Out of all the up and coming actors that left the Emerald isle for London, few were as determined to distance themselves from the stereotypes television and cinema had dictated that an Irishman should play. In fact, Byrne’s decision to avoid the type of performances that mocked his country was the core of his rise to power, culminating in a series of soulful portraits that were different to the style of work nominally produced by his artistic peers.
The Dublin born actor got his start on The Riordans, a probing serial that detailed the fall of Catholicism in the realm of Irish politics, before making his presence known in Excalibur, a sumptuous retelling of the Arthurian legend that was filmed in the heartland of Leinster. With his long, tousled hair and arched, angular face, Byrne was every bit the dark, haired brooding Irish man that captivated the hearts of the American audiences.
Anyone with Byrne’s face or figure could have made an imprint, but it was his sturdy, sincere nature that helped bolster his characters, as he let previous vocations – a stint as a priest and a career as a history teacher – make an imprint on the world.
His performance in Miller’s Crossing was his best turn, showing a deeply intelligent Irishman who was caught in the conflicts of his own personal struggle, but that would overlook his role in The Usual Suspects, which showed his bravura and raw charge, bolstered by an interest in the mission itself. Kevin Spacey walked away with the plaudits, but the story is in essence Byrne’s, largely because he is the emotional linchpin that ties the emotional narrative beats together. And with Into The West, he returned to Ireland, to present a story of a country that worked tirelessly to preserve the traditions and the stories their ancestors wove for them.
Every time he appeared on screen, he brought a sense of vulnerability, dispelling the notion that the Irish like to deal with their problems through fist and fuel, an antidote at a time when Ireland was being closely associated with the gang of assailants who were determined to bring whole hotel rooms down to the ground. Instead, Byrne was an artist searching for an answer, bringing a feeling of situation and clarity to the roles he fleshed out. Although he became a star, his work was based in routine and purpose, making him one of the most unacknowledged character actors of his generation.
His success opened the floodgates for other actors aching to leave the halls of Dublin behind them for the world of cinema and entertainment. Because of Byrne’s efforts, an Irishman could legitimately play James Bond (Pierce Brosnan), just as another Irish actor could play the lead in a gangster series with a trembling sense of vulnerability and violence (Cillian Murphy). As it happened, his efforts captured the essence of the country’s assailing soulfulness and history.
Integrity formed the backbone of modern Ireland as it built itself on the back of the independence men died for, leading the way for a new island that stemmed from a cultural identity it laid for itself. And for Byrne, the notions of stereotypes remain as insulting now as it did back in the 1970s, at a time when he was casting off the shackles of expectation for something more rounded and angular. “The notion it’s a cultural characteristic and a moral failing has been used as propaganda by politicians to put Irish people down,” Byrne recalled. “France has a huge alcohol problem. It’s a myth all French women are thin and look amazing at 90 and eat chocolates for breakfast and smoke 100 cigarettes.”
“Britain has a gigantic problem,” he continued. “The notion of getting pissed three times a week is so culturally enmeshed. Life centres on the pubs. They’re on every corner. It’s absolutely shocking, seeing people drunk in the street. And it’s not just addiction to alcohol and drugs, but to materialism, shopping, television, anything that takes you out of reality.”
Reality forms the cornerstone of art, and in recognising his history – and his eagerness to move away from it – Byrne created his strongest work. It’s all about truth- it’s all about truth.