Gabriel Byrne: a man of stage and screen

By John Fitzgerald

Gabriel Byrne’s return to the Gaiety Theatre for his wildly acclaimed Walking with Ghosts was greeted with elation by his millions of fans. After the grim months of lockdown we could again watch one of Ireland’s greatest international actors holding up a mirror to our society, past and present; and offering insights into his own creative journey.

For half a century he has blazed a trail of stunning achievements as an actor, screen writer, film director, and author. In 2020 the Irish Times rated him as number 17 on its list of Ireland’s greatest ever movie actors.

Gabriel Byrne was born in May 1950 in Walkinstown, Dublin; the eldest of six children. His father was a cooper and his mother a nurse. He was educated at Ardscoil Éanna in Crumlin and, though initially he considered entering the priesthood and took the first tentative steps in that direction, he decided it wasn’t for him.

From the earlier times, including his childhood at the Crumlin school and his five-year stint as a seminarian, he had acquired a love of the Irish language that has persisted to the present day. When he went on to study archaeology and languages at UCD, he was captivated by the treasures of his native tongue, which he felt had linguistic qualities unique to Ireland’s Gaelic culture, its long and troubled history, and the way we express ourselves as nation.

He worked at several jobs, including plumbing, cooking, archaeological work and the teaching of history and Spanish, but an inner restiveness irked him, a persistent feeling throughout his teens and early twenties that he’d yet to find his true calling.

A long overdue Eureka moment came at the age of twenty-nine when he made his stage debut at Dublin’s Abbey and Focus Theatres. He had always had a notion that acting was something he just might be good at, but he had pushed the idea aside as a distraction until, with the encouragement of friends, he opted to give it a go.

His acting talent was quickly recognised, and there was a collective gasp of wonder from the profession at how this gifted Dublin thespian had thus far escaped its attention.  In 1979, he took a break from the Dublin dramatic scene to perform at London’s Royal Court Theatre. His talents were further vindicated, with patrons of the prestigious venue hailing his acting prowess.

Though his stage career had kicked off relatively late in life, he proceeded to make up for any perceived “lost time” with astonishing agility.

The small screen beckoned. Viewers of RTE’s popular rural drama ‘The Riordans’ were introduced to him as Pat Barry, a character who helped to spice up the story-lines of the iconic weekly soap. Pat Barry was the unfathomable outsider, regarded warily by the locals, who shook up the established order of things in the fictional Leestown with his newfangled ways and super-cool deportment.

In a still from the RTÉ classic “The Riordans”.

After a few episodes he had made his mark and added to the appeal of the programme, which probably needed the extra helping of suspense and the smattering of debonair non-compliance he brought to it. He later appeared in ‘Bracken’, a spin-off series from The Riordan’s, and this outing won him the Jacob’s Award for Best Actor. It was to be the first award of many in his long career.

From TV to the demands of cinema proved an easy enough transition for him. He made his entrance into Movie-land in 1981, playing the legendary King Uther Pendragon in John Boorman’s lavish fantasy epic ‘Excalibur’. His performance left film buffs in no doubt as to his flair for character portrayal. His spell-binding screen presence in the film that revisited the story of Camelot and the knights of the Round Table had fans waiting avidly for his next screen outing.

And they weren’t disappointed. In ‘Miller’s Crossing” (1990) the super-talented Irishman gave what many critics consider his greatest cinematic  performance as Tom Reagan, right-hand man of a mobster/corrupt politician who rules an American city during the prohibition era. While the whole cast shone, it was Gabriel Byrne’s uncanny portrayal of his character that helped to make it one of the best gangster movies ever made. Today its appeal remains undiminished, age not having detracted from its allure.

Other big roles followed, in over seventy films that included ‘The Usual Suspects’ (1995), ‘End of Days’ (1999), ‘Spider’ (2002), ‘Vampire Academy’ (2014), and ‘Hereditary’ (2018). From 2000, he was back doing stage work, somehow managing to balance hectic schedules with his continuing blaze of glory across the Silver Screen. He notched up a string of awards along the way.

TV performances also won him numerous accolades. He won a Golden Globe Award for his exceptional performance in the American drama ‘In Treatment’ (2008–2010) and received a Tony Award nomination in 2016 for his role in ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’.

As a writer he also excelled. In 1996 he had the distinction of being the first writer to pen an Irish language TV series, TG4’s Draíocht. In addition to writing ‘The Last of the High Kings’, he produced and acted in the film version.

In his 2020 memoir ‘Walking with Ghosts’ he dredges up, in evocative and occasionally acerbic prose, memories and impressions of his youth and childhood in Ireland and how he dealt with the fame that was trust upon him as he progressed as an actor through the glitzy worlds of stage and cinema.

In “Walking with Ghosts” at the Gaiety Theatre in 2022. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

When adapted for the stage earlier this year, the memoir struck deep chords with audiences.

As was evident from ‘Walking with Ghosts’ (both the memoir and the stage adaptation) Gabriel is an artist who speaks his mind. If he has an opinion to express, the world quickly hears about it. Even when he served as Cultural Ambassador for Ireland, he didn’t let this formal appointment prevent him from airing his views whenever he felt the need to shine a spotlight on any one of a dizzying range of social, political, cultural and aesthetic issues.

Sometimes what he had to say provoked shock and controversy, but he was fearless in setting forth his personal “take” on current affairs, past wrongs, present-day injustices, and the diverse ways that human beings interact in an ever-changing society.

Reaching the age of 70 didn’t faze Gabriel Byrne in the slightest. He continues to write, act and entertain.

Gabriel Byrne at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.

This beguiling star of stage and screen with the ultimate Irish “gift of the gab” shows no signs of letting up in his creative journey.

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