As St. Patrick’s Day nears, people around the world will honor Irish culture by throwing parties (virtual or otherwise), drinking green beer, and eating corned beef, cabbage and soda bread. I’d like to suggest celebrating Ireland by reading Gabriel Byrne’s delightful book, “Walking with Ghosts” (Grove Press). The well-known actor has earned a reputation as a brooding and somewhat dark master of his craft, and it’s no surprise that his heartfelt, powerful memoir shares those same traits. In it Byrne weaves childhood memories of growing up in Ireland with more recent episodes of his life as an established actor. The book moves back and forth in time, in short passages; childhood memories are often deeply nostalgic (and occasionally troubling), while more current recollections are touched with some sorrow, some disgust.
“Walking with Ghosts” is Byrne’s second memoir. His first was 1994’s “Pictures in My Head,” and it’s long out of print. It doesn’t really matter, with so much having changed in his life since then, and with the help of added insight and distance from his initial celebrity and the traumas of his younger years, Byrne, now 70, needed time to better assess and examine his life. He succeeds in spades here, offering a compelling memoir that is anything but typical Hollywood, a text imbued with rich, literary language and beautiful turns of phrase.
Born in 1950, Byrne grew up in Walkinstown, outside Dublin. At that time Ireland was a poor hard-scrabble, hard-drinking country struggling to connect with the modern world. Byrne was the first of six children born to Roman Catholic parents – his father a cooper at the Guinness brewery and his mother a nurse. The love and admiration for his working-class parents permeates pages drenched in soot and stale stout.
Byrne followed a twisted path towards acting. A hellion from a young age, he was introduced as a child to films by his grandmother, and he would watch multiple movies weekly at the “picture house.” He richly describes what he saw on the screen, how they fueled his imagination; returning to the same spot as an adult, he sadly points out that the movie theatre has become a carpet store.
At age 11 Byrne decided he would become a priest, and went off to a seminary in Worcestershire, England. “For my mother’s generation, a priest in the family was a gift from God,” he says. “That is not an age when you really know what you’re doing. I was attracted by an innate, unconscious desire to escape. I was terrified of the Dublin that I lived in every day.”
He lasted four years in the seminary before being abruptly sent home. While there, he reveals he was sexually abused and he’s blunt in the treatment he endured. The book recalls a scholarly priest entertaining the young Byrne in a red dressing gown. “That is a strange thing, I thought, for a priest to be dressed like that,” he writes. The priest talks about his love of Chopin and gives the young Gabriel a cigarette. What follows is as awful as it is predictable. Byrne cautiously circles around the subject, recalling a failed attempt as an adult to rage at the elderly priest by phone about his trauma. His feelings of betrayal and anger are palpable.
Back at home, Byrne, after England, was lost. He held a number of odd jobs over the years – plumber, dishwasher, encyclopedia salesman – and eventually studied archaeology and linguistics at UCD (University College Dublin). If things had been different, he might have become an academic; he has the brains for it. While at university, he was encouraged to join an acting troupe and for the first time in his life he felt included. His love affair with the theatre began then, but Byrne still didn’t take to the stage until he was closing in on 30. In 1978, he got a role in “The Riordans,” Ireland’s first soap opera, and three years later he played Uther Pendragon in John Boorman’s magical “Excalibur.” His career didn’t really take off, but he was never again short of work. Along with Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan, he became one of the few Irish movie stars of the Boomer dominance.
Having appeared in more than 80 films, a number of TV productions and a wide range of theatrical productions, Byrne often plays characters possessed with underlying darkness and sadness. While he earned praise for early iconic roles in films such as the Coen brothers’ “Miller’s Crossing” (1990), it was the 1995 film “The Usual Suspects” that made Byrne a star. More recently, he received a Golden Globe award for playing psychotherapist Paul Weston, the lead in the HBO series “In Treatment,” which ran from 2008 to 2010.
From the beginning, the reader is immersed in Byrne’s stunning prose, which permeates “Walking with Ghosts.” Describing in dreamlike detail a hill from his childhood he writes: “I would come here in all seasons, when grass was stiff with frost or on days of such stillness you could hear the fwoofing wings of a pheasant startled from a bush … Autumn, and the earth turned, evenings drew in, fires were lit in front rooms. The smell of earth in decay, smoke from burning leaves carried on the wind, and a kind of melancholy that made me lonely.”
Byrne offers a number of captivating vignettes about his life on and off the stage and screen, taking readers from Broadway dressing rooms to on-set trailers to meetings with agents and more. The Hollywood-era snapshots are fascinating like whiskeys with Richard Burton (“Give it all you got,” he advises Byrne, “but never forget it’s just a bloody movie, that’s all it is. We’re not curing cancer.”) He also recalls the overwhelming fanfare at the Cannes Film Festival when “The Usual Suspects” opened, his struggle with sudden fame and the excess drinking that followed as a coping mechanism. He admits to being “stubbornly shy” and suffers from stage fright, but he eventually got help, and has been sober for 25 years.
In “Walking with Ghosts” Byrne channels his fellow countrymen and literary greats like Beckett, Heaney, Joyce and Yeats. He’s penned an exceptionally poetic and expressive memoir that, to me, is on par with his outstanding acting. And, like his work on Broadway and in Hollywood, his writing invokes a beautiful sense of longing, sadness and vulnerability.