Given all this, you might expect Byrne’s memoir “Walking with Ghosts” to recount the triumphs and travails of a successful actor, to deliver the inside scoop on fame and good fortune — to be, in other words, another celebrity biography filled with gossip and saucy stories. You would be disappointed.
“Walking with Ghosts” is much better than that. Sure, Byrne shares a few Hollywood tidbits — lying about knowing how to ride a horse to land a part in John Boorman’s “Excalibur,” getting scolded by Laurence Olivier for merely asking him for the time (“you should buy yourself a watch”). But Byrne, who turned 70 last year, has written something more introspective and literary: an elegiac memoir that explores the interior life of a Dublin boy who finds himself almost accidentally — and incidentally — famous. It’s a story about Ireland and exile and carrying the ghosts of family and home through time.
The book begins on a hill above his neighborhood, a favorite place from childhood, and though the place has changed, the memories remain vivid. We are taken on a cinematic journey of his boyhood dreams and wanderings and love of simple things like the “reeds by a river flamed by an evening sun, or the first stars of evening; the bleat of a lamb in a distant field or the small spitter of rain on a windowpane.”
We are introduced to the long-departed neighbors, the farm down the lane, the chemist’s shop, the butcher’s, the local motion picture house where Byrne took refuge, sometimes watching “ten films a week in a fog of cigarette smoke and disinfectant.”
The streets are filled with dramatic personae: the man famous for his outrageous tall tales, an old woman who told him tales from Irish mythology and remembrances of the Black and Tans during the Irish Civil War of the 1920s, and the parish priest who gazes into a mirror, talking to himself, before each Mass. Even the poet Brendan Behan makes a cameo, drunk and full of song on the back seat of the wrong bus. Particularly vivid is young Gabriel’s raucous family, his father, a cooper for the Guinness brewery; his mother, sharp and funny and devout, who has charge over Gabriel and his five younger siblings.
Like many Catholic boys of the era, Byrne was enticed into thinking that he had a calling to the priesthood, and at age 11, he travels to a seminary in Birmingham, England. One evening Byrne is called to the private rooms of a favorite priest, who sexually molests him, an event he buries. “I’ve been picking at it with a pin since,” he writes, “afraid to use a jackhammer.” (It’s a subject he has spoken about publicly in recent years.) For questioning the highest authority and breaking the rules, including smoking in the graveyard, Byrne is kicked out of the seminary. He recalls the sheer exhilaration of the train to the ferry for home, and arriving at a seaside alive with playful children digging in the sand and a “dog mad with sea joy.”
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 the end, the ghosts return. He carries his sister, lost to mental illness, whose ending will break your heart. He carries an Ireland that is no longer there, for good and ill. And in the final pages of the book, he carries the ghosts of his parents, stuck in time, not fully appreciated until it was too late. His mother, long dead, sitting in the corner of his Broadway dressing room, her “ghost never far from the action.” With this tender book — full of warm and often funny stories — Byrne shows us the depth of his true character.
Keith Donohue wrote “The Stolen Child” and four other novels.