Actor, writer and chef Peter Gowen, 55, is originally from Youghal. He lives in London with his wife, Anna and 14 year-old son, Jack.
“There’s no time to do anything in the morning. I’m up at 5.30am, I have 15 minutes to shower and then I’m out the door. Breakfast doesn’t happen. Basically I’ve two lives, because when I’m not acting, I’m a chef in London. It’s in corporate fine dining, cooking for bankers, hedge fund managers and VIP clients. I also work as an events chef, setting up field kitchens and delivering canapés or three-course meals.
Acting is a tough career. Mick Lally, who was a friend of mine, once said to me: ‘the tide comes in and goes back out and when it does, you’re never quite sure when it’ll come back again’. That’s an actor’s life. Sometimes there’s a surge and other times, there’s nothing. You abandon your life to an insecure financial future. So having the cheffing job is almost therapeutic, if I get an acting job I’m happy and if not, well, that’s okay too.
I was always the clown in the family. There were nine of us and in a large family everyone has a niche. Mine was acting the eejit. I also wasn’t very good at school and coped by being the class clown. I failed disastrously in my Leaving Cert. It wasn’t the most glittering academic record, but going to a ‘traditional’ Christian Brothers school meant I couldn’t engage with what was going on. I was anxious all the time.
My parents were upset by my exam results as my sisters before me were in Trinity and UCC and they expected me to sail into something like architecture. Instead, I ended up crashing. I was so embarrassed that I went to London, but I soon realised independence didn’t amount to much. It was 1975, and I worked on a building site- exhausted by the work and the cold- and living in a squat, with heroin addicts and weirdoes. For a young man, it was huge learning curve and decided to go back to school at the Cork Commercial College, which sounds quite grand but it actual was a semi-detached house in Bishopstown. I got a decent Leaving Cert, and ended up at Trinity after all.
As I had just 10 hours of lectures a week, I did some work for the Players Theatre. My first acting role was in Kennedy’s Children, and I played the barman. I didn’t say anything but I got mentioned in the reviews, much to the annoyance of the other cast members. I was standing there, fecking about and polishing glasses while they had to learn great big monologues. My first spoken performance was in a Shakespearean play- a small role- and I got an exit round of applause… whatever I was doing, the audience thought it was great craic! That was an electrifying moment for me. I thought, ‘I want to get into this business’ so I continued my studies in a semi-interested kind of way, spending more time in the theatre, and playing small commercial parts.
This business is a curious one. Neil Jordan saw me in A Whistle in the Dark at the Abbey Theatre 10 years previous to The Butcher Boy. A decade later, when I was living in York- a time before mobile phones- he rang looking for me. My wife- fiancé at the time- knew I had gone to buy wedding rings, so she took a chance and phoned the store. They asked was I Peter Gowen, and told me to get on a train to London to meet Neil Jordan. I ran to York Station, travelled to London, got picked up by a car, and had a 10-minute chat with Jordan. The following day he phoned and offered me the part.
On the day we got married, I had to fly off that evening to Ireland. We had to push the wedding forward and I left the reception at 7pm. Then I spent the entire day standing behind a coffin! That’s life as an actor… random. Ten years ago, when the tide went out, as Mick Lally said, I was lucky enough to work at Fulham Football Club, in the fine dining section, and went on to work for an agency that places me in different places. There’s a lot of repetitive work so it frees up my brain. When I actually write, it’s with a pen and paper. Even though I can’t read my own writing, I do it in long hand, and then transfer it to the computer.
I’ve been writing for years but it’s difficult to get work on stage. I’m delighted The Chronicles of Oggle is now the debut production for The Everyman County Touring Initiative. I started writing the play in 2005, and it’s the 25th draft… and still being tweaked. It’s based on my own experiences and asks questions like how Irish society functioned within the control of the Church. While the themes are serious, it still has the Irish sense of humour.
Cork is my writing baptism and now I can say, without embarrassment, that I’m a writer. Early in my acting career, I wrote plays but they withered out. Around the time my father got sick, I started writing again. When your parents become ill, something alters in you. I got feverish when writing and I didn’t care if it was good or not. That was the catalyst.
Now I’m a chef, actor and a writer, and my days vary. If I’m cheffing, I don’t eat at all and have five coffees instead. When I get the shakes, I stop! In the places I work, there’s no such thing as lunch. Fine dining is a tough kitchen and you come in, crack on and don’t stop.
When I’m not cheffing, I love cooking at home. I’m trying to get my son into it, he recently made his first spaghetti bolognese after some harassment. It’s important for young people to learn how to cook. Your immune system only works properly if the body is getting the right nutrition. When my daughter went to college, I made her a three-week cookery book so at the end of it, she’d have 21 dishes. However, when she finished, she wanted another recipe! I had to tell her that the whole idea of the book was to go back to the start.
We eat a lot of Greek food at home, which is quite simple. There’s something in the Greek psyche- similar to Ireland- that’s sort of peasant like. That’s not meant in a derogatory way, but rather every Greek is a farmer at heart, embracing food grown in the garden. The combination of lemon juice, fresh herbs and olive oil is extremely healthy.
Usually I’m starving when I get home, but I don’t cook. I crash because I’m back up again at 5.30am. I pick throughout the day, and anyway, I love being in bed by 10pm. If you don’t get enough sleep in this game, you’ll be catatonic by the weekend. In comparison, on nights I’m on stage, it’s 2am by the time I get to sleep, after dinner and a glass of wine.
I’m quite good about clearing my mind before going to bed. When I was younger, I was terrible, with everything buzzing around my head. I’ve calmed down a bit.
To be honest, the biggest challenge in my life is dealing with the anxiety I experienced as a schoolboy. My secondary school days haunt me. When I wake up the feeling something terrible is going to happen is always there. I have to fight it, telling myself ‘I’m okay’. That’s my biggest obstacle. When my father and sister died, my son was in hospital with an asthma attack that almost killed him, and my wife had meningitis, I could deal with it all. Psychological dread is different. At the same time, it also drives me. It’s why I’m passionate about everything I do.
One of my secrets to happiness is having a good long-term relationship with a partner who supports you, and you also support. Someone said the secret to a good relationship is to give more than you get back, and that’s how I approach life, being as generous as I can.
Being active is a great thing, and helps prevent the doubts from settling. I love getting out on the water, and we’re lucky to live by the river in London. As soon as it gets nice, I’m on the boat with friends and while we don’t do a pub crawl- as that involves getting langered- we do stop at a few pubs along the bank.
It’s nice to get back to Youghal, as our family home is on a great fishing spot. And of course, I also get to see my mother. She’s an amazing woman; she’s recovering from a stroke at the age of 88, and is still going great guns. In terms of other heroes, Richard Corrigan is amazing and an inspiration to any Irish person, with his determination, passion and vision. Gabriel Byrne has those same qualities.
I’d hope people see me as a bit of craic. I’m sure not everyone would think that, as I’ve a bit of temper. I can’t stand laziness or dishonesty, and if I come across those things at work, you get two barrels at the same time.
In 10 years, I hope I’m still working as a chef, shouting at people who’re lazy or lacking the correct amount of passion. And hopefully I’ll still be an actor and a writer. I want to develop in all fields and I look forward to the challenge.”
The Chronicles of Oggle is at The Mall Arts Centre, Youghal on Thursday, April 18th; The Everyman from Monday, April 22nd to Thursday, April 25th; Village Arts Centre, Kilworth on Friday, April 26th and The Schoolyard Theatre, Charleville on Saturday, April 27th.
A new play by Peter Gowen
The debut production of The Everyman County Touring Initiative
Meet Pakie. An orphan, a storyteller, an adventurer, a survivor. He may not be the sharpest sandwich in the tool box, but Pakie knows a thing or two about the history of his native town – from the vicious Vikings, to the less-than Christian Brothers. Pakie’s a laugh a minute… but Pakie’s got secrets. Secrets the God fearing people of Oggle, may not be ready to hear.
Written and performed by renowned local actor Peter Gowen (Love/Hate, The Butcher Boy/Hairy Ape), and directed by Donal Gallagher, the Chronicles of Oggle is a hilarious and heartbreaking story of small towns and even smaller minds.
Presented by The Everyman in association with Asylum Productions
“…and poor Walter Rally: got his head chopped off.
Okay, he did bring the lung cancer and the famine to Ireland,
but he didn’t know that at the time, and he didn’t mean to.
He was only trying to impress the queer wan over in London…”