One of the most puzzling little stories of 1930s Ireland has to be Antonin Artaud’s arrival here in 1937. The French poet, dramatist and theatre director is remembered as one of the major figures of the avant-garde art movement of his time, but to the people of the Aran Islands, and to the confused Gardaí of Miltown in South Dublin, he was a total mystery.
Arriving in the country in August 1937, a troubled Artaud was convinced he carried with him the staff of Saint Patrick, which he felt he had to return to its rightful home. To him, this was a spiritual mission of sorts, and the staff possessed magical qualities. Along with the staff, he carried a letter of introduction from the Irish Legation in Paris, who were unaware of the nature of his pilgrimage. He would end up in Mountjoy Prison for his troubles, before being deported as a “destitute and undesirable alien.”
Who was Antonin Artaud?
While the name Antonin Artaud means little to the Irish public, things are certainly different in France. Born in Marseilles in September 1896, Antonin endured both physical and psychological illness in his youth. At the age of only four he was diagnosed with spinal meningitis, and as one biographical entry notes:
His health did not improve as he matured and for most of his life he was beset with ill health, pain and nervous depression. He was continually admitted and discharged from hospitals and sanatoria and developed addictions to hallucinatory and pain-reducing drugs like opium. His addiction and abuse of these substances began to have permanent effects and his mental health gradually deteriorated.
He was inducted into the French armed forces in 1916 when war was raging in the country, but quickly dismissed on health grounds. It was in 1920, following the end of the horror show that was the First World War, that a young Artaud arrived in Paris, at a time when the city was redefining culture in its own unique ways.
Ian Buchanan maintains in his Dictionary of Critical Theory that Artaud “never had a proper career. He lurched from one thing to another seemingly at random, but apparently with the constant aim of challenging the perception of reality.” In Paris, he studied under Charles Dullin, theatre manager and bold director, and appeared in a number of French cinematic productions, including La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, a beautifully shot 1928 silent film in which he played the role of Jean Massieu, the Dean of Rouen.
For a period, Artaud was a core part of the Surrealist art movement in Paris, contributing to and editing publications that explored this new approach. Surrealist art was colourful, playful, and often very political. Salvador Dali said that “Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision.” In time, Artaud drifted from the Surrealists, in part owing to the political direction of the art movement, but he still made important cultural contributions in France. One such contribution was the Theatre of Cruelty, his desire to “reject form and inject chaos” into theatre. He wanted a new approach, with lights, noise and setting all playing new roles. As Lee Jamieson has put it, “by turning theatre into a place where the spectator is exposed rather than protected, Artaud was committing an act of cruelty upon them.”
The appeal of Ireland:
So, what brought this puzzling artist to Ireland?
In 1997, the sociologist Peter Collier wrote a fascinating article, Artaud on Aran, which tried to understand the thought process of Artaud at the time. In short, he had become convinced that a walking stick he had acquired from a friend was the staff of Saint Patrick, and reading texts like the Confessions of St. Patrick and parts of the Annals of the Four Masters only further increased this belief.
This was a mentally unsound individual, convinced he had the Bachal Isu (or ‘Staff of Jesus’)in his possession. As Rachel Moss has noted,”from the 1180s until its destruction in 1538 [the Bachal Isu] was kept at Christchurch Cathedral Dublin as one of its most prized relics.” It was destroyed in 1538 in Skinners Row in Dublin, following the Protestant Reformation, on the basis that it was a “superstitious relic.” Yet Artaud believed he had it, and was obliged to return it.
A curious file in the National Archives, held in the collections of the Department for External Affairs, explains more. Much of this file has been published online by the excellent Dublin Review. The file opens with a short note from Artaud to the Irish Legation in Paris, explaining to them his reasoning for wishing to travel to Ireland. He outlined that his visit to Ireland was concerned with research, but that “this isn’t a literary project, nor that of an academic or museum curator…It is vital that I reach the land where John Millington Synge lived.” In return he received a letter of introduction from Art O’Briain, the Irish Minister Plenipotentiary in Paris:
This letter will make known to you Monsieur Antonin Artaud from Paris.
M. Artaud is about to leave for Ireland in search of information concerning ancient Gaelic customs and other matters relating to ancient Ireland, her history and so forth.
He himself would be very grateful for any help that you can give him.
In addition to this letter of introduction, Artaud was provided with a list of individuals who may be appeal to help him in researching ancient Irish traditions. Susan Sontag,editor of some of Artaud’s writing, has noted that he was “in an extremely agitated state before his departure for Ireland.” The Frenchman would arrive in Cobh clutching this letter of introduction, but without a visa. It proved enough.
Traveling across the countryside:
Artaud spent slightly more than six weeks on the island of Ireland, passing through the Aran Islands and Galway city before arriving in Dublin with almost nothing to sustain himself. From Ireland, he sent numerous postcards and letters home to France, writing to friends and former art collaborators. In one, he made his feelings clear:
The cane I possess is the very same one of Jesus Christ and, knowing I am not crazy, you will believe me when I tell you that Jesus Christ speaks to me every day, reveals all that is going to happen and arranges for me to do what I am going to do.Therefore, I came to Ireland to obey the exact orders of God, the Son, incarnated in Jesus Christ.
His biographer, David A. Shafer, has described the letters he sent from Ireland as “a bizarre admixture of spiritual prophecies and political rantings.” The French, he wrote, “whether identifying with the Right or Left, are all idiots and capitalists”. He also poured scorn on the Spanish Republic, Jews and just about everyone else.
On Inishmore, locals seemed more confused than anything by his arrival there. Bridget O’Toole, 20 at the time of Artaud’s arrival, recalled later:
There was something in the stick. I was always play acting to get it off him. My mother would shout after him – `Stop chasing with that one as she’s only married’. . . but I was not afraid of him. The only thing was to keep away from the stick but I suppose I was a divil, like himself.
Her neighbour Mary Gill had similar memories: “I thought he looked like a recluse or whatever you call it…I often told my friends that when I was going up to the cows I had to go past him sitting up between the rocks. I made a detour so as not to disturb him because he was so much private in himself.”
He left the islands, owing locals a significant sum of money for lodgings, and departed for Galway city. He would lodge in the Imperial Hotel, sending confused postcards (depicting Eyre Square) home, but again departed owing money. He arrived on Dublin on 8 September, a man with little English struggling to communicate with anyone he encountered. In the capital, he would spend a night at the Saint Vincent de Paul’s shelter for homeless men at Back Lane, while also seeking out some of the people who he had been pointed towards in Paris. He introduced himself to the publisher Richard Foley, who later beautifully described meeting him: “Máire Ní Daboinean, my assistant editor, knows French very well and spent a good while in France. We came to the conclusion that our visitor was traveling light in the upper storey.”
Artaud would arrive at the grounds of the Jesuit College in Milltown, convinced of the need to speak to the Jesuits, but Gardaí were called to have him removed from the grounds. Seán Murphy, Assistant Secretary of the Department of External Affairs, would write to the Irish Legation in Paris about this:
Since his arrival in this country Artaud has failed to pay his hotel bill in Galway and has had to be removed from the grounds of Milltown Park, where he called to interview some of the members of the [Jesuit] community. On being informed that the priests were on retreat and that he could not be granted an interview, he refused to leave the grounds. The Gardaí had to be called by the Milltown Park authorities to have him removed. As he is destitute he has had to be confined in Mountjoy Prison awaiting the Order for his deportation.
For a man in his mental state, Mountjoy must have been traumatic. To compound confusion, his walking stick was lost in the fracas with Gardaí, and never recovered. Deportation came on 29 September, when the S.S Washington set sail from Cobh. Murphy noted that:
On arrival at Le Havre, Artaud was sent to the Havre General Hospital in a strait-jacket. He was later transferred from that hospital to the Departmental Insane Asylum at Rouen. It is understood from the latest information available that this man is not in a fit condition to be questioned.
Artaud’s journey to Ireland has caught the imagination of many. Aidan Mathews dramatised the story for RTE Radio, while Artaud in Ireland was performed at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in 1999. Artaud would die alone in a psychiatric clinic on 4 March 1948, having spent the final phase of his life in numerous asylums.