A Touch of the Heart

Irish actor Gabriel Byrne with his ex-wife, Ellen Barkin, at Glucksman Ireland House at NYU. (Photo: Nuala Purcell)

By Declan O'Kelly, Contributor
Febuary / March 2006

Gabriel Byrne is a true Renaissance man. As an actor, he is currently receiving accolades for his performance as Cornelius Melody in a New York production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet. As a writer, he found much success with his autobiographical Pictures in My Head, and now he’s shown himself to be quite the photographer — a photographer with a heart.

For what is less well-known about Byrne, who was born in Dublin in 1949, is that he serves as an ambassador for The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which works for children’s rights, their survival and development.

As ambassador for UNICEF Ireland and while filming on location in Africa, Byrne spent time in Mozambique and Swaziland and took many photos documenting his time there. An exhibition of these images entitled “Travels 05” went on display in Glucksman Ireland House at New York University in late November.

At the opening of Travels O5, which drew a large crowd, including Byrne’s former wife, actress Ellen Barkin, Byrne spoke of how his time in Africa changed him as a person.

“I didn’t really know anything about Africa unit I went there,” Byrne said. “My view on life changed in all kinds of ways.” He told of witnessing firsthand the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic in Swaziland when he visited orphanages and met kids whose parents had died from the disease.

He described one encounter with a 30-year-old HIV positive woman who asked him when his movie was expected to be released. When he told her about 18 months, “She told me, quite seriously, that she hoped to live to see it,” Byrne said.

He also recounted his efforts to give a young African girl a pair of sunglasses. She was hesitant to take them but he insisted because he just wanted her to have something.

One of Byrne’s photographs is of a 17-year-old boy with a doll. Noting that in normal circumstances young men would not go around with dolls, Byrne explained that because the doll was the boy’s only personal possession it was very valuable to him, and being photographed without it would be as if part of his identity would be missing from the image.

Byrne’s children, Jack Daniel, 16, and Romy Marion, 13, were on hand to show their support, as were A Touch of the Poet co-star Dearbhla Molloy and fellow thespian Milo O’Shea, who played Cornelius Melody in a 1977 production of the play.

All proceeds from the sale of Byrne’s photographs will go to UNICEF. ♦

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