'I did this work for free because I believe in it'


Gabriel Byrne became Ireland’s cultural ambassador to the US in 2010. He tells FRIEDA KLOTZwhy he is considering leaving the role, and about his debut as a theatre director

GABRIEL BYRNE lives in New York but keeps abreast of Irish news. Reading the paper’s front page last week, he was shocked at a report that former archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid was the subject of two child sex abuse complaints, although perhaps not surprised.

“If a criminal is in charge of the Catholic Church, what hope was there for the rest of it?” Byrne asks. “It’s an endless story.”

The moral quandaries in the relationships between church and State, institution and individual, lie at the heart of James X, a play that opened on Friday in the Culture Project theatre in Bleecker Street.

Written and performed by Byrne’s long-time friend Gerard Mannix Flynn, it is a semi-autobiographical account of Flynn’s experiences of physical and sexual abuse during periods of incarceration in church-run institutions. It is co-produced by Liam Neeson and marks Byrne’s debut as a director in theatre.

For Byrne, the topic is familiar territory. He discussed his own experiences of clerical abuse on Gay Byrne’s The Meaning of Lifelast year. He says his story is incidental to this play, which he sees as giving voice to the vulnerable people whom the Catholic Church betrayed.

“I think that one of the most important stories in recent years in Ireland has been the issues that are brought up in this play – ie the scandal of child abuse in Ireland, as it transpires now and over the last 50 to 60 years.”

For Byrne James Xis an important addition to the repertoire of Irish drama being performed in the US. Byrne wants the play to correct stereotypes that may exist in the minds of American viewers about Ireland and to complicate their understanding of Irish identity.

“The story of Mannix is really the alternative narrative,” he explains. “It’s not The Quiet Man, it’s not Riverdance, it’s not U2.”

As the cultural ambassador for Ireland in the US since early 2010, Byrne has played a central role in Imagine Ireland, a year of Irish arts in America sponsored by Culture Ireland. He has organised several events that explore the national identity, including a retrospective of Irish film at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and a series of documentaries about Ireland at the prestigious Lincoln Center.

The Irish government invested €4 million in Imagine Ireland, but his voluntary position cost about $4,000 (about €3,000), which he says just covered his expenses. As he puts it: “The fact that I’m kind of well-known opened doors.”

He says he’s assessing his role, originally due to last for three years, because of the pressure of balancing the work with his career. “I will probably be resigning this year because I just don’t have the time between my career and that.”

So his role is going to come to an end this Christmas? “Yes, this will be the end product. I wanted to go out with a statement that was personal to me about the Ireland of the last 50-60 years. That’s really what attracted me to this play as well I think. it’s a profound piece of theatre.”

The Minister for Arts, Jimmy Deenihan describes Byrne as making “an outstanding contribution to the country” in his role. “His inspirational leadership of Imagine Ireland is helping to restore Ireland’s reputation at a critical time, breaking new ground for the next generation of Irish artists and helping them to find new audiences for their work in the US. Gabriel is a passionate advocate for the arts and for Ireland, and he brings enormous energy, vision and charisma to the role of Cultural Ambassador. The doors he has helped to open for Ireland and Irish artists in America this year offer huge opportunities for the years to come.”

James Xis the last theatrical production in the programme, and Byrne wanted to go out strongly – to offer “an alternative voice to reach a contemporary American audience”.

Flynn and Byrne became friends in the 1970s when they worked together at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, along with Liam Neeson and Jim Sheridan, who attended the opening night performance. Flynn describes this production as “a reunion of a number of people”. Of Byrne he says: “Gabriel directed the piece very sensibly and very well. He’s a person I would trust.”

In James X, Flynn plays the title character, taking the audience from James’s birth through an adolescence that saw him spending time in Letterfrack, in prison and in the Central Mental Hospital.

Its arrival in New York has a distressing timeliness due to recent allegations of a child-abuse cover-up at Penn State University. An assistant football coach has been charged with abusing boys over 15 years.

The reverberations of his actions have spread and a popular 84-year-old football coach was fired following allegations that he failed to report abuse to the police.

For Byrne this is a testament to the universal relevance of James X, which shows that people will do almost anything to protect an institution to which they are loyal. The issues the play brings up are intended to evoke deeper questions of public acquiescence to authority, especially in religion, politics and the economy. Byrne draws a distinction between inertia and apathy, but describes the Irish relationship to authority as “weird”.

He thinks now that after the revelations of church abuse and the Government’s acceptance of the IMF deal, people are confused about where to channel their anger. Nor does he see a strong protest movement growing, as in the US. “I don’t know that it’s beginning in Ireland but I certainly know that it’s beginning in places like Spain, Greece.”

Words like “revolution,” “crisis” and “transformation” pepper Byrne’s conversation about politics. He complains about capitalism’s tendency to enrich the wealthy and penalise the poor, and praises the pro-activeness of Occupy Wall Street. “That reaction has grown out of anger and it’s grown out of injustice and it will not go away despite the police and the tear gas and the arrests,” he says. “I think that there’s hope in the Occupy Wall Street movement – that’s where I see hope.”

When things are tough, funding for the arts usually suffers, yet artists are also the ones who often lead the way towards social change, Byrne points out. He acknowledges that arts funding is a tricky question when social services are being cut.

“I can’t honestly say to somebody who’s on the dole that the arts are terribly important, because it’s not an argument that will stand up to somebody who has to put food on the table. On the other hand I do believe, as this play testifies, that there is an answer in art. It lifts major issues out of the present day and puts them in the realm of interactive experience with an audience, and audiences are changed as a result.”

To Byrne, the emotions in plays such as Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycockare the same as those that simmer today – anger about poverty, class and the disparity between rich and poor. Then there’s the matter of sex.

“The people who started the real investigation into Ireland and its true identity were people like John McGahern who wrote The Darkand The Barracks, and Edna O’Brien,” he says. “These were people who lifted up the rock and showed that there were maggots underneath, and it wasn’t the world of The Quiet Manany longer.”

At a party following Friday’s opening night of James X, at the B Bar around the corner from the theatre, Byrne circulated amongst guests and made introductions, playing the diplomatic role. “I essentially did this work for free,” he says of his role as cultural ambassador, “because I believe in it.”