Mannix, master conjurer in the cause of the underdog


'Mannix' cover imageIt is axiomatic that you cannot tell a book by its cover. But in the case of Mannix Brenda Niall’s splendid new biography of Archbishop Mannix – the dust jacket certainly tells a lot about Daniel Mannix and the challenges facing his biographers. Suffused with a purple wash it displays a vigorous Archbishop wearing his trademark purple biretta.

Purple is telling. In the Roman world it was reserved for Emperors whose inscrutability was part of their dramatic presentation. Their personal lives were the stuff of hagiography or of gossip, never of self-revelation.

In the Catholic world, purple is the colour of Lent. It is a time for focusing on what matters, away from the merely colourful, was once a time for shrouding the faces of statues. It is also a time of waiting for the death and resurrection of Christ, aware that here we have no lasting city.

The subjection of private life to the public image, an austere focus on what mattered, and watchfulness are central to the understanding of Mannix. Niall begins appropriately by describing a bonfire, ordered by Mannix, of his private papers after his death. For biographers, as for archivists and historians, it was a scandalous act of iconoclasm. Yet this barbarism was not about the smashing of images but about the preservation of a public image from taint by personal revelation.

Brenda Niall’s central challenge was to uncover the personal face of Mannix from his public speeches, his actions and from the responses of people to him. She does this modestly and penetratingly, raising questions and looking for consistencies and for surprises. She takes us far beyond caricatures of Mannix as authoritarian and intransigent Catholic or as political reactionary.

She gives full weight to the dramatic public self-presentation of Mannix – the top hat or biretta and cassock, the presence, the gift for eloquent, rhythmic prose with the deadly phrase, and the silent pause. He could control an audience and shift the perception of events. He could turn high seriousness, such as his arrest at sea, into farce. All that he did was theatre, laden with symbol. The imperial Mannix was impenetrable but penetrating.

Beneath this masterful mask, however, is glimpsed the face of a complex human being who won popular affection as well as respect. The British reprisal killings after the Eastern Uprising changed him. They sharpened his mistrust of England and of the motivation behind the Great War into a barely controlled rage. He argued fiercely against conscription in the 1917 Referendum, and railed against the exploitation of struggling workers by the wealthy. After the War he endorsed Sinn Fein against limited home rule, and travelled to the United States to support de Valera. He was the international face of the Irish struggle.

Through this period he moved from being a distant Bishop to the hero of tribal Catholics who were mostly working class. His contrarian, almost bolshie streak, shows itself elsewhere in his disdain for church leadership, particularly as shown by Rome and its emissaries. His sympathy for the underdog was consistent – for Jews under Hitler, for workers, for immigrants and refugees. It also fuelled his opposition to Communists, whom he saw as persecuting the poor in Russia, killing nuns in Spain, and manipulating workers in Australia.

Mannix focused on what mattered. This showed in his neglect of what mattered less to him: entertaining and being entertained, using the telephone, attending to his own comfort, popular devotional practices, developing amicable relationships with other church leaders of other churches. But it was also shown in his prosecution of the causes that did matter: the freedom of the Irish from British rule, the encouragement of an active Catholic laity both in Ireland and in Australia, a just Australia, and – in his last years – a church free from clericalism and sanctimonious speech.

In pursuing his goals he showed extraordinary trust in the often young men who came to him with projects they were ready to give their lives to: de Valera in the Irish cause, the founders of the Catholic Worker, Santamaria in his understanding of Catholic Action, and the fifteen year old Percy Jones in his plan to study for the priesthood, study church music in Rome, and return to animate church music in Melbourne.

In Mannix the strong focus on what mattered took away any anxious need to control detail. Mannix declined to visit his priests because it could express a lack of trust in them. Nor did he penalise them if they disagreed with positions he took. He was also ready to let go of projects he strongly supported, such as sex education in schools and serious formation of Religious, if they were resisted by those responsible for implementing them. He could also let go of past enmities, enjoying in later life a friendship with Billy Hughes, just as Malcolm Fraser, another private, decent man did with Gough Whitlam.

Lent is a time of waiting. Mannix was watchful. Niall offers the haunting scene of the Archbishop in his old age sitting quietly with companions at Queenscliff, looking out over the heads, noting the passing of ships whenever the conversation led in directions he did not wish to take. That watchfulness characterised his private and public communication both through word and dramatic gesture. It may also have reflected the life of a man who had sharply experienced exile from family and country and the gap between hopes and realisation. He knew that ships that came in on the flood tide would leave on the ebb tide. We might wonder at what ran through his mind and heart as he looked out to sea: how much of it was sadness, how much loneliness, how much wisdom, how much was prayer. Mannix made sure we would never know. It was not what mattered.

On finishing the book I idly imagined the then Archbishop meeting the now Pope. Both are masters of public symbols. But whereas Mannix put on the trappings of office to conceal his inner life, Pope Francis discards them to reveal his loves and his desires. He is as expressive as Mannix was impressive. I suspect each would have recognised the other’s mastery of performance and warmed to the performer.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Daniel Mannix, Pope Francis, Catholic Church, biography, Brenda Niall



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Existing comments

The late Archbishop Mannix was a man formed in another age. The times he lived through were as torrid and difficult as times are now. Those were not the times when public figures indulged in excessive private disclosure: that is a modern trend. He was a man. Like any other man he had his flaws and made mistakes. But his achievements for the general public good still stand. I guess the real judgement of him is something out of human hands. Brenda Niall has written an excellent traditional historical biography sticking to the facts. Doing any more with the material available would be mere speculation.

Edward Fido | 26 March 2015  

A fine review of a fine book.

Peter Goers | 26 March 2015  

I do like the purple biretta. It wouldn't look good on everybody, but from the photo it does suit him. Private vs public? For people serving in public life there's always a choice. And I think the wise choice is to follow inclination and not try to be something you are not. We are formed by experience but, more importantly, by inherited characteristics. My two eldest daughters could not be more different - one is quiet, thoughtful and serious. The other, a party girl, shining at sport and motherhood.

Pam | 26 March 2015  

The other new Mannix book, The Real Archbishop Mannix: From the Sources (Connor Court) is advertised here It agrees generally with Brenda Niall's excellent biography, but give the man himself (and his opponents) plenty of room to speak in their own words.

James Franklin | 26 March 2015  

I think its abit rich to compare Mannix to the Pope. The Pope is a completely open person to all colours of people and whose view is 'the Truth is the Truth', not coverup. What was done by Mannix for Aboriginals, dark skinned people in Australia, human rights for every color of Australian citizen, sexual abuse victims? As Fr Ted Kennedy pleaded in his honest book in 2000, isbn1864030879 'Who is worthy? The role of conscience in restoring the Catholic Church' in Australia, for a truly holy Catholic Apostolic Church and a return to the original message of the Gospels. Fr Ted kennedy said dark people deserve more than hollow words. More token books and token reports have done nothing to give us, dark skinned Australians, our human rights. Dig deep but truthfully, and expose the light over the darkness of these systems for us, dark people, that continue to suffer in white Australia.

Jackie | 26 March 2015  

Oh no! Not another one! Having we had enough of the facts and opinions of Dr Mannix's life? Would not the really interesting bits have been lost in the burning of his private papers? I remember what happened at a Jesuit celebration in Melbourne of the 400th anniversary of the death of Francis Xavier. Archbishop presided over the event and afterwards the participants were invited to pay their individual respects to the Archbishop and kiss the episcopal ring. The queue was quite long but my father had noted where the episcopal chair had been set up and so he, my mother and I got a position near the front of the queue which grew to be quite long - about 500/600 people. When my father knelt before the Archbishop he told him he was an Irish migrant recently arrived from Belfast. The Archbishop without loosening his grip quizzed my Dad on what he thought was the future of Northern Ireland. They both seemed oblivious of the lengthening queue. People were muttering: "Who's that taking up Dr Mannix's time?" and the like. Truth to tell Dr Mannix was giving his time to my Dad and he and I never forgot it.

Uncle Pat | 26 March 2015  

While mesmerised by my, kindle edition of Brenda Nialls "Mannix. Nevertheless, despite her National accolades as a writer of conspicuous skills, indeed, I suggest here a near hagiography of Mannix: at times, She noted "he might be seen as a political activist but he also spent up to five hours a day in prayer and contemplation." Nonetheless, with great regret, I detected her Achilles heel. NialL gratuitously slips into an historical anachronism regarding Maynooth, by suggesting back there in Mannix era: "Nothing in Maynooth’s written charter spelt out sexual transgressions ; but in this huge all-male establishment, there must have been homosexual acts and secret relationships, as there were in the army and navy, but with an even heavier burden of guilt."[hardly validanalogy from our 60000 navy and army and numerous wounded toughing it out in Vietnam and later Middle East 'inbetween fictional gay trysts?? Such is very low 'faction'! Niall herself ironically noted re Maynooth, "there discipline within the college was severe. To be caught smoking meant expulsion."

Father John George | 26 March 2015  

Good video Mr Franklin. No Acchiles high heel there I watched the Mannix interview on TV IN 1961.[ i was home on sem vacation and was most impressed.] Cardinal Gilroy had a different leadership style imbued with Romanita prudence and restraint.Again the latter another great hierarch, who as a young wireless operator, served on the Hessen at Gallipoli. And in evening of life visited shut ins with Little Sisters of the Poor.

Father John George | 26 March 2015  

"Kate Archbishop Manix spoke out for aborigines in 1938,long before present day PC voices "As early as 1933 he denounced the treatment of the Jews in Europe, and in 1938 he called for reparation to be made to Aborigines for wrongs done by white settlers." Furthermore long before Fr Kennrdy and Fr Pat Dodson et alii, Mannix was right up there with Wiliam Cooper founder of Australian Aboriginal league and indeed assisted his wording of famous petition: “Whereas it was not only a moral duty, but also a strict injunction included in the commission issued to those who came to people Australia that the original occupants and we, their heirs and successors, should be adequately cared for; and whereas the terms of the commission have not been adhered to, in that (a) our lands have been expropriated by your Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth, (b) legal status is denied to us by your Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth; and whereas all petitions made in our behalf to your Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth have failed: your petitioners therefore humbly pray that your Majesty will intervene in our behalf and through the instrument of your Majesty’s Government in the Commonwealth grant to our people representation in~ the Federal Parliament, either in the person of one of our own blood or by a white man known to have studied our needs and to be in sympathy with our race.” Before creating the petition, Cooper met other Aborigines in Melbourne to discuss it (14), but it is clear that he was also assisted by a non-Aboriginal person experienced in drawing up legal documents. (One of his closest associates later claimed that the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, was responsible for its wording. petition recieved by commonwealth Gov't in 1937, but rejected by Lyons gov't in 1938) ttp://

Father John George | 27 March 2015  

Wow as a Catholic of another generation this is not the picture of Mannix I had at all. Grateful for the enlightenment.

Michael Walker | 27 March 2015  

Given Mannix's abhorrence for communism, being described as even "almost bolshie" would have him gyrate in his crypt.

Father John George | 28 March 2015  

This perceptive review, and the extract from Mannix in a national newspaper's weekly magazine, gave me added impetus to order the book. Not that any extra impetus was really needed, knowing the high standard of Ms Niall's other work, particularly "The Riddle of Father Hackett". I'm reminded of early 1957 when, following a phone call and otherwise unintroduced and unplanned, I arrived at Raheen for what was (for me) an enlightening and enjoyable 40-minute conversation with Dr Mannix. Despite the age gap (I was 22, he about 70 years older) the archbishop managed to show keen interest with no sign of impatience. He eventually accompanied me to the door ("To make sure you left," was my hard-to-impress wife's comment a couple of days ago when I retold the story). We spoke mainly about Ireland (I had been there), its independence and the failure of the English Reformation in Ireland (in spite of centuries of often brutal struggle) but I don't recall the topic of conscription cropping up. We owe an enormous debt to the archbishop and the others who ensured that only Australian volunteers went to that indescribable WW1 slaughter ("The seminal catastrophe of the 20th century" according to US historian and diplomat George Kennan). If Mannix's efforts helped save one life, the bitter uproar in the Australian community caused by the referendums was worthwhile. Billy Hughes was rumoured planning to conscript 20,000 personnel.

Rod | 28 March 2015  

Rod, myself aged 14 in 1957, I was intrigued at a lapel badge-photo of Mannix in place of honour at my great-Aunt Ethel's home[relic a Mannix rally in Sydney.] However, the Irish Patrician Brothers regaled us with Mannix's arrest at sea by two Scotland yard detectives, ordered by PM Llyod George, to stop his return to Ireland. [To underline the gravity of the situation, two destroyers had lined up beside "The Baltic"[Mannix on board ] before detectives boarded the latter for the arrest. Mannix refused to budge until arrest was formalised by detective hand on the shoulder. He was held under house arrest in Penzance "as a pirate" he suggested, and with normal quiet dignity quipped “Never since the battle of Jutland, has the British Navy scored any success comparable with the chasing of the Baltic from the Irish shores and the capture without the loss of a single British sailor of the Archbishop of Melbourne. It has rendered the British Government the laughing stock of the world. I still claim the right to go to Ireland and intend to press the claim by any means in my power." Further he made much of his crie de coeur of wanting to see his aged Irish mother of 89 years[though secretly[for political l leverage sake of course] she was as fit as a fiddle![Lloyd George offered to bring mum to Penzance-,but Mannix preferred the heart strings' tactics and refused!-though mum was worried about young Dan n all]

Father John George | 29 March 2015  

A hagiography? What nonsense! My review is here:

Lisa Hill | 29 March 2015  

Thank you Fr George for your various comments on Archbishop Mannix. I could add to your interesting list of positives that he also opposed capital punishment and made a written contribution to the Second Vatican Council. I did refer to his arrest at sea when I spoke with him way back in 1957 and he seemed very amused. He said journalists often repeated the story when they could not think of anything else to write about. In England he was banned by the Lloyd George Government from speaking in cities (such as Liverpool and Manchester) with large populations of Irish sympathisers. He drew thousands from those places to his addresses at venues well outside their municipal boundaries. Clementine Churchill described Lloyd George as a "Judas" (not necessarily in relation to the Mannix drama) and pleaded with husband Winston to keep away from him, a plea that fell on deaf ears. At an art show once I was introduced to the outstanding artist Clifton Pugh and mindful of my lack of expertise (alas) in that fascinating subject I kept the conversation mainly on his Mannix portrait that has appeared on the cover of a couple of Mannix biographies. He told me that in the sitting at Raheen (a couple of years before the archbishop died) Mannix was in full control of his faculties and dealt quickly with archdiocesan interruptions. He was hugely impressed by Mannix, as he has publicly stated. A woman artist friend, a non-Catholic, once mad me laugh when she referred to "that great painting by Clifton Pugh of that spidery old cardinal." Incidentally picked up (perhaps bought) a Mannix lapel badges at the 1958 St Pat's Day Melbourne parade at which Mannix and Archbishop Simonds took the salute. At least one biographer and various political enthusiasts have drawn our attention to perceived flaws in the Mannix persona.

Rod | 31 March 2015  

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