Late-night drinking and cursing with Richard Burton (who apparently confessed to acting in “the most appalling shit for money”). Asking Laurence Olivier for the time, then getting insulted, and then getting an apology note. Learning to ride a horse and wield a sword for a King Arthur movie. Understanding the difference between acting for stage and film, and the never-ending quest to achieve authenticity. Yes, Walking with Ghosts, Gabriel Byrne’s new memoir, contains these backstage tidbits, but his acting career is seldom the main focus.
Byrne (who was last on Broadway in 2016 playing James Tyrone in a Roundabout revival of A Long Day’s Journey into Night alongside Jessica Lange) could probably write multiple volumes about his extensive stage and film work, including appearances in more than 80 films (including Miller’s Crossing and The Usual Suspects), three Eugene O’Neill dramas on Broadway, and four seasons of the HBO drama In Treatment (for which he won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor).
But for the most part, Walking with Ghosts (208 pages, published by Grove Press) is a reflective, sensitive, rather melancholy meditation, full of lyrical language and observant detail, on Byrne’s working-class Irish roots, Catholic seminary education, missteps in various earlier vocations (including door-to-door salesman, dishwasher, toilet attendant and apprentice plumber) and all-consuming alcoholism. Even if his past is gone, it continues to haunt Byrne. The movie theater where he once imbibed Hollywood dreams has since been converted into a carpet showroom, but its memory lingers on. He can even feel the presence of his mother with him in a backstage dressing room. “I am an intruder in my own past,” Byrne says.
Byrne vividly describes growing up as a Baby Boomer on the outskirts of Dublin, the eldest of six children. Early on, he paints a warm portrait of attending the 1959 Guinness Bicentennial Celebration as a child. (Later on, his father would lose his longtime job with Guinness, being deemed unnecessary unskilled labor.) And in perhaps the book’s funniest anecdote, he describes an incident as a child where the poet Brendan Behan was drunk and riding on the wrong bus.
The Catholic Church gave Byrne his first taste of the stage, appearing in a nativity pageant under a nun’s direction. It was also the biggest influence on his early teen years. At age 11, Byrne left Ireland to attend a seminary in Birmingham, England to train to become a priest – only to eventually get kicked out. Byrne also described sexual abuse that occurred at the seminary, which he went public about a decade ago.
Byrne’s memories of his alcohol addiction are unadulterated and disturbing. “I would drink in every city and every town across the world,” Byrne writes. “Alcohol had become my most trusted friend, before it betrayed me and brought me to my darkest days.” When Byrne first got drunk at age 17, he describes it as the “first time I felt truly myself.” Eventually, he would pass out in a doorway and lie unconscious, in his urine, to be found by the police. (Byrne adds that he has now been sober for 20 years.)
The personal challenges and memories that Byrne writes about are not particularly singular. Fans of Byrne’s acting career might prefer gossipy anecdotes, like the time he apparently spotted Richard Harris “barefoot in pee-stained linen trousers and an Irish rugby shirt,” than about how he became disenchanted with Catholicism. But Byrne’s quality of writing (perhaps influenced by 20th-century Irish writers), discerning eye for detail and brutal honesty make Walking with Ghosts a worthwhile read. It also might provide the key to explaining why Byrne has such a contemplative presence. This is apparently the stuff he keeps contemplating.