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  • All-at-Sea

Gerry Byrne

As a child

Books saved me! As a very shy child, I hid behind and within books. When really upset, my favourite stories (such as Ladybird’s Grimm’s Fairy Tales) were often my comfort blanket: familiar words and sentences wrapped me up and soothed me. Some people might think this is a retreat from the real world and from real people but only if they are ignorant of the real worlds and real people that exist in stories. Reading alone in my room might have looked as if I was alone, but I was in good company, sometimes with the best of friends – an author who seemed to see me, to get me. I would love to write stories that give others that experience of being seen, feeling understood. I was born, as were my two sisters and one brother, in the front bedroom of our home in Walkinstown, Dublin, the third of four children. My older sister Geraldine read poetry to me and I became a voracious reader from an early age. At 11 I discovered the martial arts – obsessed with and training in Karate and Ninjutsu from then until 21 when I got my first dan black belt. My father sang to us as children – after we had our Saturday night bath and were tucked up in bed (all in one room) I remember him singing Two Little Orphans and I’m Nobody’s Child, and we would cry for the poor children and then beg him to sing them again. He also told ghost stories, and I tell his stories to this day.

As an adult

Because of my love of the old Irish tales and wanting to read them as written in Old Irish in ancient manuscripts I signed up for Celtic Studies at University College Dublin. This was a mistake as the tales were still being told in people’s homes by firesides and looking back I wish I had done Irish Folklore as my first degree and collected stories in the field – however my shyness at the time meant I could not imagine myself interviewing anyone! I dropped out of college for four years and worked as a cleaner and a doorman in an amusement arcade/gambling arena called the New FunPalace (still there on Burgh Quay under a different name) and became an observer of the rough life of those who plied their trades on the quays at night to earn money to indulge their addictions including gambling on slot and poker machines. Still reading widely I developed an interest in psychotherapy. As I turned 25 I left Ireland with a pass degree in Irish and Welsh languages intending to train as a psychotherapist. I left with one suitcase and £20 in my pocket to take up psychiatric nursing in Wakefield, then moved down to Oxford to work with children, adolescents and families in the NHS, training first as an adult psychotherapist and then as a child and adolescent psychotherapist, and along the way got married and had five children. My specialist area of expertise in the NHS is assessing and treating children, adolescents and families where the children have suffered serious harm. With colleagues I run conferences and conversations bringing together the worlds of literature, art and psychotherapy/psychoanalysis including the annual poetry and psychoanalysis conference at the Freud Museum.

As an author

I write anywhere and everywhere really – I always carry notebooks and jot down ideas in the margins of books I’m reading – which can make it hard to keep track of stories and story ideas. I have always written in my spare time, writing stories, novels, translating poems from the Irish and the occasional poem. My picture book All at Sea was written 20 years ago for my second son, aged 3, when he had bad dreams about his baby brother. I encouraged him to illustrate it and many years later, when I interviewed the amazing author/illustrator Anthony Browne he showed interest in my writing and gave me great encouragement – and he introduced the book to his editor at Walker Books – so without him the book would not have made it to the publisher. Combining my creativity with my clinical work I developed a parenting programme called the Lighthouse Parenting Programme, which uses the metaphors of life as a sea voyage and parents as lighthouses to their children. I commissioned the wonderful children’s illustrator Jane Ray to paint the images for the programme – these can be viewed here:

Things you didn’t know about Gerry Byrne

  1. As a black belt in Ninjutsu, I am essentially a ninja. But it is a secret. Don’t tell anyone. I was taught by the amazing Steve Byrne.
  2. I once stole an Irish flag with a friend called Chipper, off the top of a supermarket in Dublin – saluting it as we lowered it so the people passing would think we were there on official business! In my defence it was for a good cause!
  3. I seem to be good at telling ghost stories. I have never managed to tell them without someone leaving the room because they got too scared. Sometimes there is no one left but me … and the ghosts…
  4. I love riddles and setting people riddles, old and new; like these three old Irish ones: "You must get me for my breakfast a cherry without a stone, You must get me for my dinner a bird without a bone. For my supper you must get for me a bird without a gall…”
  5. Children seem to like it when I tell fairy stories getting things wrong (which I like to do, like The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Chicken!) and sometimes things get out of hand and a crowd of delightedly indignant children chases me out of the room!
  6. I love poetry and learn my favourite poems by heart so that I am never without them and can surprise others with them when the time is right! My three favourite poems are: The Lost Heifer by Austin Clarke, As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden and Making Space by Philip Casey.
  7. I run – half marathons and marathons – and have run 5 marathons in 8 months! Meaning I have run 5 separate marathons in the last 8 months, not that I have been running non-stop for 8 months…
  8. I am fascinated by dreams and enjoy spending time analysing my own and anybody else’s I know (if they will share them with me) and people I am working with. This is not a pseudoscience or a "hippy therapy" thing but serious psychoanalytic work, though I know there are many people who do not believe dreams tell us something about our minds.
  9. I play Irish traditional music on the flute and the bodhrán (goat-skin drum) and have played in two amateur bands – Blackthorn in Wakefield and Henry Marten’s Ghost in Oxford.
  10. I was a driving instructor for a while in Ireland and have been trained in advanced driving techniques including evasive driving and anti-kidnapping techniques (though I have not yet had cause to use them!).

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