‘An absent-minded person of the student type’
A Department of External Affairs file numbered DFA Paris P 34/119, and entitled ‘Enquiry from Antonin Artaud re “Sources d’Antiques Traditions” in Ireland’, is held in the National Archives in Dublin. The file consists of letters and memos relating to the ill-fated travels of Antonin Artaud, the French theorist of the ‘Theatre of Cruelty’, in Ireland in 1937. Artaud, who had a history of mental disturbance, suffered a severe breakdown while in Ireland; but the file is concerned a question that is, against this backdrop, comically trivial: the ontological status of the letter of introduction written for Artaud by the Irish Minister Plenipotentiary in Paris, in relation to a debt of £1.17.6 owed by Artaud to a man with whom he lodged for two weeks in the Aran Islands. The Irish diplomats concerned with the case enacted a Myles na gCopaleen-esque controversy that belongs perhaps to the theatre of the absurd.
The text that follows consists of verbatim extracts from the file. For reasons of copyright it has not been possible to reproduce translations of Artaud’s own letters in full. The inconsistent orthography of several names has been standardized herein. Translations from the French are by Sylvie Kleinman-Batt; those from the Irish are by Elaine Garvey.
Antonin Artaud (1896–1948), poet, dramatist, actor, essayist
Mme Euphrasie Marie-Louise Artaud, Antonin Artaud’s mother
E. Artaud, Antonin Artaud’s brother
Art O’Briain, Minister Plenipotentiary at the Irish Legation in Paris
C.C. Cremin, Secretary of the Legation
Mr O’Byrne, Deputy Secretary of the Legation
Seán Murphy, Assistant Secretary, Department of External Affairs, Dublin
Richard Foley, publisher, An Gúm, Dublin
Fr Tomás Ó Cillín, Parish Priest, Cill Rónáin, Inis Mór, Aran
Seán Ó Milleáin, guest-house keeper, Eoghanacht, Inis Mór, Aran
The first item in the file is a short handwritten letter, dated 6 August 1937, from Antonin Artaud (21 rue Daguerre, XIVième) to the Irish Legation in Paris. Artaud explained (as translated from the French) that he had ‘been searching for several years for the sources of a very ancient tradition’ – a tradition that he did not name, but the search for which had previously brought him to Mexico. ‘In order to accomplish this,’ he wrote, ‘I need to go to the land where John Millington Synge lived.’ He had published an account of his Mexican travels in the Nouvelle Revue Française, and he seems to have had a commission from the magazine for his Irish travels as well. The following undated letter of introduction, kernel of much subsequent disputation, was given to Artaud by the Irish Minister Plenipotentiary in Paris, Art O’Briain, along with a list of names and addresses of people in Ireland whom O’Briain judged might be able to help Artaud (see list in letter from O’Briain to Fr Ó Cillín, 8 June 1938). It is translated from the Irish.
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.
One of the names on the list provided to Artaud by O’Briain was that of the publisher Richard Foley of An Gúm in Dublin, to whom Artaud wrote shortly after arriving in Ireland. The following is an extract from a letter from Foley to O’Briain, dated 7 September 1937:
[…] This morning I received here an eight-page letter from Mr Antonin Artaud at Galway who says he bears a letter from yourself.
He takes me to be ‘M. le Secrétaire to the Ministry’ … He adds:
‘Would you perhaps be kind enough to arrange for someone to accompany me for a day or two during my visits and to provide me with a few suggestions with regard to what the current Irish government wishes to do for a French-speaking Secretary, as I have no knowledge whatsoever of English, and I do not intend learning it and have not yet had time to learn Gaelic.’
I have acknowledged his letter and have informed him that the matter of his visit has been brought to the notice of Dr Mahr, the head of the National Museum of Ireland, who will help him in every way possible.
No doubt we shall have a call here from the gentleman when he reaches Dublin […]
Seán Murphy, Assistant Secretary, Department of External Affairs, Dublin, to O’Briain, Paris, 27 September 1937:
I am directed by the Minister to inform you that an Order for the deportation from Saorstát Eireann has been made against Antonin Marie Joseph Artaud, a French citizen who landed at Cobh on the 14th August last. Artaud is being deported as a destitute and undesirable alien. Artaud would have been refused permission to land by the Immigration Officer at Cobh were it not for the fact that he produced a letter of introduction signed by you. 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.
I am to suggest that in future, letters of introduction should only be granted to persons who are personally known to you and about whom you are satisfied that their credentials are entirely satisfactory.
O’Briain, Paris, to Murphy, Dublin, 29 September 1937:
With reference to your minute dated the 27th September, the letter which was given to Mr Artaud could not be construed as a letter of personal recommendation, it merely states that he is going to Ireland for the purpose of certain research studies and that he will be glad for any help that can be given to him. The letter is not addressed to anybody in particular but is of a general character and was given to Mr Artaud together with a list of persons from whom he might be able to secure information which would be helpful to him in his studies. A copy of the letter given to Mr Artaud and a list of the names is attached hereto for your information. [For list, see O’Briain’s letter to Fr Ó Cillín, 8 June 1938.]
I did not myself see Mr Artaud. He wrote to the Legation on the 6th August a letter, copy of which is also attached. He followed up this letter by a personal call to the Legation. I was informed of his visit in due course. I was told that he wished to proceed to Ireland for the purpose of his research work. I was told that he seemed to be peculiar, but that generally speaking, he left the impression of an absent-minded person of the student type. The Legation had no reason for suspecting him to be an undesirable person.
It is of course very unfortunate that the letter given to Mr Artaud should have been wrongly used or wrongly misconstrued, but I think this case should be looked upon as more or less accidental.
It would raise many obvious difficulties if I only gave letters of introduction or recommendation to individuals who are personally known to me. I should, for instance, in the last couple of years, have been obliged to refuse letters to, for instance, Mr Rivoallan, the writer and publicist, to Mlle Le Flem, a student who spent some two or three months in Ireland, and to many others whose names I cannot mention but with whom I became personally acquainted because of their desire to visit Ireland and to be introduced to sources which would be helpful to them in the studies or researches which they wished to pursue. On the other hand and generally speaking, I always make careful inquiries as to the credentials of anyone asking for a letter of introduction or recommendation and I do not give such a letter unless I am reasonably satisfied that they are persons who will not make improper use of the letter. However in view of this unfortunate accident I will see that even greater care is taken in the future.
Richard Foley, Dublin, to O’Briain, Paris, 30 September 1937:
[…] I see in this evening’s Herald the attached paragraph about M. Antonin Artaud.
He wrote to me from Galway about 4 or 5 weeks ago – at the time I mentioned it to you in a letter.
I spoke to [Secretary of the Department of External Affairs] Joe Walshe about him and explained matters; then I advised Artaud to visit the Museum where the Director, Dr Mahr, had been informed of his advent – the intimation to Mahr was made through Dr Quain of the Education Department under whose aegis the Director works.
A week or ten days later our visitor arrived at my room in Marlboro St. We gathered he had been one week in Galway and three weeks in Arran [sic].
Máire Ní Daboineann, my assistant editor, knows French very well and spent a good while in France. We came to the conclusion that our visitor was travelling light in the upper storey; unknown to me, he quietly appropriated your letter and kept showing it (as well as mine to him at Galway) as his introduction […]
Before many days he turned up at the French Consulate asking, as far as I can learn, for money as he was stranded. I heard that he had not even a passport and hence no visa.
I believe there was the devil to pay all round and now the evening paper explains everything in a few words.
I noticed your cautious phraseology in the letter […]
O’Briain, Paris, to Murphy, Dublin, 2 October 1937:
[…] I have this morning received from a friend in Ireland a cutting from the Dublin Evening Herald of the 30th September [see below] […]
The same correspondent informs me (N.B. I do not know with what authority) that Artaud had no passport.
In your minute of 27th September above referred to, it is stated: ‘Artaud would have been refused permission to land by the immigration officer at Cobh were it not for the fact that he produced a letter of introduction signed by you.’
If Artaud had not a passport, my letter could not, or at all events should not have influenced the immigration officer. Also if the immigration officer (as suggested in the cutting from the Dublin Evening Herald) did not give the necessary permit, my letter, for the little that it was actually worth, could not have influenced the matter in any way. For my information, I should be much obliged if you would kindly inform me whether in fact Artaud had a passport and also if the immigration officer did not give the necessary permit for landing, and how Artaud was able to evade the landing officers and proceed into the country.
From the Evening Herald, 30 September 1937:
Antionan [sic] Maria [sic] Joseph Artand [sic], an alien, who was detained in Dublin for entering the country without permission, was yesterday taken to Cobh and placed on the United States liner, Washington, for deportation to Havre.
Murphy, Dublin, to O’Briain, Paris, 5 October 1937:
I am directed … to inform you that the report in the Evening Herald concerning Artaud’s case is incorrect.
Artaud was in possession of a valid French passport. The immigration officer apparently on view or as a result of a conversation with Artaud had doubts as to whether he would grant him permission to land. When Artaud presented the letter signed by you the immigration officer not unnaturally assumed that his journey to Ireland was approved by the Saorstát Minister in Paris. In these circumstances he was granted permission to land, with the results which have already been reported in this Department’s minute of September 27th.
It was not suggested that the letter which Artaud presented was a personal letter of recommendation. It was, however, an open letter of introduction the possession of which must lead anyone to whom it was presented to assume that the holder was known and approved of by the Saorstát Minister in Paris. It is, of course, appreciated that accidents of this kind may happen, but it is suggested that in future letters of recommendation or introduction should not be given unless you are quite satisfied as to the Credentials of the persons to whom they are given.
O’Briain, Paris, to Murphy, Dublin, 2 December 1937:
I have the honour to refer to […] previous correspondence regarding Antonin Artaud.
This gentleman’s mother has informed the Legation that she has not heard from him for over two months and has inquired whether the Legation can throw any light on his recent movements which would tend to establish where he is at present staying. A similar inquiry was received yesterday from a friend of his.
For the purpose of replying to his mother, I should be glad if you would be good enough to ascertain and inform me of the date he left Ireland, the vessel on which he travelled and his destination.
Internal memo from O’Byrne to O’Briain, 8 December 1937:
The brother of [Artaud] called this morning in reference to our letter to his mother dated 2nd inst. to inquire whether there was any grave circumstance connected with his visit to Ireland which we had not disclosed. I informed him that his brother had not, according to our information, been able to pay his hotel bill, that he had to be seen off the college grounds of Milltown Park and being destitute was detained by the police pending the issue of a deportation order. I restated that we had written to Dublin for further particulars and were awaiting a reply.
Murphy to O’Briain, 13 January 1938:
[…] regarding the present whereabouts of Antonin Marie Joseph Artaud, a French national, I am directed by the Minister to inform you that, during this man’s period of residence in this country, he resided at the following addresses:
Imperial Hotel, Galway
119 Lower Baggot Street
St Vincent de Paul (Night Shelter) Back Lane
He was deported from the port of Cobh on the s.s. ‘Washington’ on 29th September, 1937, and all his property, which included a razor, a stiletto, two birth certificates and one French passport, were handed over to the purser on the liner. 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.
Tomás Ó Cillín, P.P, of Cill Rónáin, Inis Mór, Aran, to the Department of External Affairs, Dublin, 27 January 1938 [translated from the Irish]:
A Frenchman by the name of Antonin Artaud came to Aran last summer. He had a letter from Art O’Briain, Paris, saying that Antonin was a respectable man etc. On account of that letter, he got lodgings in Seán Ó Milleáin’s house in Eoghanacht at £1 per week. He stayed a fortnight but he paid only 7/6d in all. He also received 5/– to send a cable to Paris requesting money, which never came. Seán Ó Milleáin is now asking Art O’Briain to send him £1.17.6. I think myself that Seán is partly right. I saw the letter from Art O’Briain myself and it was my opinion that we were in honour bound to heartily welcome Antonin. A lot of people were led astray and poor Seán lost his money to him. What is there to say about him? That’s the reason I’m writing on behalf of Seán.
On 2 February 1938 Murphy forwarded the Ó Cillín letter to O’Briain with a note that concluded: ‘I am to ask you to be good enough to let me know what reply you propose to make to Seán Ó Milleáin’s request.’
O’Briain to Murphy, 17 February 1938:
[…] The implications suggested in the Rev. Tomás Ó Cillín’s letter are so very unusual and so very peculiar that I am left in considerable doubt as to whether they are really intended. From the wording of your minute, it would seem that you have possibly adopted the implications above referred to. I am consequently further left in doubt as to whether the wording of your minute received due consideration or whether it is that its portent is obscure.
I do not of course know how the Rev. Tomás Ó Cillín came to write his letter. It does seem strange that an educated man such as a parish priest, and one no doubt with some knowledge of the world, should write a letter of this sort.
I should be glad to hear from you at an early date when if necessary I shall have some further comments to make.
P.S. It is difficult to understand from the wording of Father Ó Cillín’s letter whether he is aware that the Art O’Briain to whom he refers is the responsible Minister Plenipotentiary in Paris.
On 23 February 1938 Art O’Briain received an undated, five-page handwritten letter from Antonin Artaud, at l’Asile d’Allenes de Sotteville in Rouen. The rambling letter, with its characteristically heavy use of underlining and capital letters, shows signs of Artaud’s madness, and certain of its allegations clearly arise more from its author’s agitated mind than from actual events, but the experience he narrates is, in its broad outlines, fairly clear. Artaud, who repeatedly emphasized that he was (as translated from the French) ‘a Greek subject’, stated that ‘my case does not directly involve Ireland, but it involves the IRISH POLICE, which I am obliged to deem PARTLY responsible for my current misadventure’.
Artaud asserted that he had travelled to ‘CHRISTIAN IRELAND’ in search of political asylum, having been ‘pursued for my political opinions by the Police de Sûreté Française’. His detention in the mental hospital in Rouen was, he argued, ‘a genuine violation of the right to asylum, not by Ireland but by a very small part of the Irish police in Dublin, which by the way I presume to be (this very small part of the police) IN THE PAY OF ENGLAND!!!’. He also alleged that his Greek passport, letters and other papers had been stolen from his coat pocket while he was being questioned by an official from the French Legation in Dublin. The events following his release from Mountjoy Prison, which led to his deportation from Cobh, Artaud characterized as ‘a kidnapping attempt perpetrated by the French Legation’. He alleged further that while sailing to Le Havre on the Washington, ‘I was the victim of an assault on the ship, by the personnel on board who wanted to assassinate me in my cabin, I defended myself and for having set my attackers to flight I had the straitjacket inflicted upon me.’ He requested that O’Briain ‘intervene’ to allow him to return to Dublin, where ‘I MAY FIND EVERYTHING WHICH I HAD LEFT THERE’.
C.C. Cremin, Secretary of the Irish Legation in Paris, to Mme Artaud, 1 March 1938 [translated from the French]:
I refer to the matter of the trip your son Mr Antonin Artaud made to Ireland in August of last year. Upon your visit to this Legation, you were made aware of the unfortunate circumstances your son found himself in during his trip, and you had asked the Deputy Secretary at the Legation if it was the case that your son had left the country without having been able to pay off all his debts.
In reference to this matter I regret to inform you that I have just received a communication from my authorities in Dublin that the sum of £1.17.6 remains owed (one pound seventeen shillings and 6 pence) to a Mr Seán Ó Milleáin, who lives in Cill Rónáin, Aran, in the west of Ireland. From what I gather, Mr Artaud had lodged with this gentleman and the price agreed for said lodgings had been £1 per week. Your son stayed two weeks at Mr Ó Milleáin’s, but unfortunately only paid 7/6d (seven shillings and six pence) with the balance outstanding at £1.12.6. Furthermore, he borrowed 5 shillings in order to cover the dispatch of a cable to Paris, the purpose of which was to request money, therefore the total amount remaining owed to Mr Seán Ó Milleáin is, as I have already stated, £1.17.6. As my compatriot’s own fortunes are quite modest, this outlay represents a significant amount to him, one for which he could not easily shoulder the loss. Might I therefore humbly request, Madam, that you be kind enough to see to it that this debt be cleared as soon as possible.
Murphy, Dublin, to O’Briain, Paris, 14 March 1938:
I am directed by the Minister to refer to your minute of the 24th February regarding Monsieur Antonin Artaud, and to state that it is understood from the Department of Justice that exhausive enquiries have failed to trace the walking stick which this alien had in his possession on arrival in this country.
Internal memo from Cremin to O’Briain, 2 April 1938:
Mme Artaud, mother of Antonin Artaud, called to the Legation on the 16th ult. in connection with her son, Antonin Artaud. I asked her if she had come to settle up his account, about which we had written to her, and she said that she was not responsible for his debts. At the same time she intimated that, if the belongings which her son claims were returned to him, she might consider paying the account. I said that was a curious way of looking at things: on the one hand she and her other son were writing to the Legation as if they had full charge of all Antonin’s affairs and on the other she was refusing to accept a liability which very obviously fell upon a person in that position. I added that as her son was helpless I thought her attitude showed a rather extraordinary indifference in regard to just claims made against him; that if the money were not paid by her it might have to be paid by the Minister; and that it was a very poor return for the fact that the Minister had facilitated her son’s stay in Ireland that she should refuse to pay his debts contracted there. I added further that if the Irish authorities said that the police had not her son’s stick in their possession they should be believed: for the police to have the stick and refuse to acknowledge the fact might involve consequences which they would hardly face.
Mme Artaud did not commit herself to pay her son’s account although she might, she intimated, be willing to make partial payment at a later date.
O’Briain, Paris, to Murphy, Dublin, 5 April 1938:
Firstly – Father Ó Cillín in his letter of 27th January (copy of which was sent to me) says (as translated): ‘… On account of that letter he was lodged by Seán Ó Milleáin, etc … Seán Ó Milleáin is now asking Art O’Briain to send him £1.17.6. I personally think that Seán is partly right …’
The suggestion here tentatively made is that the giver of a letter of introduction becomes automatically liable for debts incurred by the recipient of the letter. I cannot believe that any educated person, such as one assumes a parish priest to be, would seriously put forward such a preposterous theory. It is to be noted, however, that Fr Ó Cillín is very tentative in making this peculiar suggestion. He thinks that ‘Seán is partly right’. After reading Fr Ó Cillín’s letter, I am left with the impression that he has written in this manner at the suggestion of some other party and that he himself feels very uncertain of his ground. Also, despite his statement to the contrary, I am doubtful that he has seen my original letter, for he says: ‘He had a letter from Art O’Briain saying that he, Antonin, was a recommendable man’, (i.e. gur fear fuinteach é Antonin, etc). My letter says nothing of the sort. It makes no reference whatsoever to Artaud’s personal character. In fact it (very obviously) avoids making any such reference.
Secondly – The Department minute of 22nd February says: ‘It is, in the circumstances, not surprising that Mr Ó Milleáin should look to you to make good the amount due to him by Monsieur Artaud, whom he regarded not unreasonably as being personally known to you.’
If I was surprised at the suggestion made very tentatively by Fr Ó Cillín, I am in the case of the Department minute astounded, for it takes that very tentative suggestion of Fr Ó Cillín and adopts it to its fullest extent as if it propounded an established principle.
In effect the Department lays it down categorically that any person giving a letter of introduction becomes immediately and automatically liable for any debts which may be incurred arising out of the use of that letter by the person to whom it was given.
I would be glad to be informed on what moral or legal principle such an extraordinary theory is (or can be) based.
[…] If such a theory were in any way admissable it would upset all established usage in such matters as nobody would ever take the risk of giving even the barest and simplest letter of introduction (such indeed as is the introduction which forms the basis of this correspondence). […]
Thirdly – As confusion appears to arise in the Department from the Irish text of my introduction to Artaud, it is well to give the English translation and make the matter perfectly clear. Here is the text in English:
This letter will make known to you M. Antonin Artaud.
Mr Artaud is going to Ireland in search of information concerning ancient Gaelic customs and other matters concerning ancient Ireland, her history, etc. …
HE, himself, will be grateful for any help that you can give him.’
[…] I say emphatically that the wording of this letter could not have deceived anybody, even the simplest of mortals. […]
The Department minute of 5th October 1937 very correctly says: ‘It was not suggested that the letter … was a personal letter of recommendation.’ Nor indeed could anyone who realises the meaning of words (and who possesses a knowledge of Irish) have construed it as a letter of personal recommendation. It is not in any sense a recommendation of any sort. […]
The Department minute of 22nd February says: ‘It would appear from Father Ó Cillín’s letter that Mr Artaud was given credit by Mr Ó Milleáin on the strength of your letter of introduction.’ I suggest that the text of my letter as given above should be read through carefully. Neither Mr Ó Milleáin nor anybody else could possibly have given credit to anybody on the strength of a letter worded in that manner.
If Mr Ó Milleáin had really been misled in that way, he would not have waited for several months before putting forward the very peculiar suggestion made in Father Ó Cillín’s letter. No doubt some ingenious individual made this suggestion to him as a possible method of recovering his loss.
Fourthly – Replying to the query in Department minute 2nd February as to what reply I propose to make to Fr Ó Cillín, I would say that I do not intend to make any reply. Had he written to me in the matter, I would of course have replied to him. But as matters stand there is no call upon me to make any reply, either directly or through the Department.
[…] I consider that on receipt of Fr Ó Cillín’s letter, the Department should have replied to him, stating that obviously no claim could be made upon the Minister Plenipotentiary in Paris for the payment of debts incurred by a third party, and that the giving of a letter of introduction very obviously did not carry with it the liability for the assumption of any and all debts contracted by the person to whom the letter was given […] The Department could then have added that the Paris Legation would be informed and would be instructed to ascertain if payment of the debt could be recovered either from Artaud himself or alternatively from his relations.
Finally, I must protest against the quite unnecessary waste of a Minister’s time by the manner in which this matter has been proceeded with and also against his being harried with the submission of suggestions which have no foundation in any recognised principle and which are entirely opposed to general custom and usage.
Were it not that I would not wish to waste his time on what is, after all, an insignificant matter, and one which should never have been allowed to attain the present proportions, I would request that this correspondence should be submitted to the Minister [Eamon de Valera] for his comment.
Internal memo from O’Byrne to O’Briain, 21 April 1938:
Re Antonin ARTAUD
As arranged M. Artaud the brother of the abovementioned called to see me on the morning of Saturday 16th inst.
I began by apologising for the trouble that we were causing him and explained that the Minister was most anxious that a settlement of the debt of £1.17.6 incurred by his brother be effected as soon as possible. The Minister’s anxiety was based mainly on the fact that Seán Ó Milleáin was a person of very modest means and could not afford to lose the amount in question. I explained that the Minister had given him a letter addressed to various professors and others in Ireland with a view to helping him as much as possible in his quest for certain historical information. His brother had, however, shown this letter to Seán Ó Milleáin who had apparently, though quite wrongly, considered it as evidence of Antonin’s solvency. In the circumstances a somewhat disagreeable situation had been created for the Minister.
M. Artaud stated that he appreciated all I had said and he referred to the promise recently made by his mother at the Legation to the effect that she would at least pay some of the amount due. The promise held good. He stated that the delay in making any payment was due to the fact that Antonin had been given a commission to perform in Ireland by one of his literary friends at Paris and the family felt that this person should accept responsibility for the debt incurred by Antonin if not in fact for all the expenses incurred by him. The family are trying to get in touch with the person in question but have so far not succeeded owing to his frequent absences from home. M. Artaud asked me to request the Minister to allow him and his mother a little more time to make the promised payment.
In the course of the conversation, M. Artaud referred to the ‘feelings of a mother’ in such circumstances. She got a bad shock when she learned of the mental illness of her son which, she thought, and still thinks, was due to the treatment he received by the police in Ireland. He was of a nervous temperament and if provoked likely to give vent to bad temper. He had not previously suffered from mental trouble. The family was still awaiting a report – which had been promised – from the French Legation at Dublin through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the circumstances that had led to his becoming mentally afflicted while in Ireland.
Murphy, Dublin, to O’Briain, Paris, 31 May 1938:
[…] I am directed to inform you that Father Ó Cillín has been communicated with in the sense that you could not accept liability for debts incurred by persons holding a Letter of Introduction given for a specific purpose.
I should be glad if you would now make enquiries as to the possibility of recovering the sum due to Seán Ó Milleáin either from M. Artaud himself or from his relatives. Other points raised in your minute under reference will be dealt with in a future communication.
O’Briain, Paris, to Murphy, Dublin, 7 June 1938:
Further to my minute of 2nd June and to yours of 31st May, I note that Fr Ó Cillín has been communicated with to the effect that I could not accept liability for debts incurred by persons holding a letter of introduction given for a specific purpose.
This argument is, I think, too restricted. The main argument (of much wider import) is that, following accepted practice, nobody would accept liability for debts incurred by persons holding any form of letter of introduction.
To make this point, and my personal attitude to his tentative request, quite clear, I am writing to Fr Ó Cillín direct.
P.S. – I attach hereto copy of the letter which I have forwarded to Father Ó Cillín.
O’Briain, Paris, to Fr Ó Cillín, Cill Rónáin, 8 June 1938 [translated from the Irish]:
I had some correspondence with the Department of External Affairs concerning the letter I wrote to them on the 27th of January on account of a sum of money owed to Seán Ó Milleáin from a person named Antonin Artaud. From that letter I took as a suggestion that I might take the debts on myself because a letter of introduction from me was in Artaud’s possession.
I now understand that the Department of External Affairs has written to you since that time to let you know that I am unwilling to accept any responsibility regarding those debts. Even so it is perhaps necessary that the entire story be laid out perfectly clearly.
No one would agree to give a letter of introduction, no matter how broad the terms, [if it left him responsible] in relation to debts the other person ran up after the letter had left. That is a general practice – if it were not so, no one would ever give a letter of introduction. Let us suppose that a member of your congregation was coming to France and it was a good thing in your opinion to give them a letter for the purpose of introducing them to me. If there was money owing from that particular person afterwards concerning hotels, etc., in Paris, I would not imagine there would be any obligation on you to accept responsibility for those kind of debts. There is another aspect, however, to the case in question. The letter of introduction that I gave was composed for a particular subject and it was directed at particular people. It was composed as follows:
‘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.’
It is evident that this letter was narrow enough in its subject. Moreover it was sent to the following people and to those people only: Professor Liam O’Briain, Professor Tomás Ó Máille, Professor Eamonn Ó Donnchadha, Professor Tadhg Ó Donnchadha, Mr Tomás Ó Concannon, Mr Seán Ó Ceallaigh (Skellig), Mr Risteard Ó Foghludha. As that is the case I have no doubt it will be admitted it is unreasonable and excessive to think the person who signed that kind of letter would be responsible in relation to debts incurred at a later time by the possessor […]
I have just heard since then that the poor man Artaud went insane – if it was not for that it is unlikely this entire misfortune would have arisen. He had just accepted a commission from a French publishing house to collect a number of essays on Ireland, and with a view to doing that he paid a visit to our country. The troubles that befell him, no one at the publishing house or at the Legation could have foreseen that kind of thing happening to him. I am asking his relatives to wipe out his debts and perhaps it would be possible in that case for Seán Ó Milleáin to receive the amount owed to him.
On 6 June 1938 Mme Artaud wrote to O’Briain and alleged (as translated) that her son’s condition ‘can be attributed to the severe treatment which the Irish authorities subjected him to’. She wrote that ‘a mother finds it rather shocking’ that ‘these very same authorities’ were demanding payment of ‘a debt which she in no way incurred, and which would have been, without a shred of doubt, already settled by her son if you had not, by altering his health, yourself destroyed the possibility of being reimbursed’. She had been willing, nevertheless, to pay at least part of the outstanding debt if her son’s papers had been returned to him, but she had not been satisfied on this score. O’Briain wrote a note to O’Byrne in the top margin of this letter: ‘This letter is full of inaccuracies which must be corrected’.
O’Briain, Paris, to Mme Artaud, 14 June 1938 (translated from the French):
[…] While fully appreciating the painful sentiments which understandably overwhelmed you as a result of the illness which your son is currently suffering from, the Legation cannot accept that the said illness be attributed to the rigorous manner in which Monsieur Artaud was treated while in Ireland. To this day not the slightest shred of evidence has emerged to confirm your accusation.
I understand that during the visits made to the Legation by Mr Antonin Artaud’s brother you had already requested that the French authorities conduct an enquiry in Ireland, with the intervention of the French Legation in Dublin, into the circumstances which would have led to the expulsion of your son. Might I therefore inquire if this enquiry has taken place and led to any conclusions which would justify the accusations which once again you have levelled against the Irish authorities?
The regrettable sequence of events in this affair can be summarised as follows: Monsieur Artaud has committed breaches of Irish law, namely:
(a) he left the hotel in Aran without having settled his bill, and did this having borrowed from the proprietor 5/–-, the cost of a telegram sent to his parents in Paris requesting money from them;
(b) having arrived in Dublin, he refused to vacate the private gardens of the Jesuit House, in so doing instigating the involvement of the Gardaí; then –
(c) he was found in Dublin in a state of utter destitution. This brought about his arrest, for his own safety and in order to safeguard the rights of citizens, while awaiting the issuing of an expulsion order by the authorities empowered to do so.
You will therefore acknowledge that the measures taken by the authorities in this instance were merely those prescribed by law – as in any country – and that exceptional measures with regard to your son were not carried out. You are no doubt cognizant of the measures taken by the French authorities when dealing with persons having been found guilty of breaches of the law pertaining to aliens. As regards the stick and the papers which you state are not in your son’s possession, the findings of an in-depth enquiry carried out by my government are that there is no trace of the stick. All the belongings which your son had in his possession at the time of his arrest were handed over to the Ship’s Commissioner upon his leaving the country. The said objects comprised, among other things, a razor, a stiletto knife, two birth certificates and a French passport. While the authorities refrained from confiscating the stiletto, an arm forbidden by law, they abstained even further from confiscating from among his personal effects the stick and papers.
As regards the debt which has been outstanding for some time now, i.e. the amount owed to Mr Seán Ó Milleáin, the Irish authorities who are merely acting as intermediaries in this affair are not holding you responsible for having contracted the said debt. The creditor has requested, and rightfully so, that the Irish Minister, who had granted certain facilities to Mr Artaud pertaining to research the latter wished to carry out in Ireland, intercede with Mr Artaud in order that the debt be settled. Given his incapacity, and wishing to see this matter dealt with amicably, I contacted you and his brother, given that you yourself in the first instance contacted the Legation to obtain information as to this case. May I take the liberty of reminding you that in the course of discussions at the Legation you had stated you were in agreement that the amount of £1.17.6 was owed, legally and morally, to Mr Ó Milleáin, and that it must be settled. This case involves two private individuals – Mr Antonin Artaud, debtor, and Mr Seán Ó Milleáin, creditor – and bears no connection with any complaints or accusations you may level against the authorities in Ireland.
If after having read this letter you are not convinced that the Irish authorities are in no way responsible for your son’s poor health and for the loss of his stick and his papers, the Legation will be delighted, independently of any request made to the French Legation in Ireland, to refer your complaints once again to the Department of External Affairs in Dublin. However, in order to do so it would be necessary for you to provide me with a detailed list of the missing papers in order that the enquiry thus envisaged may proceed.
In the meantime I would kindly request that you inform me whether I may count on you to take measures in order that the debt be settled.
On 20 June 1938, Mme Artaud replied to O’Briain, stating that ‘due to my current situation’ she could not pay the debt but that ‘if, as I hope, circumstances were to improve’, she might be able to ‘modify this decision’.
O’Briain, Paris, to Murphy, Dublin, 21 June 1938:
With reference to the second paragraph of your minute of the 31st ultimo, I have the honour to state that the question of recovering the amount due to Seán Ó Milleáin by the abovenamed has been taken up with the relations. Madame Artaud, the mother of the debtor, has just informed me that as her material circumstances are not at present very favourable, she is unable to meet my request for payment. She will, however, reconsider the matter in the event of an improvement taking place in her present circumstances.
Copies of the correspondence exchanged with Madame Artaud are enclosed for your information. You will note that she took up the attitude that the debt should not be paid until her son had received some sort of satisfaction for maltreatment alleged to have been received by him from the Civic Guard and for the return of some articles, his property, alleged to have been confiscated at Dublin. These matters have been dealt with in the Legation’s minute of the 14th inst. and it is now assumed, from the nature of Mme Artaud’s reply, that nothing further regarding them will be heard from her.
I shall write to Mme Artaud suggesting that payment of the amount due to Seán Ó Milleáin be made by instalments.
Cremin to Mme Artaud, 29 June 1938:
The Minister of Ireland, who is presently away from Paris, has requested that I acknowledge receipt of your letter addressed to him dated the 20th of June.
Furthermore, he has requested that I offer the possibility of having the amount of £1.17.6 owed to Mr Ó Milleáin settled in instalments, let us say £1 now and the rest at a later date. Should you agree to this proposal, the minister will take it upon himself to recommend its acceptance to the interested party in Ireland.
Fr Ó Cillín, Cill Rónáin, to O’Briain, Paris, 1 July 1938:
If I had known there would be so much trouble for you on account of that Frenchman I would not have written at all. Say no more about it. I pity the poor man. But it is a peculiar thing that he had only seven and sixpence on arriving in Aran. It was Tomás Ó Máille (God rest his soul) who sent him to me and I organised everything for him. Seán Ó Milleáin was raging, which was no wonder, and he vented his spleen on myself. Especially when the neighbours started mocking him. And Artaud himself wouldn’t let anyone handle his wonderful stick for the gold of the world. I regret imposing on you so crudely, conceitedly, arrogantly, and I hope that you will forgive me for it. It is not right to waste your time with something as petty as this. I am greatly obliged to you and it is my prayer that you will be under Mary’s mantle ever and always.
Murphy, Dublin, to O’Briain, Paris, 10 August 1938:
I am directed to refer to your minute of the 5th April regarding the case of Antonin Artaud and to express surprise at its tone. Quite unnecessary waste of the Department’s time together with inconvenience and loss to Irish citizens was caused by the fact that a letter of introduction was given without the slightest care being taken to ascertain the suitability of the recipient of the letter of introduction. It will accordingly be necessary in future to exercise greater care in matters of this kind.
O’Briain, Paris, to Murphy, Dublin, 16 August 1938:
In reply to your minute of the 10th August, I cannot understand why surprise should be expressed at the tone of my minute of the 5th April. My minute was a reasoned and complete argument of the different points raised in a matter in which I had been unnecessarily harried.
I should prefer that it had been otherwise, but I was left with the very distinct impression that the trend and the tone of this correspondence was tempered with some personal bias against the Minister Plenipotentiary. Unfortunately your present minute tends to continue that impression.
I quite agree that an unnecessary waste of the Department’s time has been caused by this correspondence. Also it is to be said, as pointed out in my last minute, that the Legation’s time has also been unnecessarily wasted. But all this unnecessary waste of time has arisen from the fact that the Department propounded and sought to maintain a proposition which was in fact quite untenable, i.e. that a person giving a letter of introduction (of whatever nature) became immediately and automatically responsible for any debts subsequently incurred by the person to whom the letter was given. As a result of my minute of the 5th April, the Department evidently decided to abandon this untenable argument and (as intimated in the Department’s reply of 31st May) follow instead the normal procedure in such matters.
Had this reasonable attitude been adopted by the Department in October of 1937, there would have been no need for all this subsequent correspondence.
I don’t know whether to interpret the sentence ‘and loss to Irish citizens’ (in the minute under reply) as a half-return to the untenable argument referred to above. If so it appears to me regrettable that the Department cannot make a frank and final avowal of that error.
I am still at a complete loss to understand why the Department ever put forward such a curious proposition. I asked for some explanation of this in my minute of the 5th April, and I was hoping that the further reply promised to that minute would finally dispose of the matter by giving some acceptable explanation.
I have noted particularly the following reference, in the Department’s minute under reply, to the letter of introduction as given ‘without the slightest care being taken to ascertain the suitability of the recipient’.
This seems to me very unmeasured language and I cannot find in the whole of this correspondence any justification for such criticism.
In the meantime I have received from Fr Ó Cillín his reply to my letter dated 8th June, a copy of which was attached to my minute to Department of 7th June. Fr Ó Cillín’s reply demonstrates how easily the Department could have dealt with the matter in the first instance. Had normal procedure in such matters been followed, the intervening correspondence would have been avoided.
O’Briain to Mme Artaud, 22 August 1938:
Further to our earlier correspondence, I have the honour of asking if you are now in a position to settle the debt of £1.17.6 owed by your son to Mr Ó Milleáin.
On 6 September 1938, Mme Artaud wrote to O’Briain: ‘I regret to inform you that I cannot respond favourably to your request’. On 6 October O’Briain wrote to Murphy:
I have the honour to refer to previous correspondence regarding the case of Antonin Artaud, and to enclose copy of a letter which has been received from his mother. It will be noted that Mme Artaud has now decided to take no action in the matter of her son’s debt to Seán Ó Milleáin.
On 6 October 1938, O’Briain wrote a handwritten note to O’Byrne, concluding that ‘all hope of a settlement is, I consider, lost’. On the same day O’Byrne replied in kind; the note was initialled ‘Read + agreed, AOB’:
Attached is a minute to the Dept. enclosing copy of Mme. Artaud’s reply to us.
Regarding the form of the minute as indicated in your note to me (attached hereto), the grievance of Mme Artaud has, in fact, been dealt with by the Department; thus, in minute of 13/1/38 the Department informed us of the articles of property found in Antonin Artaud’s possession and stated that they had been handed over to the purser of the vessel by which he travelled back to France. Regarding the alleged loss of the stick: the Department informed us in minute of 14/3/38 that exhaustive inquiries made by the Department of Justice had failed to trace the walking stick.
All of this information was duly made known to Mme. Artaud, verbally + in writing. Finally, on 14th June last, a long letter was sent to Mme Artaud dealing with her complaints. She was invited, if still dissatisfied, to send us a list of the articles alleged to be missing + to state whether she had received any satisfaction from the French Legation which, she had stated, was making inquiries on her behalf. In her reply dated 20th June, she made no further reference to her complaints but stated that she would consider the question of paying the debt if and when her material position improved.
She has now informed us that she cannot pay: in view of her previous letter we must assume she is unable to do so – or is perhaps unwilling to do so despite the explanations she has received from us. In any event, the Department of Justice seems to have done everything possible to trace the stick.
Do you agree?
Later in 1938 Art O’Briain retired and was replaced as Minister Plenipotentiary in Paris by Seán Murphy.
In 1939 Antonin Artaud was transferred to a hospital in Paris, and thence to Ville-Evrard, where he spent four years. In 1943 he was transferred again, to the Rodez asylum in the south-west of France, where he was subjected to numerous electroshock treatments before his release in 1946.
He remained mentally unwell until his death, from cancer, in 1948.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 1 Winter 2000–1