built a bigger hut at Fountainstown, and moved into Montenotte, an imposing house built in 1832 with a high-walled garden looming over Lover’s Walk. Cross and her siblings grew up in these two worlds, the house her mother filled with “beautiful things” and, during the summer months, the seaside hut where “our life was in and on the sea.”

Cross and her sister swam competitively. They trained at Eglington Street Baths and competed in the Munster Swimming Championships at the Lee Baths. A sequence of images of her mother diving, of Cross and her sister swimming, of the derelict Eglington Street Baths and of the artist floating in the stunning natural setting of the Worm Hole pool on the Aran Islands gives us an insight into her intense relationship with water.

Her instinct for the pungency of objects and images in memory recalls Joseph Beuys. The books work in this way over and over. “Once a year our father brought us out to the Daunt Rock to visit the lightship moored there.” She came across a photograph he’d taken of the lightship in the 1930s. “I realised I was looking at The Albatross”, the decommissioned lightship that became her own Ghostship, covered in phosphorescent paint and moored off Dún Laoghaire in 1999.

Inevitably she was, she says, aware of many of the connections between her past and the work she’s made, but by no means all of them. Images she came across, and didn’t consciously remember, have an extraordinary resonance with what she’s done: “A photograph of my mother standing next to an upturned curragh, or a tiny little old print of a shark’s fin on the water.”

Given that the books are steeped in a sense of Cork, it’s surprising that Cross has opted not to live there. Not really, she shrugs. She went away to study and seems quite content with the path she’s taken since. When she completed her MFA in San Francisco she found she was anxious about coming back to Ireland and embarked on a cut-price course of Jungian psycho-analysis. “They were students who needed people to analyse, as practice.”

She found it a good way of talking through her own doubts and hesitations but, she notes, she always regarded it as being not primarily therapeutic but useful for her work.

It was useful. “What I liked about Jung was that, as I understand it, he doesn’t tie an individual down to some specific event in childhood that forever after dictates the way you’re going to be.” Rather, it appealed to her that he accesses a much wider range of symbolism and experience.

Swimming, in fact diving, originally brought her to the Connemara coast, and when a piece of land on the sea came up for sale, she felt compelled to buy it. She’s consolidated her presence there since, with a small house and a rather larger studio (designed by McCullough Mulvin) in a quite spectacular setting, looking northwards across the sea at the mouth of Killary Harbour, with the mass of Mweelrea in the distance.

There’s a certain nostalgia involved in the books but the abiding mood is not one of sadness. What they do, very impressively, is to integrate the formidable range of her work to dates into the fabric of her past, of the people, spaces and places who formed her. They do so eloquently, forming a work in themselves, not dependent on any external source of reference, a bit like Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Mirror, which integrates personal and public history in a particularly bold way. For anyone with an interest in her work, they are essential viewing.

Montenotte and Fountainstown by Dorothy Cross is published by Occasional Press and Ballynahinch Castle

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne

Aidan Dunne is visual arts critic and contributor to The Irish Times