Walking with Ghosts—A Memoir: Gabriel Byrne

“How many times have I returned in my dreams to this hill. It is always summer as I look out over the gold and green fields, ditches foaming with hawthorn and lilac, river glinting under the sun like a blade. When I was young, I found sanctuary here and the memory of it deep in my soul ever after has brought me comfort. Once I believed it would never change, but that was before I came to know that all things must. It’s a car park now, a sightseers’ panorama.”

Gabriel Byrne draws us into his world with this lyrical beginning. Walking with Ghosts is Byrne’s memoir about the things that shaped him and made him what he is, written with honesty, revealing heartbreaks and trauma, joys and laughter.

Byrne grew up in Ireland, the eldest of six children. Although he had a fairly happy childhood, there was always a part of him that felt like an outsider, someone who was not really “part of the gang”. It was a feeling he never managed to shake off, even after his success in films.  

When he was 11, he decided to become a priest and was sent to a seminary in England (how can anyone decide on his future at 11?). At the seminary, he suffered an unforgivable betrayal. The kindly priest who encouraged and supported him also abused him sexually. Byrne started to hang out with a classmate who professed communism. This, along with Byrne’s flouting of rules and disrespecting authority, led to his eventual expulsion at the age of 15.

Years later, he telephoned the abusive priest with the intention of confronting him, only to discover that the familiar kindly voice at the other end of the line had obviously forgotten everything. So Byrne let it drop. As he said later on in an interview, neat resolutions tend to happen more often in fiction than in real life.

Back in Ireland, Byrne worked—and failed—at several jobs, including as a plumber and door-to-door salesman. He finally managed to get into university and, though he did not enjoy the experience, he got his degree. Someone then suggested he try acting, and the rest—as they say—is history.

Byrne has some delightful stories to tell, including one about his first time on stage in a school nativity play, which had me laughing out loud. He also has amusing anecdotes about the time he played Richard Wagner’s patron in the film Wagner, a part that consisted of “ten lines in six countries”. His co-stars in the film included Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud (who said “he was so old he liked to pretend to die in the middle of a scene just to keep the producers on their toes”). During the filming, Byrne came across Olivier rehearsing his lines and, failing to think of anything more intelligent to say, asked him what the time was, upon which “Heathcliff, Maxim de Winter and Hamlet all glared at me” and suggested Byrne go buy a watch. Olivier later sent Byrne a note apologizing for his rudeness.

There is also a lot of darkness in this book: the pain of trauma, loss, and the battle with his demons. Byrne turned to alcohol to help him cope. He remained an alcoholic for many years until, one morning, he realized if he did not get help, the drinking would kill him. As a result, he has been sober for over 20 years.

Byrne also writes about his depression and lack of self-esteem, which even his greatest success could not banish. At the Cannes Film Festival, after a party for The Usual Suspects, he found he could not face the fame and the exposure. He fled Cannes and checked into a hotel, with no memory of how he got there. “I could not leave the room, or the bed. I was behind enemy lines, free-falling in a soundless hole, the thin light above disappearing. … I was exhausted by the act of living, worn out by the smallest task.”

He writes movingly about his beloved sister Marian, who suffered from mental illness, “a flower in a harsh wind”. His account of how she was treated (horrifyingly, with electric shocks during her incarceration in an institution) and the pain of those close to her are heart-breaking. “I could not look at my parents’ sorrowful faces, the abject way they listened to the doctor…: they were desperate for him to give some assurance that she would be well again.” But she did not get better, and one day in New York he got a call telling him she has gone. He fell on his knees and howled in despair.

For a long time, I have admired Byrne as an actor and was delighted to find that he is a talented writer as well. I loved this book. His writing is lyrical and although he says he struggles with authenticity, I thought this was above all an honest book that lets the reader see the man as he is, warts and all.

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