During the first two weeks in January, the annual First Fortnight Mental Health Art & Culture Festival creates a space in which to challenge mental health stigma through the arts and the art of conversation.

Writer and actor Peter Gowan introduces his play The Chronicles Of Oggle, which features at this year's First Fortnight festival.

My mother told me that as soon as I could speak, I was always talking to myself. This continued throughout my life. I was unhappy at school. I would withdraw into this private world and this inner dialogue would continue while I was supposed to be paying attention. This, of course, had disastrous results for me academically. I flunked my Leaving Certificate and ended up going off to London, worked on a building site and lived in a squat. It was very hard, but I think what sustained me was this highly developed inner world. It was here that I started to write.

At first there were poems and then when I returned to Ireland and sat my Leaving Certificate for the second time I started to write short stories. In my first year in Trinity College, I auditioned for a part in The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, and although it was a small part I usually got a round of applause upon my exit. I was hooked. I spent the rest of my time at the university working acting in plays and writing terrible ones.

I got my first professional job in the Eblana Theatre in Loot in 1979 while still at College, and continued to work until I, miraculously, passed my final exams. (My mother used to address letters to me as Peter Gowen BA, such was my parents’ astonishment at this achievement.)

I was lucky to be included in a ten-day workshop at Annaghmakerrig run by Patrick Mason and Tom Kilroy as mentors and this led to my first full length play. The Stonepickers was produced at the DTF 1988 by the Actors Company, and I saw it performed in Arbour Hill prison. The response was incredible. They were completely engrossed, and cheered at the end.

Although I continued to write over the next 20 years, I couldn’t get anyone to take any of my plays. It was very discouraging, and I’d stop writing. But plays would always emerge. I was working with Pat Keirnan on The Hairy Ape for Cork Mid-Summer Festival in 2008, and I mentioned that I had a play called The Chronicles of Oggle. We developed it and it was produced by Asylum Productions and The Everyman in Cork in 2013 and then toured nationally in 2015.

The central character, Pakie, is an Irish Everyman. He overcomes all sorts of obstacles, and remains positive throughout his difficult life. What saves him and many people of my generation is his inner world, his inner voice.

The play although very sad, is very funny, and ultimately the message is an uplifting one.

Amongst the projects I am working on at the moment is a new play called My Name Is Elizabeth. This is story of Pakie’s baby sister who was sold to an English Couple, and her search for her relatives in Ireland.

I’m never happier than when I’m being creative and this period of isolation due to Covid has given me a great opportunity to develop as a writer. It’s allowed my inner voice to speak out. What a relief!

The Chronicles of Oggle is now running at at Smock Alley, Dublin and continues through January 14th as part of First Fortnight Mental Health Art & Culture Festival 2022 - find out more here.