THESE days Gabriel Byrne can usually be found in Maine, some eight hours north of New York and not so very far from the Canadian border, on 40 acres or so, squeezed between mountain and sea. He lives there with his wife and three-year-old daughter and a past that he has spent many years coming to terms with.

The actor, best known for his roles in The Usual Suspects, Miller’s Crossing and In Treatment, is now 70 and he’s has been thinking about that past a lot of late. He has just written a memoir, Walking with Ghosts, a book about growing up in Dublin, his parents, his school years, his break into acting and the people he met in that world.

The result is a fine piece of writing, but it’s also a kind of reckoning; with the violence and abuse he suffered as a young boy and the abuse he did to himself through alcohol as an adult.

On screen Byrne often has a weight to him. Reading the book, you get a sense of how much he has had to carry over the years.

At 70, he’s in a good place though. For the most part. “I don’t believe in the euphoria of constant happiness,” he points out. “I think that’s a delusional ambition.”

“But,” Byrne adds, “I think contentment born of acceptance is a very desirable goal.”

Byrne is a thoughtful and articulate interviewee. He has been married twice, first to the actress Ellen Barkin, with whom he had two now grown-up children and now to producer Hannah Beth King, the mother of his young daughter. They are not part of our conversation today. There are other doors flung wide open, though.

Walking with Ghosts, it should be said, holds a lot of pain in its pages. When I ask him why he wanted to write it, he talks about how he wanted to describe the world he came from and how it shaped him.

More than that, though, he adds, he wanted others who had suffered what he had suffered or who were struggling with issues of addiction in the way that he had, to know there was a way out.

“So many people feel powerless and hopeless, and one of the reasons I wrote this book was because there are so many people who live in silence about these issues. But I have a little bit of a platform. I say, ‘Look, I’ll tell you my story and maybe that will help you to see that if another person can do it maybe I can do it too.’ That’s really what I want to achieve by telling those stories. I have no real interest in being sensational or anything.”

Gabriel Byrne was born in 1950 just two years after his parents had met sheltering from the rain in a Dublin doorway. “If it hadn’t rained, I wouldn’t be here,” Byrne points out. “If she had matches for her cigarette I wouldn’t be here.”

The eldest of six, Byrne played football in the streets, went to the movies with his grandmother and learned the names of trees, flowers and birds from his dad.

His father was a cooper at Guinness. His mum was a nurse. “My father was a shy man, but he also had a really good sense of humour,” Byrne recalls. “My mother was more outgoing.”

It was his dad Byrne took after. “They say that acting is the shy man’s revenge. Somebody told me once that when they met me when I was a kid, they had never seen anybody so shy. I could not understand how people could walk into parties and groups and be the life and soul of them. I was very much an introvert.

“But I had my father’s sense of humour. Once you got to know me, once I came out of my shell, there was this other person in there.”

His was a childhood marked, distorted he might say, by Catholicism. Byrne attended a school run by the Christian Brothers. There he was called stupid on a regular basis. “I will always remember a teacher saying to me, ‘You will never be any good for anything except the pick and the shovel.’ Now that was regarded as the lowest form of ambition. I grew up with this sense of feeling stupid, of feeling afraid and a feeling of shame.”

He was also beaten. Could he at least find an escape from that at home? “No, home wasn’t a place to escape to. If you got beaten at school the inference was you wouldn’t have been hit if you didn’t deserve it.

“The language of emotion was very basic. I’m sure it was similar in Scotland. There wasn’t a great deal of hugging and encouragement and that stuff, so, of course, you took that outside. You went around fearing that you were going to be hit from somewhere utterly unexpected. When your self is negated, the essential core of who you are, it sets you in a place where the world is very dangerous and unsafe and uncertain. So, yes, I did carry that in me.”

And with good reason. The truth is, he was sexually abused at school from the age of eight and then again when he went off to England at the age of 11 to study to be a priest at a seminary.

At the time, the idea of going to England on his own while still a boy was something of an adventure, he says. I wonder, though. Was there also a sense in which he saw it as an escape from the Christian Brothers?

“I suppose you’re right. I’m sure it was. It was some kind of unconscious desire to get out and I remember wondering while we were on the train, ‘Is this going to be a place where we’re going to get beaten again?’”

The reality was worse. He writes about the abuse he suffered at the seminary clearly, powerfully and unflinchingly.

Did writing it down on paper help? “It clarified the difficulty in my particular case of coming to terms with the perpetrator,” he says.

Byrne writes about phoning the priest in question many years later, in 2002, but being unable to confront the man about what he had done.

“I couldn’t go through with what I wanted to say because he sounded so pleasant,” Byrne recalls now. “His voice was like satin and I thought, ‘Do I really want to hurt this old man who’s almost on his death bed, or should I just let it go?’

“He didn’t remember me, but I remembered him, and that is the way it is. What, I think, became clear to me also was the extent to which these men were protected and moved from one place to another.

“I saw a photograph of him out in some place like New Guinea with his arms around two 12-year-old kids and I thought, ‘This is now 30 years afterwards, and here he is. And what’s he doing out there to those young innocent kids?’

“The church really hadn’t dealt with it and that makes me angrier than anything. These people found refuge within the confines of the church.”

That phone call, I say. Did you have a clear idea what you wanted from it?

“I didn’t, no. I just thought, ‘I’m going to see what he says. I’m going to tell him what I feel.’ And none of that transpired.

“What would I have done to him? I had thought about that, but, in reality, I couldn’t do anything because I didn’t know how to address it. I didn’t know how to say anything. So, how much more vulnerable was a 12-year-old in that situation when as a grown man I was … not intimidated by him. I just didn’t know how to handle it because he was saying things at the end like, ‘God bless you, may the holy spirit guide you and protect you.’

“And you think, ‘Why is he still saying this stuff? He’s a predator and he’s still saying may the holy spirit guide you.’ I couldn’t figure that out at all.

“So yeah, there wasn’t a resolution to it. But at the same time, I’m glad that I did it.”

The fall-out from those childhood experiences marked him for years. He suffered feelings of bafflement and shame. His subsequent drinking and depression was, he believes, connected to the trauma.

And yet, in the interim, he built a life for himself. He spent some of his twenties teaching but acting eventually took over. “I felt that I had found something that gave me enormous satisfaction. It was utterly unselfconscious. I really loved it. I felt I’d found a home with other actors doing plays and I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that acting was my real vocation.”

Byrne had some initial success in Dublin and then moved to London at the start of the 1980s where he spent more time on the dole than working.

“It was a difficult time to be Irish,” he says. The IRA bombing campaign was in full swing, at the time, the Hunger strikes a recent memory. “I remember being very conscious of keeping my mouth shut.”

Sometimes he forgot and suffered a beating as a result.

“People were terrified. It’s hard to describe how afraid people were getting into the tube and going on buses. the Irish were regarded as … Well, they were regarded as many things. You had Terry Wogan and Henry Kelly and Dave Allen. They were allowed to be entertainers, but they weren’t allowed to be much more than that.

“The scripts that were around at the time, you could see how they would employ Irish actors, priests, drunks, terrorists, whimsical unreal characters. But nobody real.”

It took another move to feel at home. “I had left the warm room of Dublin for this place I couldn’t settle in and when I went to New York I felt immediately at home again. I thought, ‘Nobody is judging me in this place, nobody cares where I come from.’”

What London had given him, though, was a chance to meet and work with the likes of Richard Burton and Richard Harris. It was a lesson in what fame could do to you.

“In the main I found them not terribly happy men despite all the great achievement, and it really made me think. I had equated achievement with happiness. And achievement and happiness are two totally different things.

“They were also incredibly wealthy, but they ended up sitting in pubs until closing time no different from a guy who repaired car engines. I sensed a loneliness and an unhappiness from them.”

He followed in their footsteps though, drinking too much, using alcohol as a comforter and a social lubricant.

Back then there was a heroism attributed to the drinking exploits of the likes of Harris. “Now you look at them and you think, ‘Christ, what a price to pay for mythology.’ I remember Richard Harris punching a wall in Budapest and breaking the bones in his knuckles and continuing to drink until the next day when he woke up in agony. We pay for those nights of drinking to excess. We pay for them the next day and we pay for them in all kinds of ways in terms of depression, in terms of domestic abuse, assault, car crashes. It is a gigantic problem, and we tend to look at it and just say, ‘Ah, it’s a night out, it’s a bit of craic.’ It’s much more than that. It’s an epidemic.”

For a while, of course, it was also his problem. He writes in the book about his waking up from blackouts in the 1990s. Did his drinking years damage him?

“Physically, thank God it didn’t. I’m very lucky that it didn’t. But then I stopped 24, 25 years ago, so I’m very lucky. But there were friends of mine who weren’t so lucky. Those people paid the price for thinking that they were living a great life.”

He’s said in the past that if he had continued drinking it would have killed him. Instead, he opted to ask for help. “One day you just get sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he says, ”and you realise that you’ve just hit a concrete wall and you cannot go any further and that’s it.

“Not that that’s the end for everybody. I don’t take it for granted still to this day. But I knew if I was to continue after that day there was no coming back. Because one of the insidious things it does to you is that it makes the world not important. It makes life not important. Being out of it is preferable to being in it.”

There’s a line in Walking with Ghosts that stayed with me, I tell him: “I think of time and how it passes.” Now that he’s 70 what is his relationship with time?

“Well, first of all I’m amazed that I’m still here,” he begins before going on to quote the Irish writer John McGahern. “McGahern talked about the summit of his ambition being the peaceful passing of days. I feel I’m at that point in my life.

“I have absolutely no fear of the future at all. I had great fear of the future when I was younger, but I don’t now. Whatever timespan is allotted to me, I’ll be grateful for it.

What does this tell us? That the past is another country. But sometimes you can move away from it.

Walking with Ghosts by Gabriel Byrne is published by Picador, priced £16.99