So sad to miss mum’s funeral in Covid year

Youghal actor Peter Gowen found himself stranded in the UK because of Covid when his mother died in the summer. He tells CHRIS DUNNE the family are still planning a send-off
So sad to miss mum’s funeral in Covid year

Margaret Gowen when she was at Medical School in UCC. She became a doctor and had nine children

THERE would have been few better men to say a few words about his beloved mother Margaret, than Youghal writer and actor Peter Gowen, after her death this year. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.

“I couldn’t come home when my mother died at the end of July,” says Peter, “She had suffered a fall and she was in a care home in Redbarn, east Cork.

Brian, a favourite of Irish theatre who started his career in Players Trinity in 1978, and who has been based in the UK since 1988, is one of many people who lost loved ones this year and couldn’t travel to the funeral because of Covid restrictions.

“Mum had been in flying form and she had bounced back from serious health issues in the past like pneumonia and from a heart bypass,” says Peter.

“She was living independently with a live-in carer at home up until last year. And then, unfortunately, she fell over. After a hip replacement operation she didn’t have much strength and she agreed to go into the care home where she received wonderful care and attention.

“But it became clear mum’s time was up when her health started failing. She wore it out. She had a good innings.”

Dr Margaret Gowen, neé McHenry, passed away on July 31, 2020, aged 94. It was the end of a remarkable life for this trail-blazing doctor who had nine children.

Peter was stranded in London, unable to unite with his seven surviving siblings to join in their sorrow, their grief, and their love.

He had seen his mother happy before she died.

Youghal actor Peter Gowen has lived in the UK since 1988
Youghal actor Peter Gowen has lived in the UK since 1988

“We did a Facetime session,” say Peter. “She was non-verbal but she recognised me and she smiled. I made her laugh.”

But Peter wasn’t able to say goodbye.

“The last time I saw my mother was on March 12 this year and I if I had returned to Youghal from the UK to see her, I would have had to isolate and I’d be putting my brothers and sisters at risk,” says Peter.

“Then they wouldn’t have been able to see mum either.

“One of my sisters travelled from Amsterdam to say goodbye to mum,” says Peter. “Over there, they had the virus under control.”

The Irish are known universally for saying goodbye to their loved ones in their unique own way. No doubt the Gowen family home, Strand House in Youghal, would have been over-flowing with people paying their last respects to Margaret, telling fond anecdotes about the popular local doctor, and remembering her as a huge people person.

“Our house is a big, old rambling house overlooking the sea,” says Peter.

“It was always an open house filled with chat and laughter. My mum was a very sociable person. Both my parents were doctors and they ran a surgery at Strand House.”

Margaret and John both studied medicine in UCC, but it wasn’t until they were training in Manchester that they met and fell in love.

“Dad set up his country practice and they both came home. You’d wonder how they ran a practice and raised nine of us and educated nine of us. We did have a housekeeper though!”

So they were like gentry?

“Sort of,” say Peter, laughing.

Was Peter his mother’s blue-eyed boy who found fame and fortune treading the boards?

“I was one of them!” he says.

His favourite place in all the world is beside the sea, walking on the beach and fishing.

“Yes, I am a self-confessed water baby,” says Peter. “Growing up beside the sea in Youghal was wonderful.”

He keeps a boat at the end of his garden in London by the River Thames. Being an accomplished chef, which is his ‘second’ job, Peter can cook up a storm in the kitchen with his catch of the day.

“That makes me really happy,” he says.

However, he admits to having a tough time as a child at school.

The Gowen family at a wedding in the family home in Youghal in 1979
The Gowen family at a wedding in the family home in Youghal in 1979

“I lived in a constant state of anxiety,” says Peter, who is married to Anna, mum to their two children, Liza and Jack.

“Back then, the Christian Brothers could be brutal. As a result I felt on edge for a lot of my adult life, always ready for a fight.”

In June, 2018, Peter was unexpectedly diagnosed with bowel cancer; he was very sick and his eight month journey back to recovery was arduous.

“It’s almost as if the anxiety was located in that part of the bowel that was removed. And when it was gone, it was a wonderful feeling.”

Being diagnosed with cancer was a surprise though. “I didn’t panic,” says Peter. “But I did get a big surprise.”

He underwent treatment including a temporary stoma and he began the slow road to back to recovery. Last month, he suffered a setback when, experiencing abdominal pain, adhesions were discovered in his small intestine and he had to have further surgery.

“There was an obstruction in the bowel,” says Peter. “So the surgeon had to remove a piece of the bowel, which was thankfully a success, though traumatic and quite painful afterwards.

“The National Health Service are a marvellous organisation here and there are great charities like Maggie’s, a free cancer support which support cancer patients.

“I experienced nightmares following surgery and with the help of a professional psychologist I worked my way through it. I’ve never been happier.”

Peter is happy his mother had a dignified peaceful, death.

“Her life had run its course. Mum’s quality of life had ceased.”

Her memory will always live on in Stand House, the house overlooking Youghal Bay filled with laughter and love.

“She stuck labels on the furniture at home indicating who is to get what,” says Peter, smiling. “It will be nice to have a family heirloom.”

It’ll also be nice to give Margaret Gowen the send off she deserves.

“Mum was cremated and her ashes are to be buried with Dad. That was her wish.”

There will be the mother and a father of a party in Strand House in the summer.

We plan to have one big party in July,” says Peter. “A great big celebration of Mum’s wonderful life.”

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