Gabriel Byrne can usually be found in Maine these days, about eight hours north of New York and not far from the Canadian border, on some 40 acres of land sandwiched between the sea and the mountains. He and his wife and three-year-old daughter live there, and he has spent several years trying to come to terms with the past.
The actor is now 70, best known for his roles in The Usual Suspects, Miller’s Crossing and In Rehab, and has been thinking a lot lately about the history. He’s just written his Walking with Ghosts memoir, a book about growing up in Dublin, his parents, his school years, his acting breakthrough, and the people he’s come across in the world.
The outcome is a fine piece of writing, but it’s also a sort of reckoning; with the violence and abuse he suffered as a young boy and the abuse he inflicted by alcohol on himself as an adult.
Byrne also has a certain gravitas on television. You get a sense of how much he has had to bear through the years by reading the novel.
He’s in a decent position at 70 years old, though. For the most part, at least. He stresses, “I don’t believe in the euphoria of constant happiness,” “I think that’s a delusional goal.”
“But,” Byrne continues, “I think contentment that comes from acceptance is a very desirable goal.”
Byrne is an interview topic which is thoughtful and articulate. He was married twice, first to the actress Ellen Barkin, with whom he had two daughters, now grown, and now to the producer Hannah Beth King, his young daughter’s mother. Today, they are not part of our discussion. But there are other doors that are being thrown open big.
Walking with Ghosts carries a lot of discomfort, it must be said. He tells me, when I ask him why he wanted to write it, that he wanted to explain the world from which he came and how it influenced him.
But even more than that, he says, he wanted to realize that there was a way out for people who had suffered the same things he had, or who struggled with addiction issues in the same way he did.
So many people feel helpless and hopeless, and one of the reasons I wrote this book is because there are so many people who are quiet about these issues. But I have a bit of a voice. I say, “So many people feel powerless and hopeless, and one of the reasons I wrote this book is because there are so many people who live in silence about these problems. But I have a bit of a platform. I say, ‘Look, I’m telling you my story, and maybe this will help you see that if another person can do it, maybe I can do it.’ That’s what I really want to accomplish by telling these stories. I’m not really interested in being sensational or anything.”
Gabriel Byrne was born in 1950, just two years after a Dublin doorway shielded his parents from the storm. Wouldn’t I be here now if it hadn’t rained,”If it hadn’t rained, I wouldn’t be here now,” “If she’d had matches for her cigarette, I wouldn’t be here.”
Byrne, the eldest of six brothers, played football in the parks, went to the movies with his grandmother, and learned from his father the names of trees, flowers, and birds.
His father was Guinness’s co-worker. The nurse was his mother. “My father was a shy man, but he also had a really good sense of humor,” Byrne remembers. “My mother was more outgoing.”
It was his father after whom Byrne modelled himself. Acting is the vengeance of the shy guy, they say. Someone once told me that he had never seen someone so shy when he met me as a kid. I couldn’t understand how people could go to parties and groups and be their life and soul. I was really introverted.
“But I had a sense of humor from my dad. There was this other person inside me as soon as people got to know me, as soon as I got out of my shell.
His childhood was shaped by Catholicism, warped, you might say. Byrne attended a school run by the Christian Brothers. There, he was regularly called stupid. “I’ll always remember a teacher saying to me, ‘You’ll never be good for anything but pick and shovel.’ That was considered the lowest form of ambition. I grew up feeling dumb, with anxiety and a sense of shame.
He was also beaten. Could he at least find a way out of it at home? “No, at home there was no place to escape to. If you were beaten at school, the conclusion was that if you didn’t deserve it, you wouldn’t have been beaten,” he said.
“It was quite easy, the language of feeling. I’m sure it was similar in Scotland. E