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Mannix, master conjurer in the cause of the underdog

  • 26 March 2015

It 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