Gregory Peck's family reconnect with Ireland

Gregory Peck and his wife Veronique Passani with their children (L-R) Stephen, Jonathan and Carey in 1950. Picture: Getty

The presentation of an award in Dingle this week will continue the strong links between Ireland and Gregory Peck, writes Marjorie Brennan.

Gregory Peck played many iconic roles, from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird to Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, which was filmed in Youghal, Co Cork, in 1954.

However, it is another film of Peck’s in which there is a beguiling nod to his connections with Ireland, and more especially Kerry, the county where his grandmother was born.

In the 1991 film, Other People’s Money, directed by Norman Jewison, Peck plays the benevolent head of a struggling wire and cable company in New England, which is in the sights of a ruthless corporate raider, played by Danny De Vito. Peck took the opportunity to pay tribute to the famous Irish patriot Thomas Ashe, with whom Peck shared great-greatgrandparents.

Thomas Ashe, a descendant and namesake of the Republican who died while on hunger strike in Mountjoy Prison in 1917, is also a cousin of the late legendary actor, and owns Ashe’s Bar in Dingle, Co Kerry. He recalls how important the connection was to the legendary actor.

“We are very proud of the connection with Gregory Peck, and he was very proud of his connection with Kerry, and especially Thomas Ashe, the Irish patriot,” says Thomas. “He sent us a lovely picture which we have hanging in the bar. He was making a movie called Other People’s Money and the portrait of Thomas Ashe was used as one of the founding fathers of the company, it is hanging behind his desk in the movie.”

DINGLE CONNECTIONS

Peck’s grandmother, Catherine Ashe, came from Minard, near Dingle, and later moved to the US, but when her husband died from diptheria when Gregory’s father was just an infant, she headed back to the family farm, where they stayed until Peck’s father, also called Gregory, was about ten, before returning back to the US.

Peck later became a frequent visitor to Ireland, and, in keeping with his generosity to budding actors and filmmakers in the US, he established scholarships at the film school in UCD. He first visited his relatives in west Kerry in 1968, calling to cousins in Minard and Lispole, where Thomas Ashe was born. In an interview with Irish America magazine in 1997, Peck recalled a visit to one of his cousins:

“I went to visit my second cousin, Kitty Curran, who is still in East Minard, about 10 years ago. A modest house, and we sat around having a cup of tea, and she asked, ‘Would you be after saying hello to himself?’ I didn’t know who ‘himself’ might be, so I said, ‘Yes’.

Upstairs we went, and himself was lying out on the bed dressed in woollen trousers, flannel shirt and a cardigan, wearing carpet slippers and with the cap over his eyes, fast asleep.

"Kitty shook him by the shoulder and said, ‘Da, Gregory Peck’s here to see you’. Himself, it turned out, was a first cousin, and a childhood playmate of my father’s. He opened his eyes and said, ‘The hell he is’. He was confused because my father had the same name as I do.

“They told him I was in the films, I was in Hollywood, but he couldn’t quite grasp that. But he came to, toddled down the stairs, and they broke out a jug of poitín, and we all had a nip.”

The actor’s last trip was in 2000, three years before he died. Peck was conferred with an honorary doctorate in literature by the National University of Ireland in Dublin, later travelling to Killarney and on to Dingle.

“He came to the bar and he had a pint of Guinness, then there was a family gathering in the Dingle Skelligs hotel,” says Thomas. “I was captain of the golf club at the time, down in Ceann Sibéal, and we made him an honorary life member of the golf club. I presented him with a jumper with the Ceann Sibéal emblem on it.

“Jack Lemmon was one of his great friends and he was an avid golfer. They played poker together every Thursday night and he said ‘I can’t wait to show this to Jack, he’ll be very jealous’. The emblem is all in Irish, he was delighted with it and he wrote a letter later to thank me.”

Gregory Peck in Youghal in 1954. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive
Gregory Peck in Youghal in 1954. Picture: Irish Examiner Archive

PÁIDÍ Ó SÉ

The hospitality wasn’t always one way either, with visitors from west Kerry always welcome in the actor’s Beverly Hills home, as is recounted in an anecdote from Kerry footballer Tomás Ó Sé’s autobiography.

It was 1997, after Kerry had won the All-Ireland, and his brother Darragh, uncle Páidí, and Fintan Ashe, another relation of Peck and Thomas Ashe, were in the US and received an invitation to the actor’s home.

“….Peck made them welcome, showed them around, and asked if they’d like a coffee. It was around ten in the morning. Peck had an Academy Award, for To Kill A Mockingbird and plenty of statuettes with it, Golden Globes and so on. There’s a great photograph of Darragh and Fintan holding up awards on either side of Peck. Páidí was asked if he wanted to stand in for the photo and he said, ‘Sure haven’t I five All-Stars at home?’”

Peck’s links with the area are celebrated through the Gregory Peck Award For Excellence in the Art of Film, which is presented as part of the Dingle International Film Festival.

This year marked the end of the festival’s 13 years in existence and later this week, the Gregory Peck Award will be presented to festival director Maurice Galway by Anthony Peck, Gregory’s son.

Three generations of Pecks will visit for the presentation: Anthony, his son Zachary Peck and Zachary’s son, Atticus Anthony Peck — whose name is a nod to what is arguably his great-grandfather’s most famous role as Atticus Finch in the 1962 movie To Kill A Mockingbird, based on Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

HUMBLE HERO

Atticus Finch was voted America’s No 1 hero in an American Film Institute poll, and for Lee, Peck embodied the role. Lee’s father died during filming; she was so affected by Peck’s performance that she gave him her father’s watch and chain, which the actor had with him the night he received an Oscar for his role.

Speaking after the actor’s death in 2003, Lee said: “Gregory Peck was a beautiful man. Atticus Finch gave him the opportunity to play himself.”

Thomas Ashe says Peck lived up to his reputation as one of Hollywood’s most decent and humble stars.

“He was very unassuming, all he wanted to talk about was the family and the connections. He was kind of an elder statesman in Hollywood; everyone gravitated towards him. He was an absolute gentleman.”

Peck kept working into his 80s, starring in a mini-series remake of Moby Dick in 1998.

“He loved the area and remarked that he would have loved to have retired here but with his commitments in the States and everything else, it would have been difficult,” says Thomas.

As Peck once said: “I feel drawn to Dingle, I feel a sense of coming home.” And his home has not forgotten him.

The Gregory Peck Award will be presented to Maurice Galway of Dingle Film Festival by members of the Peck family in the Phoenix Cinema on Saturday, along with a screening of The Bravados starring Gregory Peck and Joan Collins

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