The acclaimed actor discusses his role as Ireland’s first Cultural Ambassador, his experience as an emigrant, and his thoughts on the strong ties and the disconnects between Ireland and America.
The most immediately striking thing about Gabriel Byrne, aside from his very light blue eyes and the chunky silver Claddagh ring he wears on his right hand (and the fact that he is Gabriel Byrne), is the thoughtfulness with which he approaches every question and topic. As many interviewers before me have commented, his answers do at times seem to verge on the tangential or even evasive. But he lets nothing rest at a superficial level. Sure, ask him a prying question and he may step nimbly around the issue with a quote from Shakespeare and a loosely related anecdote. Why not? Celebrities need to be artful to maintain some degree of privacy. But ask him a question about film, or the Catholic Church, or what it is to be an emigrant, and you will receive a profound reply. These things too, after all, can be personal.
So I learned when we met one recent evening at a café in Soho to discuss his latest role, one he’s held since St. Patrick’s Day 2010, when then-Taoiseach Brian Cowen issued the official announcement that made Gabriel Byrne Ireland’s first Cultural Ambassador. It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to the part. Since 1988, when he moved to New York from London to be with his wife at the time, actress Ellen Barkin, Byrne has been, stardom aside, an Irish man living in America.
This, combined with his three decades as an actor in Ireland, in London, in Hollywood and on Broadway, puts Byrne at a fairly unique vantage point when it comes to considering Irish arts at home and abroad.
The question is, what exactly does a Cultural Ambassador do?
“Well, it’s never been done before, so nobody really knows,” Byrne says matter-of-factly, sipping on an Americano and picking at some bread he winkingly told our waitress was “lethal.” “But the stuff that I have done so far I’m quite proud of.”
As Ambassador, he works closely with Culture Ireland, the government agency for promoting Irish arts and culture, on an initiative called “Imagine Ireland,” an ambitious year-long program of Irish arts in the United States.
Byrne is quick to assert that he works on a strictly voluntary basis and that the job is “part-time.” This sounds unlikely at first – Cultural Ambassador isn’t something that readily comes to mind when one thinks about part-time jobs – but it’s the truth when you consider his work load. In the past year, as Dr. Paul Weston on HBO’s therapy drama In Treatment, Byrne often worked fourteen-hour days to keep up with the show’s demanding schedule; when we meet he has just wrapped up a film in London with Charlotte Rampling. But in the midst of shooting various projects, Byrne has represented Ireland admirably – criss-crossing the States for various Imagine Ireland launches and events; recording his oral history at New York University’s Archives of Irish America for an exhibition at Lincoln Center’s Library for the Performing Arts; curating an Irish film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
Eugene Downes, CEO of Culture Ireland, calls Byrne one of the driving forces behind the project, which had been in the works for some time: “When I first met Gabriel four years ago,” he shared via e-mail, “the range and depth of his vision for Irish culture in America threw down a gauntlet to everyone in the room. His thinking challenged us to develop a more ambitious strategy for cultural engagement that reflected the changing dynamics of Ireland’s presence in the United States. His ideas have helped shape the “Imagine Ireland” concept at every stage of its development…He has given a strong artistic voice to many of the issues at stake for Ireland as it comes through this time of crisis.”
His own career can be read as a sort of case in point for why Byrne feels so strongly about funding for the arts, for just how important and effective amateur groups and arts centers can be.
The Crumlin, Dublin native didn’t start acting until his late 20s, save for once. At 12, he left Ireland to study at a seminary in England, which he firmly decided five years later was not the life for him. It was there, he tells me, that he stepped on stage for the first time – for “half a second” in the school production of the musical Oliver. Playing one of the men who bid on Oliver after he’s kicked out of the workhouse, Byrne recalls that he decided to add some personal flair to the role, stuffing a pillow up the back of his shirt to give himself a hunchback. It was something he liked to do at home when the men came to deliver coal: “I’d be sitting there with this big lump on my back and they’d look at me and say ‘Ah now, are you all right?’” He mimics their maudlin tone. “Then I did it on the stage and, whereas my mother would think it was hilarious, and the coal men would have thought it was hilarious, here I just walked on stage and walked off, and nobody even noticed.”
After that, he stayed away from Drama until he was about twenty-five, when he decided that amateur drama, which he now describes as “one of the most powerful institutions in Ireland,” looked like “a cool thing to do at night instead of being in the pub.” Nobody actually told me,” he says “I just stumbled into it, I realized that it’s a great way to spend your time. I couldn’t wait for work to finish, to get to the theater, cause there were great people there. And leading up to a play, the tension of it. I remember we all went to Athlone to take part in the All Ireland Drama Festival, we all went on one minibus. I had never experienced anything like that.”
One of the inspirations behind “Imagine Ireland” stems from Byrne’s early years in the Dublin theater scene: his time with the experimental, modestly government funded Project Arts Centre. “In 1979 in Dublin you had the two establishment theaters, The Gate and The Abbey, and anyone who didn’t fit in there went to The Project.” The list of misfits who got their start at The Project is impressive, to say the least: Jim Sheridan, Liam Neeson, Neil Jordan, Ciaran Hinds, Nigel Rolfe, Stephen Rea, and many more. “It was great,” he continues, “nothing was off the table. John Stevenson, who was the administrator at the time, said “Let’s take all this stuff that we do and bring it to England.’ And that was the first time that British audiences became aware of this Irish art. Imagine Ireland is a version of that.”
When an artist from one country brings his or her work to another, a palpable exchange takes place: both artist and audience are exposed to something new. In the case of the four-hundred-plus artists coming to the U.S. this year with Imagine Ireland, the potential for exchange goes both ways. On one hand, Irish artists stand to gain something from performing or exhibiting for audiences here. “If you’re an artist and you want to grow and expand and understand new things, then coming here will expose you to different viewpoints and opinions and experiences. It won’t necessarily make you any better, but it will do that,” says Byrne.
On the other hand, American audiences are getting a taste of more contemporary Irish art; a more comprehensive understanding of Irish culture today. “When we talk about artists here, we’re not just talking about writers, artists, musicians, theater people,” he explains, “we’re talking about performance artists, the full range. There’s Irish classical dancing; there’s Irish mime; there are young artists who are Irish but who draw their inspiration from all kinds of places.” After a pause he continues, “I would say that the perception here is a very dated and very limited one. People know certain names, and some of those names are not even known outside a particular circle. Would everybody know U2? Yes. Would everybody know Seamus Heaney? Debatable.”
In this sense, in addition to recognizing the strong cultural bonds between Ireland and America, the aim also seems to be to refresh those bonds, to update them. To expose Irish Americans and Americans who already appreciate Joyce and Synge and Yeats, who have seen The Quiet Man, who know Riverdance and The Chieftains, to a new generation of Irish artists. The Cultural Ambassador confirms this: “That’s one of the things I want to try and do. Well, it’s the Culture Ireland agenda, I suppose, to increase that awareness here. To bring it up to date and to break down some of the outdated ideas that we have, that people have here, about what is going on over there.”
In Byrne’s opinion and experience, this disconnect is one effect of the emigrant’s journey, and is especially central to that of the Irish emigrant. He calls exile “the Irish story,” and is adamant that once you have left a country, you can never look back on it and see it in the same way. He raises the fascinating point that this idea plays a part in Irish myths from long before emigration was ever a word or an issue. He re-tells the story of Oisín returning home from Tír na Nóg, even though he was told not to, and aging the second he sets foot on land.
“That myth is [thousands] of years old. It’s powerful, and its telling people ‘You cannot return, it’s not possible to come back. You go to this place and you stay there.’ It’s a warning telling you to think very carefully about where it is that your spirit settles.” Byrne moves on to the Bible, to Lot and his wife, who turns into a pillar of salt for looking back; to the Children of Lír, exiled as swans in their own land; to a tale from Co. Cavan he had read the night before about a woman who is banished from her town and turned into a hare. (Throughout all this it becomes abundantly clear that he used to be a teacher.) “Before people even left Ireland,” he muses, “they were concerned about these things.”
Exile and the emigrant experience are two of the many themes Byrne aims to address in his film series, Revisiting The Quiet Man: Ireland on Film, which is running at MoMA form May 20 – June 3. John Ford’s iconic and extremely romantic portrayal of 1950s Ireland will be the starting point for a larger discussion Byrne hopes to provoke. Via The Quiet Man and other films about Ireland, ranging from Robert Stevenson’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People to the Bobby Sands biopic Hunger, the series will consider themes of “emigration, exile, the role of the rebel, the religious figure…identity, myth, ethnicity, assimilation, gender, the role of the woman in Irish film.” Beyond this, the aim is to raise – but not, he emphasizes, necessarily to answer – the questions “Who are we as a group? How are we portrayed? How are we perceived?” It has always fascinated him, he says, that “[As Irish,] in terms of film, our story has, up to a certain point, been told for us, not by us.” This is problematic, he believes, because “a great deal of what we know about each other as people comes from our knowledge of film.”
One night of the retrospective will feature Byrne in conversation with Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan. Another, with Martin Scorsese, whom he looks forward to talking to because “He’s an Italian American. He comes from, he understands, that dual conflict about ‘Where am I from? And where is this place that I’m living in? Who am I as a result of that journey?’”
Listening to Gabriel Byrne pose these questions, I get the definite sense that he doenn’t do so with the detached curiosity of a critic or a scholar, but with real personal investment. He is, after all, not just a spectator of Irish film but part of its history, too.
So who are we, as Irish? Byrne doesn’t think there can be one answer. In fact, he encourages everyone to imagine his or her own Ireland (apparently that’s why he pushed for it to be called “Imagine Ireland”). But he does offer this: “I think the artistic influence is continuous; it’s part of who we are…We are also a result of our history, and our history and our literature are entwined so that we have, on the one hand, the saddest music and the most joyful music, and we have the saddest poems. If you look through an anthology of Irish poems, it’s incredible how melancholy we are. You know what G.K. Chesterton said about the Irish? ‘The Irish were the race that God made mad. For all their wars were merry and all their songs were sad.’ Bit stupid as a remark, but it does capture something.”
And who is he as a result of his journey? He doesn’t say specifically, but he says a lot generally. Of leaving one’s homeland, he remarks, “It allows the artist a distance from where he lives and where he was born and the influences that shaped him, so that you can do a different version of looking back. So that, instead of yearning, you can look back over the other shoulder and do it more with objectivity.” When asked about Ireland today he expresses great anger towards the Catholic church – an emotional issue, considering his disclosure last year of the abuse he suffered as a boy under the Christian Brothers. He shows concern over the possibility that Ireland might be losing its unique voice: “I could write you 20 pages of words where, if I went back to the part of Dublin where I grew up, kids there today wouldn’t understand them,” he tells me. He’d like to see that voice grow stronger so that, particularly in film, Ireland can tell its own story. He also, however, seems genuinely in awe of the talent that has emerged from Ireland in the past few years – in spite of the Celtic tiger and the economic downturn, or maybe because of it.
The connections still run deep. Despite having lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years and raising his two children here (his daughter is starting college in the fall), he still very much considers himself Irish, not Irish American. But then, for him it seems that there are different kinds of home: “Home in the most profound spiritual sense is always Ireland. [But] your children determine where home is.”