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The Irish legacy

A simple set of numbers preyed on the mind of Daniel Mannix when he began his long association with the Catholic archdiocese of Melbourne in 1913. In the 1840s the population of his native Ireland topped eight million. But in the wake of famine and misrule Ireland’s population sank over the succeeding decades to barely four million. These figures bred unhappy thoughts.

Mannix’s resultant turbulent priestly life in Australia is the subject of an easy to read biography by Michael Gilchrist. First published in 1982 and now issued in a revised and expanded edition with an approving foreword by Cardinal George Pell, it tracks the sparks that flew when Mannix aroused conservative hostility in Australia at a time when national grief, ennobled by Gallipoli, put a premium on loyalty and conformity. Gilchrist’s account also traces Mannix’s equally stormy retreat from anti-British disaffection.

Gilchrist presents Mannix’s career as a study in conviction politics. Despite hostile pressure the archbishop would not compromise where matters of justice or conscience were involved. Truth, for Mannix’s generation, was not relative.

The enforced Hibernian diaspora of the 19th century darkened the outlook of Mannix’s Australian flock at the start of his incumbency. The archdiocese had an embattled Irish-Australian hue. There was a Protestant ascendancy to be fought in the antipodes just as there was in Ireland and the struggle took many disparate forms. Mannix embodied resistance on the official denominational front just as his parishioner John Wren, a man with whom he had little in common outside the noxious ambience of sectarianism, masterminded the struggle against the excesses of Protestant morality by conducting illegal totes and investing in the racing industry.

Mannix was already advanced into middle age and serving as President of Maynooth College in County Kildare when the Melbourne archdiocese headhunted him to lead a campaign in support of state aid for its parochial schools. A bold pressure group strategy to secure state aid was devised and pursued using legitimate democratic methods but soon proved to be counterproductive.

The state aid campaign ratcheted up sectarian animosity in Melbourne during the Great War as did the Easter Rebellion in Ireland. The tension energised wartime opposition by Mannix, now enthroned as archbishop, to attempts by Prime Minister Billy Hughes to introduce military conscription for overseas service.

Mannix hoped to see the end of the murderous link between Ireland and the embattled British Empire. He supported the establishment of a united and independent Irish republic. Billy Hughes labelled him, angrily but, it seems, correctly, as an unwavering friend of Sinn Fein.

Notoriety, for Mannix, was a means of promoting political ends. He was, as Gilchrist amply documents, a shameless ‘media tart’ who always waited to see if a newspaper reporter was present before providing his audience at a church bazaar or speech night with pithy comment, devoid of ecclesiastical jargon, on state aid, Ireland, conscription or the war. He used his eminence to disturb the status quo because it embodied discrimination and prejudice against his flock.

Mannix’s recalcitrance led his more bigoted Protestant opponents to conclude that a sinister anti-British plot, concocted in the Vatican, was afoot. But Gilchrist demonstrates that any priestly plotting that did occur was intended to muzzle Mannix rather than egg him on. Rome was keen to ensure that the undiplomatic Irishman was a one off. It set out to immunise the local hierarchy against Fenian charm by upholding a policy of Australian-born Roman-trained archiepiscopal appointments wherever possible. Archbishop Justin Simonds was later appointed as Mannix’s coadjutor in line with this policy and as a result Mannix treated him as persona non grata for the next two decades.

Mannix’s Fenianism lost its sting as the 1920s progressed. In theory he always refused to accept the partition of Ireland in 1921 but increasingly a new enemy demanded his practical attention. In the 1920s communism replaced Australia’s colonial Protestant ascendancy as the target of his wrath. By infecting it with atheism, communists threatened to deprive him of his working class audience.

What Gilchrist fails to make clear is that Mannix, while deploring it, undoubtedly helped to facilitate the Marxist impact on post-war Australia. Communism gained a toe-hold in the context of the shattering of the strong consensus, based on late 19th century liberalism, that dominated Australia in 1914. During the Great War and its aftermath this consensus floundered as unsettling echoes from war-torn Europe (‘the Romanoffs, the Syndicates, the Boyne’, to quote the contemporary socialist poet Frank Wilmot) became ever louder. The divisive Mannix helped to subvert the pre-war progressivist consensus during his Fenian and anti-conscription phase without realising that by doing so he was helping to clear the way for a far worse foe to emerge.

Mannix sought out new associates once the crusade against communism became ever more insistent. He was sympathetic when, in the wake of the Spanish Civil War, Bob Santamaria began to organise resistance to the communist presence in the trade union movement. But careful political calculation was never one of the archbishop’s strengths. Santamaria’s zeal was fatal to the cosy Irish-Australian world in which Mannix was so at home. Arthur Calwell, who enjoyed years of familiarity with Mannix based on shared anti-conscription experiences, felt suspicious and resentful when Santamaria superseded
him as Mannix’s principal adviser on anti-communist matters.

Anti-communism was a mainstream attitude in the post-war labour movement and so Mannix’s position on the issue did not necessarily presage a ‘split’ with the ALP. The archbishop agreed with Labor’s Dr H.V. Evatt when he contended that communism was best combated through political rather than legal means and as result he did not support the 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party.

There was to be no lasting association between the two men though. The erratic Evatt’s decision, in October 1954, to repudiate Santamaria incurred Mannix’s wrath. He supported the schismatic Democratic Labor Party which directed its preferences to the previously suspect (because Protestant) non-Labor parties led by Robert Menzies. An embittered Evatt was forced to bemoan ‘the Menzies-Mannix axis.’

The Catholic vote was up for grabs following the split with Labor. Prime Minister Menzies, who years before had privately described Mannix as ‘cunning, sinister and a national menace’, was ready to make a deal. Just before Mannix died in 1963 he learnt that the Prime Minister planned to announce limited aid for independent schools.

A believer in rule by charisma rather than bureaucracy, Mannix left few documents behind for Gilchrist to consult and critics have suggested that he did not consult all the manuscript material that does survive. Mannix’s countless media ‘grabs’ form his principal source. But within these limits Gilchrist does provide enough information for anyone wishing to reflect on the abiding significance of a unique Irish-Australian saga. 

Wit and Wisdom: Daniel Mannix, Michael Gilchrist. Freedom Publishing, 2004. isbn 0 957 86826 x, rrp $24.95

Stephen Holt is a Canberra writer and historian.


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