Gabriel James Byrne
November 17, 2010
1 hour, 43 minutes
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
Gabriel Byrne (b. 1950, Dublin, Ireland) grew up with a cooper father and a nurse mother, along with five siblings, in Ireland. Educated by the Christian Brothers, he entered the seminary at the age of eleven and left after five years. He went on to University College Dublin to study archaeology and linguistics and then held numerous odd jobs--ranging from encyclopedia salesman to English teacher in Spain--before embarking on an acting career. Byrne actually found his passion for the theater when he joined the Dublin Shakespeare Society in 1974 and began to perform non-professionally. He then worked with the famed Focus Theatre and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. From there he entered the film world in minor parts and became a regular on the Irish soap opera,The Riordans (1978-1979). His "big break" came with Excalibur in 1981, playing Uther Pendragon. In 1987 he starred alongside his future wife, Ellen Barkin, in Siesta. He married Barkin in 1988 and they had two children, Jack and Romy, before divorcing in 1999. Visiting Barkin in New York, he happened by chance to audition for Joel and Ethan Coen's film, Miller's Crossing (1990). The role of Tom Reagan in the critically acclaimed movie raised Byrnes' visibility among American audiences.
Byrne has appeared in more than fifty films, notably Little Women (1994), The Usual Suspects (1995), and Into the West (1992), which he helped produce, as well as appearing on Broadway in the Eugene O'Neill classics, A Touch of the Poet (2005) and Moon for the Misbegotten (2000). He also produced the Irish film, In the Name of the Father (1993). At the time of the interview he starred in the highly acclaimed HBO series In Treatment. In 2010, Byrne was named the first ever Cultural Ambassador for Ireland and in early 2011 announced a program featuring 400 cultural events scheduled across the United States called "Imagine Ireland". Among the events featured are a film retrospective curated by Byrne and screened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
The StorytellerTrack 01, 4:16-5:52
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
I was lucky enough to remember a time when there was, seems like a character from a Synge play, a man who would come every year, and he wasn't unusual because these were men, journey men who were called tramps, who traveled from one town to another and earned their night's keep by telling stories. And this particular man, I remember with a long red beard and a hat who spoke very little, but when he sat by the fire and everybody gathered around him, it was the most compelling kind of theater. And you realize that that kind of an individual, his job was to carry the tales, the lessons, the "wisdom of the tribe" if you like, from one village to another. And he told stories that were thousands and thousands of years old, passed down in the oral tradition. That man, or the kind of man that he was, was replaced in 1962 by a television set. And so the difference between a live performer acting in the intimacy of a kitchen and channeling all kinds of theater and the worlds of the imagination, resulted in a different kind of audience. An audience that now was a passive audience, rather than an interactive audience.
On the job of Cultural Ambassador
Track 6-7, 9:11-0:21 (or 59:12 - 60:21)
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
That's what I mean about the duel realities of a kind of a sentimentalized Ireland and an Irish American identity that sees itself in that way and people on the ground in Ireland who are saying, "You know what, it's all bullshit, you don't live here and we don't get what you're on about." And it's like the thing going, under the archway, and that's what I would imagine some of the job is. And most of that is, you can't put a label on it, it involves things like this. It involves awareness. And listening to what people are actually saying on the ground and trying to sort out the complexities of economics, history, the social realities and also new patterns in globalized behavior.
- Caitlin Gaspar
- Linda Dowling Almeida
- Gabriel James Byrne, 12 November 2010. Photo by Linda Dowling Almeida.