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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.”