Walking with Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne

When I think of memorable Hollywood autobiographies—particularly those written by unshackled veterans of the industry, both jaded and jocular—I think of David Niven’s bombastic romp, The Moon’s a Balloon; Christina Crawford’s gothic nightmare, Mommie Dearest; Robert Evans’s coked-up tell-all, The Kid Stays in the Picture; and Julia Phillips’s even more coked-up tell-all, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again.

Technically speaking, Gabriel Byrne’s Walking with Ghosts—a remarkably intimate new memoir by the Irish actor and star of Miller’s Crossing, The Usual Suspects, and HBO’s In Treatment—belongs on a shelf with the aforementioned titles, but it is, as Yeats would say, of a different kind.

Byrne’s first accounting of his life since 1994’s Pictures in My Head is neither a victory lap nor a lament from exile. It’s not a bread-crumb trail of dropped names or a laundry list of industry grievances. What it is, instead, is something altogether more artful and complex: a lyrical and unflinching interrogation of the self that just happens to have been written by an award-winning former drinking partner of Richard Burton’s.

Unusual Suspect

The eldest of six children, Byrne grew up in a loving working-class family in 1950s and 1960s Dublin, where the escapist “picture houses” and the all-pervasive Catholic Church—with its gory iconography and shame-sodden dogma—were the twin lodestars of his childhood. After taking a notion to join the priesthood, Byrne decided (at the unbearably young age of 11) to begin his training at a seminary in England. Four years marked by isolation, confusion, and abuse left him adrift from that austere calling, and he returned to Dublin disillusioned, bouncing from one failed job to the next before catching the acting bug, being cast as a sort of Hibernian Heathcliff on a popular Irish soap opera, and making his feature-film debut in John Boorman’s 1981 King Arthur epic, Excalibur. The rest, as they say …

Walking with Ghosts is an undeniably sorrowful work, drawn from what seems like a near-bottomless well of pain and regret, but Byrne—self-deprecating to the point of self-flagellation—can also be a wonderfully funny guide, especially when recalling his youthful mishaps (vomiting up stolen Communion wine in the middle of his altar-boy shift, awkwardly humping a placeholder cushion while wearing a full suit of armor as Boorman calls for take after take), or in wry descriptions of his first contacts with Tinseltown denizens.

Here he is on an early stay at the Sunset Marquis hotel:

Richard Harris wandered barefoot in pee-stained linen trousers and an Irish rugby shirt. His wild hair blew out behind him like a mad creature of the forest.

Is it too much to get a bowl of fucking porridge? he roared at a mahogany-tanned actor, who, reclining by the pool, repeated “porridge” as if it were a word from another language.

A lyrical and unflinching interrogation of the self that just happens to have been written by an award-winning former drinking partner of Richard Burton’s.

One extended anecdote, which I won’t (fully) spoil here, involves an accidental stabbing on a Venetian gondola and a never-meet-your-heroes run-in with a very irate (and later charmingly contrite) Laurence Olivier in Vienna. Another, from the set of The Man in the Iron Mask, features a young Leo DiCaprio using Byrne’s trailer to smoke cigarettes and hide from his disapproving mother.

Seeing brief flashes of this world through Byrne’s bemused eyes is delightful, but for the most part, if you’re looking for salacious details from the film sets and Oscar parties of yesteryear, you’ve picked up the wrong memoir. It’s not so much that Byrne has set out to defy expectations of what a book like this should be; it’s more that his interests and preoccupations, his hauntings—and they do truly read like hauntings, those Technicolor ghosts of childhood and adolescence that have walked alongside him for half a century—lie so far from the Hollywood Hills as to make such expectations, and the miasma of industry gossip they incubate, an afterthought.

Hollywood may have become the backdrop to his life, but Dublin, if only the Dublin of youthful memory, remains the setting, and it’s a world he conjures exquisitely. Byrne’s descriptions of his parents—an ebullient former nurse and a Guinness-brewery cooper who (as another poetic-souled Dubliner so famously sang) lost out to redundancy—and the city they inhabited are at the heart of this book, so tenderly and vividly wrought that reading them feels like stepping into someone else’s reverie: a melancholy swaddle of soothing voices and dissolving dreamscapes.

The excavations of Byrne’s early traumas—from the loss of a beloved sister to the psyche-ravaging effects of alcoholism, body dysmorphia, and childhood sexual abuse—are stark and heartbreaking: scars that won’t ever fully heal but whose origins can at least now be understood, uttered aloud from the far shore. That he’s been able to alchemize these traumas into something so beautiful feels like deliverance, and reads like a gift.

Dan Sheehan is the Book Marks editor at Lit Hub and the author of Restless Souls