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Gabriel Byrne's powerful memoir tells of Ghosts of his life with dark humour


Gabriel and his Mum Eileen

Gabriel and his Mum Eileen

Gabriel and his Mum Eileen

Gabriel Byrne's Walking With Ghosts, a far cry from the usual ghost-written, humble-bragging of great actors, is destined to be a classic. Slow to judge others, he does not spare himself for what he sees as his failure to connect with those he loved most.

But this memoir is not all dark nights of the soul. Those looking for cameos of his movie life will not be disappointed.

On first reading, Byrne's memoir seems to flow along because it's structured like a screenplay - short scenes, cuts and dissolves. But it really flows because Byrne is as good a writer as he is an actor.

Anne Harris, then editor of IMAGE magazine, spotted that back in 1984 when she commissioned him to write his first major published piece, 'My Lost Weekend in Vienna with Richard Burton'.

Even now I can still recall the besotted Burton called Elizabeth Taylor 'ET', and although his wife Sally Burton was on the set of [the TV mini-series] Wagner, he still phoned Taylor every night.

Apart from his good writing, the other reason Byrne's memories will not fade have to do with his character.

To explain why, I must share my early memory of him.

The first time I met Byrne was in 1975, long before he got his first break. He was walking down the South Circular Road with Áine O'Connor with whom I worked in RTÉ. We hit it off from the start. All three of us were good mimics so our days were filled with drink and mocking the great and not so good.

Inevitably, I long ago lost contact with that Gabriel Byrne as he steadily disappeared beneath a growing heap of well-deserved honours.

But three traits I cherished back in 1975 drive his mature memoir.

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First, he was profoundly shy; but it was not a social shyness but a spiritual safeguard. As a successful actor, he was always afraid of being ambushed by fame.

Told in Cannes that The Usual Suspects will make him a star, he retreats to bed in his hotel room, a reaction that is not a clinical depression but a deeper distrust of the tinsel of this world.

Second, he was gentle - but the other side of that coin was an anger against any act of cruelty. Byrne could not bear to watch the weak being bullied. One of the most powerful scenes in his memoir is the persecution of a boy called Owl that will long linger in the memory.

Finally, he had an almost Jewish feel for black comedy, and in his memoir it is seldom far away.

We know from The Late Late Show that Byrne tells a good anecdote. But here they become something greater.

There is always a point to a Byrne anecdote. But the point is never to build Byrne up at someone else's expense but to show their subjects at their best.

In one hilariously redemptive story, he recounts meeting Laurence Olivier in a corridor, and unable to think of anything to say, asks the famous actor for the time. Not surprisingly Olivier brushed him off, but hours later he made amends with a gracious note and good advice.

In sum, this memoir shows Byrne's youthful shyness has lightened into a laconic self-deprecation, that his revulsion against cruelty is still a ruling passion, and that his dark humour is always to hand.

But there is always a sense of time past, time lost. We feel it most when he's writing about the heroine of his memoir. But those hoping for romantic revelations will search in vain.

Because the woman who mattered most in Gabriel Byrne's life was his mother, Eileen Gannon, for whom this whole book is an elegy, as it is an elegy for all Irish women of her generation, who never fulfilled their potential.

Byrne blames the Catholic church for their social and creative repression. Yet he is merciful to the Church's individual sinners. One day, he tracks down and calls up the priest who abused him at boarding school with retribution in mind. Finding himself talking to a forgetful old man, he puts the phone down.

Byrne doesn't do the politically correct thing by 'forgiving' the priest. He lets that empty life end as it will. Despite his role as a therapist in the television series In Treatment, Byrne is less a Freudian than a Byrneian - someone who has learned a lot about human nature from his own life.

His rejection of revenge on the priest is almost as moving as his harrowing account of the death of his mother. The priest didn't get the harsh justice he deserved. His mother did not get the good life she deserved.

What makes Gabriel Byrne a great writer is that he knows that whether we are wicked or good, few of us get what we deserve.


Walking with Ghosts

Gabriel Byrne, Picador, €14.99

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