Gabriel Byrne: From the seminary to the screen

Gabriel Byrne is a man of many parts. The former archaelogist, novice priest, schoolteacher, cook, messenger boy and plumber — who even tried his hand at bullfighting — has long since morphed into a multi-award winning actor, film director, film producer, writer, cultural ambassador and audiobook narrator.

Gabriel Byrne: From the seminary to the screen

Little wonder then that he is to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish Film and Television Academy.

He will be presented with the honour by President Michael D Higgins, himself a former recipient, at the ceremony tonight in the Mansion House in Dublin.

Those of a certain vintage may remember the young Byrne in the role of Pat Barry in four episodes of the final season of the 1970s RTÉ farmyard soap The Riordans, a role he reprised for a further 11 episodes of the follow-on series Bracken for which he received a Jacob’s Award for Best Actor.

That wasn’t his first taste of acting, though. He began his career with the Focus Theatre and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and later joined the Royal Court Theatre and the Royal National Theatre in London before going on to a glittering Hollywood movie career, making his film debut in 1981 as King Uther Pendragon in John Boorman’s King Arthur epic, Excalibur.

That was all a long way from Walkinstown in Dublin where he was born, the eldest of six children raised by strictly conservative Catholic parents.

His mother, Eileen, was a hospital nurse and his father, Dan, worked as a cooper for Guinness.

He has four siblings: Donal, Thomas, Breda, and Margaret; another, Marian, died young. He attended Ardscoil Éanna in Crumlin, where he later taught Spanish and History.

That traditional upbringing led him, at the tender age of 11, to decide to become a priest after seeing a mission magazine about young men studying for the priesthood.

He went to the Divine Word Missionaries in the English midlands. He quickly realised he did not have a vocation but still spent five miserable years there.

In an interview in 2010 with Gay Byrne, he revealed that he was sexually abused by Christian Brothers in school.

“It was a known and admitted fact of life amongst us that there was this particular man, and you didn’t want to be left in the dressing room with him,” he told Gay on the TV series, The Meaning of Life.

“It took many years to come to terms with it and to forgive those incidents that I felt had deeply hurt me.” He suffered further abuse at the hands of clerics at the seminary in England.

“It didn’t go on over a prolonged period but it happened at a very, very vulnerable moment,” he said, describing his later struggles with alcoholism and depression, as a result.

He also recalled his Road To Damascus moment: “I went down to London during a break and we got on the bus and I walked up the stairs behind two girls in miniskirts and that was the end of it for me.”

He was expelled shortly after that encounter after being caught smoking in the seminary graveyard.

Back in Dublin, Byrne tried his hand at various odd jobs, among them working as a kitchen porter and sticking the eyes in teddy bears, before deciding to educate himself properly.

He attended UCD, where he studied archaeology and linguistics, becoming proficient in Irish and Spanish.

As for his dream of bullfighting, that came about after he moved to Spain to teach English. “When I lived in Spain, I took a course by this English guy,” he told the British film critic Kevin Murphy.

“The nearest I got was him running at me with a pair of sticks on his head.”

His personal life is almost as varied as his acting career. He had a long-term relationship with producer Áine O’Connor who died of cancer in 1998.

In 1987 he followed American actress Ellen Barkin to New York, where he still lives. Their marriage in 1988 was followed by divorce in 1999. They have two children, Jack Daniel, 28, and Romy Marion, 25.

Byrne married his partner, Hannah Beth King, in 2014 at Ballymaloe House in Cork. The couple had a baby girl last February.

The actor is also involved in various charities, in addition to being a human rights activist.

In 2004, he was appointed a Unicef Ireland Ambassador and he became a patron of Croi (The West of Ireland Cardiology Foundation) in 1997 in response to the care given to his mother while she was a patient at Galway University Hospital.

As a film and TV actor, Byrne has never been idle. His film credits include the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing, Excalibur with Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren, The Usual Suspects with Kevin Spacey, Dead Man with Johnny Depp and The Man In The Iron Mask with Leonardo Di Caprio and Jeremy Irons.

He no longer believes in God but he must have had a wry smile at being chosen to play Pope Gregory X in the second series of the Netflix TV drama Marco Polo.

He has also turned his hand to screenwriting, directing and producing — earning an Oscar nomination for In The Name Of The Father.

Add to that a Golden Globe Award for his role as Dr Paul Watson in the 2008 TV drama series In Treatment.

Byrne may not have the traditional square-jawed look of a typical Hollywood leading man but he clearly has sex appeal, being described by the New York Times as the “latest Dr McDreamy” for In Treatment.

He has been listed by People magazine as one of the “Sexiest Men Alive” and Entertainment Weekly dubbed him as one of the hottest celebrities over the age of 50.

Not bad for a guy of 67.

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