Walking With Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne review – an elegy for Ireland | Autobiography and memoir


“How many times have I returned in my dreams to this hill?” asks Gabriel Byrne in the opening sentence of Walking With Ghosts, immediately setting alarm bells ringing in my head. For the following few pages, it did indeed seem that I had entered all-too-familiar territory, what the historian Roy Foster called “the Vaseline on the lens” genre of Irish memoir.

The initial signs were not good: “gold and green fields… a dark-haired girl… an old farmer woman sat on a one-legged stool”. As someone who read an extract from Frank McCourt’s acclaimed Angela’s Ashes thinking it was a parody of an Irish misery memoir in the vein of Flann O’Brien’s satire The Poor Mouth, I found myself wondering if this might be a celebrity version of the same. I am relieved to say it is not.

For a start, Gabriel Byrne’s childhood landscape is urban not rural, and his style, though lyrical, is also characterised by the marked shifts in tone that his nonlinear narrative demands. One moment, for instance, he is on the dole and living with his girlfriend in a spartanly furnished flat in London; the next he is drinking whisky with Richard Burton in a ritzy hotel suite overlooking the waterfront in Venice. The film that took him there was a biopic of Wagner in which he only fleetingly appears. “It was money and we were broke,” he writes, neatly summing up the aspiring actor’s lot. “And I would be working with some of the greatest stars in the world: Burton, Richardson, Olivier, Gielgud and Redgrave. Or, at least, I’d get to watch them work. I had 10 lines in six countries.”

Before he touches on the movies that made his name – Excalibur (1981), Miller’s Crossing (1990) and The Usual Suspects (1995) – Byrne lingers long on the travails of his youth. A seeker and something of an outsider, he spent four years in a seminary in England preparing for the priesthood, before returning to Dublin and embarking on an equally fruitless attempt to master a trade. He chose, of all things, plumbing, and that, too, ended in ignominy. “They ate their sandwiches away from me,” he recalls of his workmates. “I felt a failure – a failed plumber and priest.”

Out of desperation, he turned to amateur dramatics on the advice of a friend. Waiting at the bus stop after his first nerve-racking night of rehearsals for a production of Hamlet, he experiences a moment of profound self-realisation: “I had been so lonely, this new sense of belonging overwhelmed me.” He had stumbled on his vocation.

Byrne’s prehistory as an actor is well known to Irish people of a certain age, his role as Pat Barry, “a kind of Irish Heathcliff”, in the TV soap opera The Riordans making him, for a time, a household heart-throb. He describes his family watching his television debut in silent wonderment in their living room. As his character appeared, “lugging a bale of hay”, his awestruck younger sister Marian uttered a single word: “Jesus.”

In many ways, the Ireland Byrne evokes no longer exists, its rigid certainties and attendant discontents having been since swept away in the country’s rapid transition from an inward-looking, religiously oppressive society to a more progressive, cosmopolitan and determinedly market-driven one. It is hardly surprising, then, that his recall seems at times elegiac, as if he is mourning not just his lost youth and the loved ones that have passed on but an entire culture.

You feel, too, that Byrne’s sense of belonging has been deepened not just by his absence from his homeland, but by the dislocating effects of fame. He comes across as a reluctant film star, born to act but ill at ease with the relentless attention Hollywood celebrity brings. In a bar in New York, he sits in uncomfortable silence as a young couple try to guess who he is. In Los Angeles, he is chatted up at dinner by “a heavily bejewelled woman” who had a thing for “Irish fishermen in Aran sweaters”. Though he hardly fits the archetype, her fascination shades quickly into obsession. She follows him home and, a few days later, he spots her sitting on the wall of the house opposite, “knitting an Aran sweater from a white ball of wool”. He leaves it there, a single vignette illuminating the darker side of celebrity.

Walking With Ghosts is affecting on many levels: a working-class family memoir as well as a meditation on fame and its discontents. His love for, and loss of, his parents is palpable and likewise the loss of his beloved sister Marian, whom he takes back to Dublin after she suffers a breakdown in London. In New York, he answers the phone to a soft Irish voice that tells him of her passing: “‘Passing where?’ I asked foolishly.”

These are the ghosts that stalk this poetic, but often starkly vivid, memoir. In Byrne’s evoking of them, they are as alive on the page as they are in his consciousness. And, in the act of writing, he comes to a deeper understanding of the secrets that they held close in a culture that was the opposite of our own: tight-lipped, parochial, perhaps suffocating, but also quietly decent and dignified.



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