Gabriel Byrne: ‘Dublin prepared me for Hollywood. I was ready for the bulls**t’

Gabriel Byrne in New York in 2016. Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty
In his new memoir, Walking with Ghosts, the actor tells of his struggle with fame and of the sexual abuse he endured while training for the priesthood, and reflects on a rapidly changing Ireland

Gabriel Byrne has waited long enough to write a book. The gentle, brown-voiced actor – a movie star when Ireland didn’t have such things – has always had a gift for well-structured conversation. When the shackles are off, he slips into something like blank verse. He is also good on outrageous yarns of Hollywood Bacchanalia.

There is more of the former than the latter in the delightful Walking with Ghosts: A Memoir. Structured around an imaginary, haunted visit to the Dublin of his youth, the book does offer sketches from the movie wonderland – John Boorman being bossy on Excalibur, testy encounters with Laurence Olivier in the 1980s – but it is more to do with conjuring up a now-vanished Ireland. The smell of the Guinness brewery. Early acting experiences in a nativity play. The church, everywhere the church.

Dublin was more vicious in its way than Hollywood. I never got into a fight in Hollywood. ‘What the f**k are you looking at?’ Nobody ever said that in Hollywood

Why has it taken him so long to write this down? Why now? Did that looming 70th birthday nudge him towards the keyboard?

“I don’t think it has anything to do with reaching ‘a certain age’,” he says. “I was curious to look back at an Ireland that is now changing so rapidly. I wondered if the world I was brought up in is as distant to this generation as the Victorians were to us. Yet the Victorian age did eke into our generation. What formed me? What were the influences? If some of those influences had not been in place it is possible I may not have become the person I am today.”

Born in Walkinstown to a working-class Catholic family, Byrne took a tangled path towards the acting profession. As a teenager, he somehow found himself training for the priesthood at a seminary in Worcestershire. When that didn’t work out, he drifted home and ended up studying archaeology and linguistics at UCD. If things had been different, he might have become an academic. He certainly has the brains for it. But he taught for a while at a secondary school and then stumbled towards acting.

There is amusing material in Walking with Ghosts about his first encounter with fame. Anybody old enough to remember The Riordans, RTÉ’s hugely popular rural soap, will appreciate how his life must have changed when he was cast as dishy Pat Barry.

“The fame of The Riordans was as intense and crazy as anything I experienced,” he says. “It was like having a number-one hit single in your 20s. I may have been the first home-grown drama star. I remember getting off at the wrong stop in Galway during the depths of winter. Pitch dark. I see a light in a house and I knock on the door. This woman opens the door. ‘Divine God almighty! Look who it is!’ They brought me in and, no joke, I was on the television.”

The Riordans: Gabriel Byrne, as Pat Barry, with John Cowley, who played Tom Riordan
The Riordans: Gabriel Byrne, as Pat Barry, with John Cowley, who played Tom Riordan

But The Usual Suspects? Miller’s Crossing? In Treatment? Hereditary? Gabriel has been at the top table for decades. That was Mickey-Mouse fame. Right?

“Dublin prepared me for Hollywood. I was so ready. Nothing in Hollywood surprised or shocked me after Dublin,” he says. “I was ready for bullsh*t. I was ready for back-stabbing. I was ready for rejection. Dublin was more vicious in its way than Hollywood. I never got into a fight in Hollywood. ‘What the f**k are you looking at?’ Nobody ever said that in Hollywood.”

There is enormous, heart-straining affection for Dublin throughout Walking with Ghosts. But familiar miseries weave themselves in with the nostalgia. Born in 1950, Byrne grew up in a poor country that was struggling to connect with the modern world. The affection for his hard-working parents illuminates pages marinated in soot and stale stout.

It hardly needs to be said that the Catholic Church looms over every incident. Byrne tells me that questioning divine authority was inconceivable during those years. That does not, however, explain how he found himself training for the priesthood.

I was terrified of the Dublin that I lived in every day. The priesthood seemed like an escape. I believed the fairytale they were telling me... You hear God telling you what to do. It’s like joining a cult

“For my mother’s generation, a priest in the family was a gift from God,” he says. “That is not an age when you really know what you’re doing. I was attracted by an innate, unconscious desire to escape. I was terrified of the Dublin that I lived in every day. This seemed like an escape. I believed the fairytale they were telling me. It was backed up by people saying: you have a vocation. I didn’t understand that sometimes you can ask a question of your conscience and be answered by your own unconscious. You hear God telling you what to do. It’s like joining a cult.”

Byrne is frank in his treatment of the sexual abuse he endured at the seminary. The book recalls an erudite priest entertaining the young Byrne in a red dressing gown. “That is a strange thing, I thought, for a priest to be dressed like that,” he writes. The priest talks about his love of Chopin. He gives the young Gabriel a cigarette. What follows is as horrible as it is predictable.

Walking with Ghosts doesn’t quite explain how the experience damaged him. Maybe “damage” is too bold a word. Maybe the book is too short to properly engage with such a complex dilemma.

“That’s a very interesting question,” he says. “For many years – until maybe four years ago – I thought I was the only man abused by this man. It was only when I got on a WhatsApp group of former students that they revealed they’d been abused by the same man. I can’t tell you, Donald, what a weight that was off my shoulders. It wasn’t just me. Memory is a delicate, fragile thing.”

He goes on to talk about the power of addressing your own trauma and the scepticism that victims still encounter when they tell their stories. Byrne eventually tracked down the telephone number of his abuser. He got the now-elderly priest on the line, but was unable to unleash his pre-planned tirade. He said nothing about the abuse and replaced the receiver.

I drank all over the world – in Kilburn, in Venice, in Los Angeles. It didn’t matter what price the wine was. I didn’t drink because I was a connoisseur, rolling it round on my tongue. I just wanted oblivion

“What shocked me more than anything else was how kind his voice was,” he says. “Right? If you’re 11, and somebody who’s in authority – who, you know, comes directly from God – was talking to you in that voice then . . . what chance do you have? When I called him it was the same voice. He said he didn’t remember me. I said: ‘I remember you!’ But he didn’t hear anything in that.”

It eventually became clear that Gabriel wasn’t cut out for the priesthood and he returned home to a Dublin that wasn’t exactly swinging with the ’60s. The social revolutions associated with that decade didn’t wallop Ireland until the 1970s or the 1980s. Byrne has fond memories of working in one of Dublin’s pioneering gay bars.

“I think you’re absolutely right,” he says. “I got a job as a lounge boy in a pub in Dublin called Bartley Dunne. I saw a wedding take place between two men. But they still seemed to be living in a different world to the one I inhabited. Outside, the education system had done its work. And that was the tale that wagged the dog for a very, very long time. Fear. Shame. Don’t be getting above yourself? Who do you think you are?”

With all that pressure to be ordinary, it shouldn’t surprise us that Gabriel didn’t take to the stage until he was closing in on 30. He secured the role in The Riordans in 1978. Three years later he played Uther Pendragon in John Boorman’s shiny, clanky, magical Excalibur. It would be wrong to suggest that he hit the business like a meteor, but he was never again short of work. Along with Liam Neeson and Pierce Brosnan, he became one of the few Irish movie stars of the boomer ascendency. Nobody else manages that blend of scuffed intelligence and brooding introspection. 

I maybe protected myself from becoming one of those people who went to Miami for the weekend and came back with an American accent. I never wanted to be that person

We now know that another familiar Irish spectre was looming over his life. Walking with Ghosts talks us through the drinking traditions of mid-20th-century Dublin and chronicles his own gradual realisation that he had a problem with the sauce. Over 20 years ago he checked himself into a facility and hasn’t touched a drop since. But he is not self-righteous about the subject.

“I had a fantastic time!” he admits. “I drank all over the world – in Kilburn, in Venice, in Los Angeles. It didn’t matter what price the wine was. I didn’t drink because I was a connoisseur, rolling it round on my tongue. I just wanted oblivion. And I wanted escape for myself. Jung said that an addict is someone who is seeking a spiritual solution. I think that’s right. But I did have fantastic times. It took me out of myself.”

The drink also helped with Byrne’s stubborn shyness. There is a fascinating section of Walking with Ghosts that finds the author panicked to the point of hysteria by the acclaim that came the way of The Usual Suspects at Cannes. This was 1995. Byrne has already been around the block a few times, but he hadn’t accommodated himself with the complications of worldwide success. He also admits to a lingering problem with stage fright.

“There was a very well-known producer who is now in jail . . . ” I can’t imagine who he means. (Use your head.) “Yeah, ha ha! He said: ‘Be prepared to lose your anonymity. It’s over now.’ There was some awards ceremony in Cannes and this woman said: ‘I’ll give back my award if I can go on a date with Gabriel Byrne.’

“Everyone heard that. The Riordans had helped. Because I couldn’t go into a pub and sit down by myself with a pint. And I didn’t want to live like that. It was clear that my life was now not going to be my own. All of that hit me in that one night. It was a panic attack. I left Cannes and went to a hotel room on my own. I don’t like people walking up to me and talking to me – even if 98 per cent of people are very polite, which they are.”

Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects with Kevin Pollak, Stephen Baldwin and Benecio Del Toro
Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects with Kevin Pollak, Stephen Baldwin and Benecio Del Toro

He seems to have come to an accommodation with fame. In the mid-1980s, he moved to New York to be with his partner, the actor Ellen Barkin. The couple divorced in 1999, but he has remained in the United States ever since. He married Hannah Beth King in 2014 and the couple had a daughter in 2017.

Happily, Byrne has continued to find good roles in his more grizzled years. In Treatment was a hit on TV a decade ago. He played opposite Toni Collette in the recent, brilliant horror Hereditary. He is just back from a Covid-altered shoot for the ongoing, Franco-American TV adaptation of War of the Worlds.

And through it all, he has remained stubbornly, unmistakably a man of Dublin. Despite decades in New York City, the accent has barely altered a nano-syllable. The vernacular is still in place. The attitudes are unaltered.

“Maybe it’s because I started later,” he says. “I maybe protected myself from becoming one of those people who went to Miami for the weekend and came back with an American accent. I never wanted to be that person.”

No fear of that. 

Walking with Ghosts: A Memoir is published by Picador