Barry Egan: 'A flashback to late-night drinking with Liam Neeson on 3rd Avenue'
Last weekend I was driving in Kildare when I noticed a sign that said Ballitore. My brain immediately flashbacked 16 years and 3,000 miles to New York. Third Avenue, near 81st Street, to be precise.
And the grand opening of the restaurant Balitore, named after the Co Kildare village of Ballitore where the proprietor of the restaurant's late father, Daniel Byrne, was born. Gabriel - for it is he - tells me that Balitore is an Irish restaurant in a subtle kind of way.
"You won't be getting the Wolfe Tones singing here," he laughed.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
What you got instead that April night in 2003 was Gabriel's ex-wife Ellen Barkin, Kim Cattrall from Sex and the City, and that other great Irish movie star who's done well for himself in America, Liam Neeson. Liam and I become firm friends, albeit for the duration of our skulling of drinks.
Towering over me, he holds forth ex cathedra about the process, the art even, of acting; acting opposite De Niro in The Mission; growing up in Co Antrim; being named after the local priest; George Best. We have more than a feed of drink that night in New York and Liam can keep up with the best of us.
Unlike our host Gabriel, who doesn't drink (and who had been entertaining me with his immensely charming company in New York for the previous 48 hours). Earlier that morning Gabriel took me to meet Yoko Ono at the giant apartment overlooking Strawberry Fields in Central Park. Gabriel and I even sat at the white Steinway piano Yoko's late husband bought Yoko for her birthday. The two Dubliners had a picture taken with her. "To Yoko, love John Lennon, 18th of the 2nd, 1971" read the engraved inscription on the piano. In the kitchen, Yoko even allowed me to strum John's guitar.
Gabriel and I said goodbye that morning to Yoko and took the lift down to the ground floor of the Dakota Building. At 10.50pm on December 8, 1980, Yoko's husband was murdered here outside the Dakota Building. Gabriel remarks that John's last act on earth was "an act of kindness and selflessness" - signing an autograph for deranged fan Mark David Chapman.
Gabriel recalled that in the 1970s he saw John and Yoko on RTE at a peace march protesting against Vietnam when an RTE hack asked the ex-Beatle: "So what do you think you can achieve by marching, Mr Lennon?"
"It's not about the big thing that you do," John answered. "The smallest thing that you can do can help to change the world." Those words, Gabriel said as we hailed a cab outside the Dakota, stayed with him for three decades. The taxi deposited Gabriel and I downtown where the former bullfighter from Walkinstown took me to a cafe in the sunshine. Talk - as it often does with Gabriel - turns to the nature of religion and faith; well, he trained to be a priest in his youth before opting out.
He says one of the reasons the Catholic Church survived is because it understands how vulnerable we are to fear and to guilt. "If you think of anyone who's been brought up in Ireland in the 1960s and 1950s, fear and guilt are part of how we related to the world," he tells me. "And those things are handed on from generation to generation. They become part of the DNA."
And you did not want to hand that on to his Jack, I say.
"Absolutely did not want to," he concurs. "I don't think I've ever mentioned the word 'Catholic' or 'church' to him ever. He is not crippled by the same kind of shyness that I had - and still have to a certain extent.
"I just mask it by just getting through it. Anybody who knows me would say that I have a vulnerable and a sensitive side too. I'm easily hurt." An hour later, Gabriel takes me for a walk through Central Park. "You were mentioning Madonna last night when we met in Fitzpatrick Hotel. She called me up one day and said: 'I've written a song about you on my new album'. I was like: 'Oh, my God'."
Gabriel recalls that the following day he was in the hairdresser's and Madonna's Ray of Light album was on the stereo.
Gabriel says that the guy, who was cutting his lustrous thick hair, told him: "I don't know whether the song's a compliment or not."
The hairdresser was plainly wrong. To Have and Not to Hold is nothing short of Madonna Louise Ciccone baring her soul to one of Ireland's greatest actors: My heart is in your hand/And yet you never stand/Close enough for me to have my way.
Was his friendship with Madonna born out of the mutual long-standing fascination with Catholicism?
"There was an element of that in there, yeah," Gabriel said. "To be honest, I liked her, and I think she has a tremendously vulnerable side to her nature which not a lot of people get to see. She seems to be really happy now."
As does Gabriel Byrne.
The following afternoon, before my late-night flight home to Dublin, I bump into esteemed Irish hotelier John Fitzpatrick on Park Avenue. He invites me to an event at the Plaza. It is here that John introduces me to a man almost as famous, and as charismatic, as Gabriel Byrne.