[Book Review] Walking with Ghosts: A Memoir by Gabriel Byrne
By Fiona O'connor
December 7, 2020
Fiona O'Connor finds that Gabriel Byrne breaks the celebrity mould in his unflinching account of an Irish childhood and subsequent success as a screen actor
“Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” So wrote Frank McCourt in the opening of Angela’s Ashes, his bestselling spawner of the genre dubbed misery-lit.
In his new memoir, actor Gabriel Byrne has generated his own take on the legacy of an Irish childhood, thus creating perhaps a unique form — that of the celebrity artist opening up to scrutiny many of his most intimate experiences.
In it, the iconic figure, hero and anti-hero of Hollywood classics, offers valuable insight on male vulnerability, particularly so in light of recent church child-abuse scandals and the #metoo movement.
Walking with Ghosts is an account of a working-class upbringing in the harsh economy of 1960s Dublin. Byrne’s father was a cooper in the Guinness brewery, laid off when barrel-makers’ skills were no longer needed and his mother, a nurse, maintained the family.
It was a time when deep faith and submission to rigid Catholic authority was still a social given. Byrne’s excitement in becoming an altar boy and the awe involved in rituals of preparation — boys dressing the priest in his pristine robes, boys learning their Latin — is ended when he was thrown against the wall of a trusted priest and sexually abused when he was 12.
Decades later, Byrne is still unable to confront this man with his crime.
In this vein, Byrne shows how his adult self carries the damaged boy within him and this is reflected throughout the book. Memories move fluidly in impressionistic fragments — readers’ familiarity with the actor’s persona through his films allows him to jump-cut in and out across 60 years of experience in films.
There is a sense of atonement being made — the years of alcoholism, childhood bullying, violence and moments of cowardice — and Byrne lays them all out without excuses.
Lyrically written, the prose is at times more auto-fiction than biography and Byrne quotes an old Russian extra he once worked with as saying: “To remember and imagine can be the same thing.”
But Byrne is clear that the job of an actor is to tell the truth and his truth-telling is often very funny, especially on the realities of film-making, while also exposing the ruthlessness of that industry.
Throughout Walking with Ghosts is the presence of his mother and father, his family and how they fared in a period in Ireland which could be cruel and unforgiving, particularly to women.
Byrne’s book combines his screenwriting experience with considerable literary talent to create a new type of Irish writing — the portrait of the artist as a young icon.