THURSDAY last marked a timely anniversary for Writers' Week this year — the 30th anniversary of the final episode of the Riordans, the hit soap in which Gabriel Byrne first sent female pulses racing and established his formidable screen presence.
Those pulses were racing all over again as that screen presence transcended the bounds of celluloid when he officially opened the 39th festival on Wednesday night alongside Chairman Michael Lynch and Literary Advisor Colm Tóibín, before the packed ballroom of the Listowel Arms.
Everybit as seasoned a raconteur, it would appear, as he is an acting talent, Byrne regaled all with an easy charm as he paid tribute to the very serious business of writing. In doing so, he also recalled his first visit to the North Kerry town.
"Many years ago I came to Listowel and did a play at St John's called Dev directed by Jim Sheridan. It was such a wonderful experience to come here and while Listowel has changed in many ways since then, one thing that hasn't changed is the welcome and the people. It's an honour to be back here," he said.
Addressing the lot of the writer, Byrne recalled a conversation he had with Black Robe and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne author Brian Moore in California many years ago. That time Moore had recently received a glowing commendation from Graham Greene, who called the Belfast native 'my favourite living novelist'. Asking Moore how he felt about that kind of endorsement, Byrne was told: " 'It's a wonderful thing, but I just wish I had Sidney Sheldon's sales'."
Years later, a New York novelist friend recounted coming across one of his books on a 'stoop' sale. He asked the vendor how much for the book. Two dollars he was told. "He made the mistake of asking the guy what he thought of it. "I'd give it to you for one dollar but I need the other dollar and I couldn't get past the first 25 pages'," Byrne recalled to much laughter.
These stories typified the 'extraordinary journey' of the beginnings of an idea or seed, he said, through the torturous process of writing and into the against-the-odds production of a book.
"It must be a terrifying moment when the writer allows it to go out into the world, where strangers might pick it off a shelf only to put it back...it's very similar to the movie business in which it can take up to five years to get one off the ground."
Why then, would anyone volunteer for such torment? "You do it because there's nothing else you can possibly have the same passion for. Ultimately it's about the doing of the thing and I feel like that myself, as an actor."