Sixty years ago today, on August 14th 1937,the originator of the "Theatre of Cruelty", the French poet Antonin Artaud, arrived at Cobh, Co Cork. He sent postcards to a number of leading literary figures in Paris, including Andre Breton, announcing the beginning of his ill-fated mission that would see him wandering desolately the Catholic Ireland of Eamon de Valera and Cardinal McRory in search of his own salvation.
The face that had provided such a striking profile as Marat in Abel Gance's classic film Napoleon and the voice that had shocked tout Paris during his short-lived, but explosive, Theatre Alfred Jarry at the end of the 1920s, was now a pale, taunt shadow.
For a little over six weeks Antonin Artaud struggled to overcome impossible odds in that "devouring place" until he was deported from Ireland as an undesirable alien on September 29th, 1937. Antonin Artaud entered Ireland without a visa by using a simple letter of introduction containing a list of Irish university scholars given to him by Art Ua Briain, the Minister at the Free State Legation in Paris. He had written to Ua Briain on the previous Friday telling him of his "personal need" to reach the "living sources" of the country that had received John Millington Synge. Artaud travelled from Cork to Galway, where Professor Tomas O Maille put him in touch with the Kilronan PP, Fr Killeen, who found lodgings for him at Eoghanacht. He was to live for two weeks in the house of Sean O Milleain who serviced the lighthouse on Earragh Island.
There, the O Milleains fed and took care of this "peculiarly" dressed Frenchman in navy trenchcoat and beret, who held tightly to his strange walking stick. This was a decorative stick that Artaud had taken possession of from a friend, who had received it as a gift from a Belgian painter. It had been bought by the painter in a flea market some time previously and contained a series of peculiar knots. For Artaud it was nothing less than the prophetic Canne de St. Patrick, or what is still recalled by some old Dubliners today as the Bachall Isu.
The original Bachall Isu or Staff of Jesus was the most sacred relic of the Irish Church, which had hung in Christ Church until publicly burned in Skinner's Row by Henry VIII's archbishop of Dublin, George Brown, during his iconoclastic campaign in August, 1538. The Lives of St. Patrick provides an account of how it was given to the saint on the island of Lerins in the Mediterranean by St. Tassach. It was said to be the staff that Jesus had used to drive off Satan during his 40 days in the desert and is reputed to have been brought to Lerins by Joseph of Aremethia. It became one of the great symbols of jurisdiction of Armagh, being brought to Ballyboghil (Baile-Bachail) around 1121 by Strongbow, and from there to the Anglo-Norman cathedral of Holy Trinity, Christ Church, inside the safer walls of Dublin. The sacred power of the Bachhall Isu was such that solemn oaths were sworn in its presence by the most powerful of Norman knights.
How did one of the most subversive voices in pre-war avant-garde France come to believe that he had repossessed the Bachall Isu and that he was on a sacred mission to return it to the "sources of a very ancient tradition", to be found only in Ireland? The elaborate mise en scene devised by Antonin Artaud before his departure from France must be placed in the context of the man's increasingly marginal position inside the Parisian society of letters and his need to break with a terrible addiction. Artaud was a serious drug addict and had been consuming large doses of opiates for some 17 years, prior to his efforts early in 1937 to break his dependency. His voyage to the Tarahumaara Indians in Mexico the previous year had allowed him to assist at the sacred Aztec peyote ritual and he was to suffer terrifying moments of hallucinations and overwhelming lucidity on his return to Paris.
Earlier in May, 1937 he had suffered the social discredit of an aborted marriage with the daughter of a wealthy Brussels family, who in turn became an opium addict. After this event Artaud immersed himself in cabalistic texts and quickly mastered tarot interpretations of his horoscope. In July, he published an astrological text under the title Les Nouvelles Revelations de l'Etre (The New Revelations of Being) when, significantly, he refused to sign his name to the text, preferring a mystic pseudonym - The Revealed. In this text he places his Canne de St. Patrick at the centre of an imminent encounter with the forces of destruction, but makes no mention of Ireland.
He had also read various hagiographic texts, including the Confessions of St. Patrick and accounts from the Annals of the Four Masters, where the date of the public burning of the Bachall Isu is given as AD 1537. It seems reasonable to assume it was Artaud's belief that the act of returning the symbolic Bachall Isu to the tomb of St. Patrick (which he understood to be also in Christ Church) was the "mission from Jesus Christ" to which his mythomanic letters back to France from Ireland make constant reference.
Antonin Artaud is remembered on Inishmore as a solitary, sick man, a duine le Dia, a man with God, who had come amongst the islanders following some terrible crisis in his life. He is known there by the name - an Franncarin beag - the small little Frenchman. Bridget O'Toole, Sean O Milleain's daughter, was 20 years old and just married when Artaud and his "stick" came to her parents' Eoghanacht house, a two storey slated building under the shadow of Dun Aengus that still faces over Gleannachan Bay towards Connemara. She gives this memory of him:
"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."
Mary Gill, a neighbour of Bridget O'Toole's, also recalls Artaud clearly: "I thought he looked like a recluse or whatever you call it. I know Bridget's father and mother thought a lot of him. 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."
Artaud left Kilronan on Friday September 3rd, using money lent to him by the generous Sean O Milleain to telegram his parents to pay for the crossing, bringing his total debt there to £1-17s-6d. This was the sum the Department of Foreign Affairs requested their French minister, Art Ua Briain, to pay, as they held him responsible for Artaud's engagements in Ireland. For nearly two years the controversy raged between Dublin and Paris, but to no avail, for the O Milleains were never to be paid by any party. Artaud stayed another week in The Imperial Hotel in Galway, waiting without success for money from France, and contracted another debt from Michael McDonough, the French Legation's delegate there. During this period his mind was focused on Paris and he wrote some of his most terrifying letters back to France, one of which, to Andre Breton, announces his imminent arrest and imprisonment.
He left Galway "to play out absolutely his life" on the streets of Dublin. He did meet with a number of Irish scholars including the Department of Education translator, R.A. Foley who considered him "to be travelling light in the upper storey". He stayed also at the residence of Dr. Hamilton-Taylor, a consultant psychiatrist at both Grangegorman and Portrane, where it may be assumed he received some medical relief. He was given lodgings in the St. Vincent de Paul night shelter for homeless men in the Back Lane, which ran into Skinner's Row where the Bachall Isu had been burned exactly 400 years previously almost to the day, as Artaud believed it. As with his original choice of Aran, it was no mere accident that Artaud made his pilgrimage to the place where he believed one of the most important public acts of symbolic destruction had occurred, not just of Irish history but of the history of European civilisation.
On September 19th, somewhere in a Dublin square, he lost the Bachall Isu, most likely in a confrontation with Gardai.
The following day he tried to gain access to the Provincial General of the Jesuits at Milltown College to confess the failure of his prophetic mission, but was refused, as the community were "on retreat". Late that evening he was arrested by Donnybrook gardai, in a pitiful state, hysterical and starving, in a corner of the College grounds. The police report details that he was arrested "in possession of a branch of a shrub he had pulled in the grounds".
The person interviewed by members of the Special Detective Unit and the French Legation in the Aliens building of Dublin Castle was a man who claimed to be a Greek citizen called Arland Arlanopoulus. After six days of imprisonment in Mountjoy, Antonin Marie Joseph Artaud was deported on September 29th on the SS Washington back to Le Harve, as an undesirable and destitute alien. On arrival, he was removed by force in a straitjacket and was subsequently interned as a mentally ill person suffering from "ideas of persecution and hallucinations" on the orders of the Le Harve Prefect.
The following February a strangely scrawled letter from one Arland Arlanopoulos was received at the Irish Legation in Paris, from the mental asylum at Sotteville-Les-Rouen. In this letter an exact description is given of Artaud's arrest, interrogation and deportation from Ireland, together with fabulations concerning his real identity. He pleads that the Irish Minister should intervene for his cause, so as he might be allowed to return to Ireland to find "everything that he had left behind him" protected by "the most honourable police of Mr. de Valera". There was never any official reply to this request, but after exhaustive searches the gardai informed his family in Paris that no trace of "his walking stick" was to be found anywhere in Dublin.
Peter Collier has just completed his doctorate in sociology at the University of Nantes, France.