As a young boy growing up in the outskirts of Dublin, Gabriel Byrne sought refuge in a world of imagination among the fields and hills near his home, at the edge of a rapidly encroaching city. Born to working class parents and the eldest of six children, he harbored a childhood desire to become a priest. When he was eleven years old, Byrne found himself crossing the Irish Sea to join a seminary in England. Four years later, Byrne had been expelled and he quickly returned to his native city. There he took odd jobs as a messenger boy and a factory laborer to get by. In his spare time, he visited the cinema where he could be alone and yet part of a crowd. It was here that he could begin to imagine a life beyond the grey world of 60s Ireland.
He reveled in the theatre and poetry of Dublin’s streets, populated by characters as eccentric and remarkable as any in fiction, those who spin a yarn with acuity and wit. It was a friend who suggested Byrne join an amateur drama group, a decision that would change his life forever and launch him on an extraordinary forty-year career in film and theatre. Moving between sensual recollection of childhood in a now almost vanished Ireland and reflections on stardom in Hollywood and Broadway, Byrne also courageously recounts his battle with addiction and the ambivalence of fame.
Walking with Ghosts is by turns hilarious and heartbreaking as well as a lyrical homage to the people and landscapes that ultimately shape our destinies.
That passage is one of many that show the mark of a real writer, a born storyteller with a poet’s ear. “Walking with Ghosts” — Byrne’s second memoir, following “Pictures in My Head” (1994) — dazzles with unflinching honesty, as it celebrates the exuberance of being alive to the world despite living through pain. His portrait of an artist as a young boy is steeped in nostalgia of the best sort, re-creating the pull of home. In her poem “Nostos,” Louise Glück writes “We see the world once, in childhood/The rest is memory.” Somehow Byrne has created that onceness for us.
After his expulsion from the seminary, Byrne drifts for a while, trying to find a path, first as a plumber and then as a petty thief, before stumbling back into the theater that he had enjoyed as a boy. In the second strand of the book, he explores his life as an actor, and here the focus is not on rehashing his many achievements, but rather on the dubious nature of fame and on self-doubt. Byrne wins a battle with alcoholism, ponders the surreal notion of being a sex symbol and considers the costs to his authentic self of a lifetime of wearing the actor’s mask. “We all act all the time,” he writes. “Life makes us necessary deceivers. Except maybe when we are alone.”
In emotional, evocative prose, “Walking With Ghosts” describes the town outside Dublin where he grew up, the oldest of six children crammed into a small house, their father working as a barrel-maker for the Guinness brewery, everyone in each other’s business. They were steeped in Catholicism, part of a system that was really about “the deconstruction of oneself,” Byrne said.
In passages that are horrifying, then funny, then both, he describes, for instance, learning the story of Adam and Eve from a fire-and-brimstone nun, in a lesson that ends with God declaring to the fallen pair: “And by the way, your children will be miserable as well.” (“That’s why the world is such an unhappy place,” the nun adds.)
He said he wanted the book to explore memory and identity, issues complicated for him by being so long gone from Ireland.
“The moment you leave the country, your relationship with it changes,” Byrne said. “For me, it’s always been a conflicted relationship. I’ve always missed the country, the people, the landscape, the humor, the shared references, the fact that you don’t have to explain yourself.”
In the back of his mind as he began writing, he said, were A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad,” with its “blue remembered hills,” and William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” which couples nostalgia with the harsh reality that the past is irrevocably gone.