Walking with Ghosts: Gabriel Byrne is unsparing of himself in memoir

Book review: What is striking is the intensity of the introspection, writes Colm Tóibín

Gabriel Byrne’s Walking with Ghosts is rare as an Irish memoir for the lack of rancour about the author’s upbringing. Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Gabriel Byrne’s Walking with Ghosts is rare as an Irish memoir for the lack of rancour about the author’s upbringing. Photograph: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

“I pace up and down this cage. Lie down on the floor, breathe. I find no relief. The noise of the audience begins to fill the theatre like a distant sea rising and crashing.” This is Gabriel Byrne waiting to go on stage in New York in 2016 to play James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. As the performance approaches, he writes: “Stage fright. – Dear Jesus, do not let me think about that.”

What made Byrne’s portrayal of Tyrone astonishing in that production was not just his coiled, craggy presence, the demons all on show, Tyrone’s old swagger now a kind of brokenness, but how much gnarled sensibility Byrne managed to dramatise by making the language natural without losing any of its heightened, pressure-filled, declamatory tones. When a producer said to Byrne that actors “are always pretending”, Byrne replied: “Our job is to tell the truth. We are the channels through which the truth comes.”

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