"It hasn't gone away. It's still there. Children are still being violated, maybe not in Irish schools, but across the world, children are being trafficked," Gabriel Byrne said at the Irish Times Winter Nights festival on Friday evening.
“Not just sexual violence towards people who are powerless. It’s also emotional abuse, domestic violence. I think where a person abuses the power they have over someone else, that is a form of abuse. It hasn’t gone away in Ireland, because that kind of crime is usually wrapped up in secrecy and in silence. And shame. And it takes tremendous courage for people to come out and admit this is what has happened to them.”
Secrecy, silence and shame figured strongly in the interview, in which the actor was talking to Hugh Linehan, The Irish Times's Arts and Culture Editor, on the final evening of five nights of online talks and events, which are supported by Peugeot. (All the interviews are still available to stream on irishtimes.com.)
Harvey Weinstein is the face of the monster – and you can cut the head off the monster and it will still grow another head. I think of those people who enabled him in this incredibly successful company. They've all gone, scattered to the winds
“Secrecy, silence and shame are the enemies,” Byrne said. “People were not encouraged to talk about or express their feelings. Instead of encouragement”, life was about conforming to rigid societal and moral codes.
He spoke about the “power of the institution, and the enablers within the institution that are as guilty as the perpetrators”. The actor expanded this theme to include making films with Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer jailed for rape and sexual assault. “He’s the face of the monster – and you can cut the head off the monster and it will still grow another head.
“I think of those people who enabled him, who were walking around the offices, and they were slightly pompous, slightly arrogant about their position in this incredibly successful company. And they’ve all gone, scattered to the winds.
“And I was reminded of it in the dying days of the Trump administration, where all those rats who had been enabling him for four years were suddenly scurrying away into the darkness, justifying their high moral stance...
“I have more of an anger towards the enablers, the institution of the church that knew that was going on and moved those priests from one place to another, because they didn’t actually believe the children”, but made them sign nondisclosure agreements.
Byrne said the Catholic Church “has, in my opinion, a great deal that it has not answered for”. He added that, on his visit to Chile, Pope Francis – “the great new hope of the Catholic Church, essentially the CEO of a gigantic corporation” – “publicly excoriated the survivors there and said, now that’s enough, you’re talking about a really good man here. So has that culture of abuse and silence and shame and violence gone away? I don’t think so.
“We live in a culture we like to think is far-reaching, progressive, liberal and multiracial and so forth. And, yes, we have made huge headways. But we have a cruelty and a meanness within us as a society that we rarely look at, and we have to admit that’s part of who we are. We have to admit we have great violence within us and we have still an attitude towards marginalised people that can be shameful to admit. But we have to face up to that.”
Byrne was speaking from his home in Maine, in the northeastern United States, snow visible through the window. He was eloquent and open about his life, picking up threads of themes that figured in his recently published memoir, Walking with Ghosts, which he described as trying to connect big and small moments in his life, and “how they have contributed to what I’ve become”.
One of those moments was evoked on hearing the Marty Robbins song El Paso, which reawakened a painful memory from his teenage years, when he betrayed a girl who was his friend.
This Christian Brother took excitement in beating. You could feel… the perverse enjoyment, though we couldn't articulate that at the time. As a group, without understanding what was involved, we took violent revenge on him
Another story contributing to who he is was about a Christian Brother at school. “I wanted to write about violence, the violence of authority in relation to the powerless. Yes, we were beaten physically, but I think what resonated more was the emotional abuse, and the denial of self.
“That particular Brother took excitement in beating, and you could see how at the end he’d say, ‘Now, you made me do that.’ But you could feel his sense of… the perverse enjoyment, though we couldn’t articulate that at the time. But as a group, without understanding what was involved, we took violent revenge on him.”
Byrne described almost cinematically how, as the Brother cycled out of the school one day, the children started to pelt him with stones, until he was knocked off his bike. “And we stayed there long enough to see the wheel of his bicycle turning and the blood seeping through his hair.”
Years later he met the same Christian Brother, “as an old man, with a shake in his hand”, and saw “he still had the scar from where the stone hit him”. Byrne thought, I can see your scars, but you can’t see mine.
While talking about Weinstein, Byrne recounted an incident on a film set that had shocked him. A “well-known director” publicly humiliated a young woman who had angered him, calling her a “f***ing c***” in front of the entire cast and crew, and making her repeat it. “I will never forget the intake of breath,” Byrne said. When he later asked the woman why she had been prepared to repeat the insult, she said it was because she needed the job. “We all had to share the humiliation,” Byrne said. The next day, it was as if nothing had happened.
The actor also spoke heartbreakingly about his parents living through the era of shame and silence and secrecy, and about his father losing his job at 48, and about the way men of that generation had “no language to describe their emotions”. In his last years his father “put up the white flag”.
His mother was “captive to the power of church and state”. Women were “not encouraged to have ambition”, and she never got to express who she was. The expression of feeling, of innermost thoughts and emotions, “was not possible for those people”.
The lives of that generation are often romanticised – “Ah, that was Dublin in the rare aul times” – “but it was a dangerous place to be a child, and not a great place to be a woman, or the person trying to put food on the table”.
The Irish Times Winter Nights Festival – supported by Peugeot – was a series of online talks that took place over the past week. Among the guests were author and columnist Paul Howard; EU commissioner Mairead McGuinness; Irish-Nigerian author, academic and broadcaster Emma Dabiri; podcaster and author Blindboy Boatclub; athlete Sonia O’Sullivan; author Edith Eger; comedian Dara Ó Briain; Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon; Taoiseach Micheál Martin; professor of biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin Luke O’Neill; 16-year-old award-winning author Dara McAnulty; and CNN commentator John King.