Skip to main content

Walking with Ghosts: A Memoir

Review

Walking with Ghosts: A Memoir

I have read many biographies and autobiographies in my lifetime, but nothing compares to actor Gabriel Byrne’s memoir, WALKING WITH GHOSTS. Rather than organize the book chronologically, Byrne chooses a more stream-of-consciousness approach similar to James Joyce’s novel, A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN.

I first remember seeing Byrne in the Coen Brothers movie Miller’s Crossing and as a young Lord Byron in Ken Russell’s Gothic. I did not realize until I read this book that I also experienced his first performance, a small role in John Boorman’s Excalibur. By far, my favorite project of his was the brilliant HBO series “In Treatment,” which aired each week over five consecutive nights. Byrne played a psychotherapist named Paul Weston, and the first four episodes featured him and one of his patients. The fifth revolved around Paul meeting with his own therapist, played by the wonderful Dianne Wiest. As an actor, I found this program to be a master class of the dramatic craft.

"I have read many biographies and autobiographies in my lifetime, but nothing compares to actor Gabriel Byrne’s memoir... WALKING WITH GHOSTS is a memoir to be experienced and cherished."

Byrne was born and raised in Ireland. Much is written in images and vivid memories rather than direct narration, which makes for a very poetic experience. Here’s how he describes home: “This place birthed my love of simple things. I have never loved concrete as I love a tree, or reeds by a river flamed by an evening sun, or the first stars of the evening; the bleat of a lamb in a distant field or the small spitter of rain on a windowpane.”

He particularly loved his mother, as most good Irish boys do. His family doctor stated, “Maureen O’Hara herself couldn’t hold a candle to your mother.” If you have ever seen John Ford’s film, The Quiet Man, you will appreciate that quote. He also has fond memories of his father, who was mostly out of work during his youth: “I can see my father, too, in his years of unemployment sitting behind those curtains, smoking his pipe, watching the theater of the street.”

Byrne came from a devout Christian family and has stories to tell about his time at a seminary to become a priest. He recalls staring at a crucifix hanging in his home and wondering “if I could climb into the wounds of Jesus for shelter, hide in there behind black-red blood.” Like many Irish children, he made his acting debut in a Nativity play, which allowed him to perform while in the safety of his religion.

The best story about a young Gabriel Byrne and an established actor was his first run-in with Sir Laurence Olivier on the set of Excalibur. He got tongue-tied and asked Olivier if he knew what time it was. The legendary star pertly responded that Byrne was in the cast and should be able to afford a watch. Later, Byrne received a letter from him apologizing for his brusqueness, then quoted from Shakespeare’s 60th sonnet and signed the note “Affectionately, Larry.”

Ireland was a magical place, and many of the elders lived in a perpetual state of whimsy. Byrne heard about the existence of fairies from those who not only believed in them but had seen them. He was told of a young girl taken by fairies, and her family swears that they saw her in a crowd years later when she merely put her finger to her lips for them to be silent and watched as she disappeared before their eyes. The belief was that fairies, being magical and mysterious creatures, considered our mortal world to be a cruel place.

Byrne has a sense of humor when he recounts his failed attempt at the priesthood and his family’s desire to get him into a career like plumbing. He was so bad at it that he remembers someone stating, “He’s as useless as a eunuch in a harem.” He seriously reflects on his years of depression that brought about his heavy drinking. The veils of delusion and denial eventually lifted, and he proudly proclaims that he has been sober for 20 years.

In any life of length, death is unavoidable. Byrne does not get morose when he talks about losing his parents. However, his sister’s passing truly shook him, and he could not come to grips with it. She was in an institution and was diagnosed with what we would now refer to as schizophrenia. Losing her hit him hard because she was still so young and had her whole life ahead of her.

Byrne concludes the book with beautiful images of his parents, reunited in heaven by death: “The stage is now lit. The music begins. I move toward the light.” WALKING WITH GHOSTS is a memoir to be experienced and cherished.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on January 22, 2021

Walking with Ghosts: A Memoir
by Gabriel Byrne

  • Publication Date: January 12, 2021
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 196 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802157122
  • ISBN-13: 9780802157126