The screen icon has blasted the Gathering and Arthur's Day, but many Americans probably don't share his concerns, says Donal Lynch
But he is starting to drone on a bit. First he broke it to us that The Gathering was a load of rubbish – "a scam to shake down the diaspora for a few quid", before adding that we "don't give a shit" about them. Then, last week, he set his baleful glare on Arthur's Day. "What was the point of that nonsense?" he asked before answering his own question: "(It is) a cynical exercise in a country that already has a huge drinking problem," he told an audience of students in Dun Laoghaire.
If they'd hung about he'd almost certainly have let them know that Christmas was a venal attempt to cash in on the whole birth-of-Jesus thing. We'll have to wait 'til the spring before he starts giving out about Easter eggs, which are clearly a disgusting ploy by chocolate manufacturers to make us even fatter. He must be thanking his stars that he works in an industry – TV and film – that would never, ever stoop to greedy marketing campaigns, shameless nostalgia-milking or dodgy product tie-ins.
But for a little while there, he had another string to his bow. On Paddy's Day two years ago, as the free drink flowed at the White House, Byrne was named by Brian Cowen as Ireland's 'cultural ambassador' to America. He took on the job willingly. Since then we've learned that he incurred and claimed expenses of nearly €16,000 – spent on chauffeurs, "premium" flights and the like.
The official word was that he did a wonderful job, of course. But you have to wonder how diplomatic he was given that his recent comments were the equivalent of slamming the door, biting the hand that fed and burning the bridge all in one go – tourist chiefs spoke of his "precious little rant". He says he learned about "the world of governments and diplomacy" from the job and that he's bringing that to his role on the Channel 4 show Secret State. Obviously learning about diplomacy for acting purposes and learning how to be diplomatic must be two very different things.
He says that he is only voicing the qualms of the people he spoke to in America. But who are these disgruntled and unidentified souls who have been so personally affronted by a few posters and a website? Byrne is dead wrong about The Gathering, and its supposed presumption that people are tourists when they're really emigrants.
The slogan of the campaign may be "welcome home" but the most basic common sense tells you it isn't meant literally. We don't need a gigantic multi-million euro marketing campaign to get people to visit their parents. If they can and they want to, they do – that's usually how it works.
The Gathering is instead primarily meant for the diaspora – people of Irish ancestry, who might be prepared to holiday and drop some discretionary dollars here rather than somewhere else. And as someone who lived for years in the US, I can tell you this group's relationship with Ireland is really not as "complex" as he's letting on. Second and third generation Irish-Americans' views of Ireland are trapped in the time their forefathers left. To them, we are a collection of parishes clustered around pubs; they haven't embraced our own evolving attitudes to drink – and why should they when they're on holiday? Their trips home are expeditions in drinking and family.
For the other 70 million or so (a little hard to "give a shit" about each one individually) the sad truth is that Ireland is a magical world of leprechauns and rainbows; shillelaghs and shamrock shakes. You can understand how the cliches would turn the stomach of a well-heeled, cultured thespian who knows that you're more likely to find abandoned flat complexes than comely maidens at the crossroads. Nevertheless, every year on St Patrick's Day the White House is packed to the rafters with assorted Irish luvvies and literati who cheer and clap for something as toe-curlingly twee as the Shamrock exchange. Banal Irish cliches are fine, apparently, as long as they're not associated with anything as venal as a tourism marketing campaign.
Just because someone is making money out of
something doesn't make it inherently wrong or a scam. From his Little Italy apartment Gabriel Byrne might not have the most perfect vantage point of the dismal way Irish people have retreated from the pubs with their pints to the couch with their cans.
They're not as stupid as he thinks – they know Arthur's Day isn't some forgotten high feast day – but it's a small excuse (small is all we need) to get out and have a laugh and a drink. Sure, the drinks industry creams a bit of profit off the top of this pathetic human need. But it's good for them in the same way that a film festival is good for the film industry or a theatre festival is good for theatre. And incidentally it's something that Americans, who live in a land of rampant commercialism, would totally understand. I mentioned it to one of them and he seemed quite baffled about "an Irish person complaining about free Guinness".
There was a time when Gabriel Byrne had a kind of mischievous glint in his eye. According to those who know him socially, he really does have a sense of humour. But you wouldn't know it from the harried expression he wears now and the increasingly sour rants. I could be simplifying the situation wildly here but maybe like his character in In Treatment, he needs to cheer up a little. He's repeatedly said that he loathes the description of himself as 'brooding' but surely that beats 'national curmudgeon'.