It is impossible to gain a proper understanding of Australian history without appreciating the prominent role played in it by the Irish-born Catholic prelate, Daniel Mannix (born in 1864), who was Catholic archbishop of Melbourne from 1917 until his death in 1963 at the grand age of 99.
Dr Daniel Mannix,
Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne.
Australian historian Patrick Morgan, author of the acclaimed book Melbourne Before Mannix (2012), which is available from News Weekly Books, gave the following talk at the conference, “Daniel Mannix: His Legacy”, sponsored by the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and held at the State Library of Victoria on March 15, 2013.
Archbishop Daniel Mannix’s personality was attractive but elusive. Though he gave many speeches, he never produced a full-blown account of his worldview; all we have is fragments of it. However, if we think of certain behaviour patterns common in public life — in Mannix’s case those of tribal leader, political strategist, prelate and aristocrat — those fragments and memories of him can be assembled into something like a recognisable mosaic.
Melbourne’s Irish Catholics received Mannix’s speeches with rapture and he was in turn energised by them. He gave public expression to the deep, unformulated grievances of his flock. He did not speak at them, admonishing them for their failures; on the contrary he spoke on their behalf to the wider public, which made them warm to him.
Ireland’s President Eamon de Valera was often quoted as saying: “If I wish to know what the Irish are thinking, I look into my own heart.” Similarly with Mannix — we suspect his insights came as much from his own intuitions as from book knowledge.
If Mannix was a tribal chieftain, who precisely was his tribe? The Ireland Australia got was not the whole of Ireland — the Ireland we got was predominantly Munster, the south-west quarter, the province least subdued by the London and Dublin governments.
A deep Irish civilisation was preserved there as a resistance culture, described in The Hidden Ireland (1924) by Daniel Corkery. Most of the great Irish nationalists of the 19th century came from Munster — the “Liberator” Daniel O’Connell, Archbishop Thomas Croke, Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera, as well as Mannix himself. Mannix used subtle, deadpan humour to corrode the dignity of the powerful. In Melbourne, Mannix was at home speaking to his Munster own and their descendants, who instinctively understood his idiom — scorn of imperial pretensions was in their DNA.
In calling for conscription in 1916, Australia’s Prime Minister Billy Hughes was on a frolic of his own, since he had rashly promised the British Cabinet troops which he did not have at his call. Hughes was not speaking on behalf of the Australian Parliament, nor of his own party.
When the government of a country ceases to represent its true interests, one tactic is to strip it of credibility and transfer the allegiance of citizens to an alternative source. Daniel O’Connell in the first half of the 19th century had set himself up as such an alternative centre in Ireland. Mannix employed the same counter-governmental strategy during the conscription campaigns.
He soon became the counterpoint, the equal and opposite of the Prime Minister. In this role he was assisted by a number of clear-cut contrasts with Billy Hughes. Mannix was tall, dignified and with a calm centre, whereas Hughes was short, physically unprepossessing, and scrambling around all over the place. A role reversal was occurring — who was accumulating authority, and who was being diminished?
During the 1917 federal election campaign Mannix mused in humorous vein on Billy Hughes’s position as caretaker PM during the election period:
“[Mr Hughes] was Prime Minister in the last Government and hopes to be Prime Minister in the next Government — (laughter) — and, for all I know, is technically the Prime Minister at the present moment. (Laughter) He is, therefore, or ought to be, the first citizen of the Commonwealth. (Laughter)
“He has been in England recently, and moved in very polite and cultured circles. His ordinary company rarely sank below that of a duchess. (Laughter) I mention these things only for the purpose of suggesting that we might reasonably expect the Prime Minister of the last Government — not, I hope, the Prime Minister of the next Government (applause) — to act and to speak like a gentleman. (Applause)
“But apparently one does not necessarily learn good breeding by spending a weekend at Windsor. (Laughter)”
Mannix had a serious underlying purpose in this use of ridicule. He was suggesting that Hughes, by his own actions, was throwing into doubt his official position as PM. Mannix was also suggesting Australia had been shamed on the world’s stage because we had sent, not a well-bred gentleman, but a bogan to Britain.
The Irish, fortified by a strong indigenous culture, refused to act like colonials. Mannix brought this resistance to Australia, whose recent European culture had had no time to put down deep roots, and as a result Australians were prone to automatically accept the way British Empire ideology framed issues — in a sense we wanted to be duchessed.
Mannix’s historic role at this stage was to teach us to stand on our own feet. In doing this he contributed to the growth of Australian nationalism.
Mannix operated in the public realm, but his ultimate interests transcended it; as a prelate he was concerned above all with saving souls. In the aftermath of the 1916 Easter Rising, British paramilitaries were roaming the streets of Dublin indiscriminately executing Irishmen they thought were rebel soldiers. Mannix commented on this: “Men said to be innocent were put up against a wall in a Dublin barracks yard, and, without trial by judge and jury, were shot in cold blood and sent before their Maker.”
Mannix was here condemning murder, but his primary anguish was that men were being launched unprepared into eternity. Mannix saw this situation literally sub specie aeternitatis (“under the aspect of eternity”), from a perspective beyond time. Mannix sees the victims not as Sinn Feiners, nor Irishmen, nor even as Catholics, but as souls in danger.
Gunmen are revolutionary nihilists who will stop at nothing to get power and to hold on to it. Religious people on the other hand believe restraints have been placed on us by a higher order of things. Mannix was not temperamentally like any of the standover men, British or Irish, even though he was sympathetic to Sinn Fein’s overall strategy at this juncture in Ireland’s history.
This point becomes important later at a crucial juncture in Australia’s history — the grim days of 1941, when our nation was in mortal danger. In August 1941, B.A. “Bob” Santamaria, with Mannix’s backing, formed the Movement to eradicate Communist influence in the unions, particularly the Communists’ continued disruption of our war effort.
It was revealed that the first Menzies government (1939-1941) had been secretly funding anti-Communist activity through the Newcastle Miners’ Union and the Movement. The man in charge of the secret fund in 1941 was the man who had set it up in 1917, none other than Billy Hughes, now Menzies’ Attorney General. Was Mannix, Hughes’ leading opponent in the First World War, now taking the king’s shilling from the same man in the second?
We have here an apparently extraordinary contrast between the early and later Mannix. In 1921 Mannix was backing a revolutionary group, Sinn Fein, trying to overthrow a government; in 1941, only 20 years later, he was opposing a revolutionary group, the Communists, who were trying to undermine our government.
We can begin to sort out these apparent conundrums if we realise that Mannix was never temperamentally a supporter of terrorists or revolutionaries. Terrorists in power usually remain natural-born killers. Mannix and Santamaria, because both were well versed in counter-governmental strategies themselves, were among those people in Australia who understood the Communist strategy, and their religious disposition gave them further reasons to oppose it.
Mannix’s use of a counter-government strategy against Hughes in the first world war was not subversive of democracy, as Communist activities were in the second: Mannix won a constitutional referendum vote. A crucial difference was that British rule in Ireland was oppressive, whereas our Australian government’s rule here never was, even under Billy Hughes.
During the interwar decades, as the connection with Ireland lessened, Mannix imperceptibly acted more as the remote aristocrat and less as the tribal chieftain, ruling now by distance rather than closeness. He gradually withdrew his personality, though not his voice, from the public domain and rendered himself untouchable.
In Australia Mannix was technically an aristocrat, a Prince Bishop in the European mould with his own coat of arms. But even before he became a prelate he was known at the Maynooth seminary in Ireland as the “Roman emperor”. Mannix had a patrician demeanour before his elevation to the rank; his consecration as an archbishop therefore confirmed him as an aristocrat as much as it made him one.
Mannix gradually affected the style of a European grandee — the regal bearing, silken top hat adding to his considerable height, black cope and silver cane, doling out trinkets to the plebs on his strolls through the Melbourne suburb of Collingwood. He did not socialise, he did not go to dinner parties, nor did he frequent Government House. At his residence, Raheen, Mannix had no court, no clerical retainers or flunkeys.
We are accustomed to think that traditional power hierarchies took the form of a pyramid. But Mannix’s had a flattened structure — below him there was a gap, and then all were equal. Mannix appointed almost no monsignors; the reason usually alleged is that he did not wish to seek permission from Rome for their appointment. A much more likely reason is he wanted no barons with independent fiefdoms and rivalries to flourish.
One monsignor got under his guard — Fr James Hannan was made monsignor with the rank of domestic prelate by the Apostolic Delegate. On one occasion Monsignor Hannan is said to have gunned his smart red sports car into the drive at Raheen and come to a screeching halt amid the smell of burning oil and flying gravel. Mannix observed: “If that’s a domestic prelate, I wouldn’t like to see a wild one.”
That story has gone the rounds, but who knows if it actually happened? The point of the many Mannix anecdotes is not whether they are true or not, but the fact that they proliferated, and added to the mystique which gradually enveloped him. Mannix didn’t put himself out — he made you come to him, and when you did he said nothing — you had to do the talking. Not revealing himself of course added immeasurably to his mystique.
When people of our generation first knew Mannix he was well into his eighties — he seemed to be living almost in another dimension from ours. The long final decades added a further sense of removal, in which he retained authority by the aura which surrounded him.
All his life he world-wearyingly took on the tasks of public leadership; he was part of events but he also saw beyond them. Mannix teaches us to transcend the issues nominated for us by current opinion-formers, to view events from a longer and higher perspective.
Mannix was a product of Ireland, Europe and the Catholic Church, so integrally that we cannot distinguish in his personality those three original ingredients, nor can we allocate priorities between them.
The geographic unit which the British call the British Isles is a misnomer, as Ireland remained atmospherically a European nation in a way England didn’t. During its long centuries of deprivation Ireland’s native culture was nourished by two external sources: Europe and Catholicism.
In contrast, Britain’s gradually evolving overseas imperial ambitions meant it saw itself as an entity independent of the Continental melting pot. Sir Robert Menzies, for example, had a thought structure which oscillated almost wholly within Anglo-Australian parameters. His source country was exclusively England; he wasn’t European in the way Mannix was.
We best understand Mannix through understanding the habits of mind that have given European civilisation its patterns of behaviour over many centuries, and we elevate our own embryonic national story by being able to see it, as Mannix did, in this light.
Patrick Morgan has written a number of books and has edited two volumes of the writings of B.A. “Bob” Santamaria. His most recent book, Melbourne Before Mannix: Catholics in Public Life 1880-1920 (2012), is available from News Weekly Books.