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Antonin Artaud in Ireland: Myth and influence of avant-garde genius we arrested and deported in 1930s

Legacy of French writer and dramatist Artaud who was detained in Milltown, Donnybrook and Mountjoy is focus of Ranelagh Arts

The story of Antonin Artaud’s visit to Ireland in 1937 has almost passed into myth. This may have pleased the Marseilles-born writer, poet, dramatist, artist, actor and director, one of the few people who stands with Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht in terms of their influence on contemporary theatre. After all, he had come to these shores to deliver what he believed to be the Bachal Isu, or Staff of Jesus, said to have been given to St Patrick on an island somewhere in the Etruscan Sea. But he was also in search of something deeper.

The mind of a genius is not always a comfortable place, and Artaud’s certainly didn’t help him to lead a peaceful life. His search for something more meaningful than the trappings of his modern world had also taken him to Mexico. He wanted to find the “source”, which he had also sought in drugs. Artaud arrived in Ireland with little English, no Irish and no money. He ended up imprisoned, then deported. The so-called Staff of Jesus, if it had existed at all, had been burned by the Anglican archbishop George Browne in 1538, outside Christ Church in Dublin, on suspicion of being too “superstitious” for comfort in Reformation times.

But all legends hint at richer truths and, in Artaud’s case, the myths and truths he was fascinated by emerged in theories and writings that are referenced by artists, theatremakers and film-makers today: prioritising physical movement, gesture, music, light and sound to create emotional impact. Artaud wanted drama to be all-embracing rather than passively received.

It is hard to miss his influence, even if you don’t always recognise it as such. He is there in Bea McMahon’s Another Shot at Love installation at this year’s EVA International exhibition, in Limerick. “Making the props ‘speak’ comes from Artaud,” says McMahon, who had researched the Frenchman’s Irish visit for an unrealised project. The Tipperary-based Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein created a series of blue-hued images of Artaud in 1994; two of them feature in an exhibition at Ranelagh Arts, part of a wider exploration there this month of Artaud and his legacies. Paul Smith, one of the organisers, hopes it will become biennial event.


Now based in west Cork, Smith is probably best-known as founder of Blast First, the iconic record label whose acts included Sonic Youth, Big Black and Dinosaur Jr. The musician, curator and composer Matthew Nolan is also involved in the project. He first met Smith while programming the contemporary music strand at Kilkenny Arts Festival. Now he has worked with Seán MacErlaine, Sharon Phelan and Thomas Haugh to rescore The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film, which features Artaud as Jean Massieu, the dean of Rouen.

The exhibition itself is slender but fascinating. There are hints and glimpses of the man and of the landscape that so lured him to Ireland. There is also a gratifying map, Le Monde au Temps des Surréalistes, or The World in the Time of the Surrealists, dating from 1929 and showing only the countries the surrealists considered interesting; Ireland is vast, at least in relation to Britain. Perhaps that is part of the fascination: the elusive presence of a phenomenal genius, presented through elusive presences. There is a collage of details from Millane House, where Artaud stayed on Inis Mór.

Part of the reason for the project is to raise awareness of, and funds for, the restoration and preservation of Millane House. Smith describes visiting the island and meeting locals who still remember the period. “One of the things that interested me about Artaud is that it was just on the edge of living human memory,” Smith says. “People don’t know what they know,” he adds, describing the way conversations drew out memories of a crazy Frenchman and of children trying to steal the stick. “So I got to shake the hand of a gentleman who had touched the stick that Artaud was so connected to.”

Connection is hugely important to Smith, who has also worked with Iain Sinclair, the acclaimed and persuasive writer of psychogeographies exploring the rich resonances of place, and how histories, events and presences bleed through into our consciousnesses. Ranelagh, Smith says, is an ideal location, as Artaud was detained by the Garda in the grounds of the Jesuit College in Milltown, and held at Donnybrook Garda station ahead of being imprisoned in Mountjoy, awaiting his deportation on September 29th, 1937.

The thing about the Artaud story is that it is not over. While his influence pervades strands of cinema, theatre, art and writing, there are other echoes. They are there in how we treat people we don’t understand. They are there in our ongoing lack of compassion for the poor, the destitute, the unwell or maybe those who are simply ahead of their time. They are there, most recently, in the outpouring of emotion at the death of Sinéad O’Connor, amplified, perhaps, by collective guilt about how much some had vilified her throughout her life.

“There’s something close to the bone about the idea that one of the great geniuses of the first half of the 20th century in artistic terms visited us and we exported him in a straitjacket,” the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole says in Artaud on Aran, which will be shown as part of the Ranelagh Arts events. Artaud came to Ireland searching for something. In many ways we are still looking. Some of it, however, is to be found in the influence of his vision, ever-present in the art and writing of today.

Antonin Artaud in Ireland is at Ranelagh Arts, Dublin 6, from Thursday, September 14th, to Sunday, September 24th. It includes a screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc on Friday, September 15th (€20); a screening, at IMMA, of Rossa Mullin’s Artaud on Aran, followed by a talk with Paul Smith and Christina Kennedy, on Sunday, September 17th; and a literary walk and discussion of Artaud’s theatre of cruelty on Culture Night (Friday September 22nd)