Unanswered Questions About Dr Mannix

By Patrick Morgan

Although there has been continuing interest in Dr Mannix, especially since the celebrations for the centenary of his arrival in Australia, a number of puzzles about his career and personality remain; some of these are as a result of his own decision to destroy many of his private papers, others indeed reflect how scholars have approached his life.

Origins of His Irish Nationalism

From the moment he arrived in Australia, Mannix displayed in his speeches an impressive and deep-seated knowledge of Irish nationalism and its role in Irish history, without ever revealing the sources of his knowledge. Where did this come from? How much from his reading, how much from following current events in Ireland, and how much from his own intuitions? He was not outspoken on these issues in Ireland and wrote only one article on the topic, and that on land reform rather than Home Rule.

Daniel Mannix

Daniel Mannix

Administration of the Archdiocese

Not much has been written on the way he ran the Melbourne Archdiocese from day to day over half a century. He seems to have relied on his successive Vicars General for a good deal of the administration, but how much is not clear. Were there other lines of direct formal communication to him? How much did he have a hands-on approach to finances, education, oversight of priests, and so on? What were the nature of his communications with Rome? At what stage did his advanced age mean he surrendered much of this activity, if indeed he did?

His Support of De Valera

Mannix had taken a radical but ultimately prescient position in supporting the Easter Uprising on 1916, as he believed the British would never voluntarily surrender control of Ireland. But after the Treaty agreement most accepted the Collins compromise. It is not entirely clear why Mannix adopted the minority position of supporting de Valera, a stance which led to a disastrous civil war. Was his judgement, usually so sharp, at fault here? Mannix’s absence from the action in Ireland in the crucial years from 1913 to 1925 may have been a factor. Patrick Mannix has recently written a book on the Mannix-De Valera relationship. (The Belligerent Prelate: An Alliance between Archbishop Daniel Mannix and Eamon de Valera).

Mannix’s Early Australian Political Activities

From 1914 Mannix used the newly formed Australian Catholic Federation (ACF), a Catholic Action pressure group, to promote his public agenda on state funding for Catholic schools and other issues. After being rejected by the Liberal Party of the Victorian Premier, the ACF took its list of policies to the Labor Party, which did not agree and eventually proscribed the ACF. The ACF promptly set up a new body, the Catholic Workers Association (CWA), which consisted of Catholic trade unionists and members of the Labor Party – the same membership as the later Movement – in order to influence the Labor Party strongly from inside. This effort, directed by Mannix, was unsuccessful, but is a precedent for his and Santamaria’s later actions in directing the Movement.

The Founding of the Movement

The accepted account of the founding of the Movement in 1941 has been that Bob Santamaria provided the initial idea and strategy, and that Mannix played a supporting role in providing financial and pastoral/spiritual support. But knowledge of his early political activities suggests that Mannix may have had a more direct role in its strategy than previously thought. He was at this stage a very experienced political operator and Bob Santamaria an untried 26 year old. At the time the Movement was founded in August 1941 it was claimed in Federal Parliament that Catholic Action was being financially supported by the government’s secret intelligence body because of worry about disruptive Communist activity in the unions during the wartime emergency. This suggests that the Movement’s inception may have involved larger forces than Bob Santamaria’s organisation. The Movement’s founding in August 1941 coincided precisely with the fall of Menzies as PM and the coming of the Curtin ALP government. Were these events connected in some way?


Mannix’s personality was attractive, beguiling and elusive. He maintained an air of detachment, even remoteness, and was not prone to disclose the basis and motivation behind many of his actions. His personality displayed a mixture of humour and sadness. The origins of either are unclear, nor how they combined in his make-up.

Did Mannix Change in Australia?

He seems to have gradually changed from being a tribal leader to playing the role of the remote aristocrat. In the early years in Australia, he got into a public scrape with Prime Minister Billy Hughes, but after that he never allowed others equal footing with himself in public. He seemed little affected by his decades in Australia – his accent and demeanour were the same at the end as at the start. He followed public events closely, but didn’t appear to mix much in Australia life nor be affected by it.

In 2012 Patrick Morgan published Melbourne Before Mannix: Catholics in Public Life 1880-1920 (Connor Court Publishing).

2 thoughts on “Unanswered Questions About Dr Mannix

  1. My Grand-Aunt corresponded with Mannix from Ireland throughout his years in Australia. The letters are now lost to time but were mundane and conversational rather than religious or political. But they were barely acquainted and this would challenge your comment on his remoteness. On the same trait, Mannix was a regular daily pedestrian from his home (“Raheen” in Kew stands yet) and St. Pat’s Cathedral, greeting all and sundry on the way. Nonetheless I thank you for this snapshot of the man who played such a major role in the advancement of the Irish in Australia.

  2. Is the comment re Devaleras position on the Treaty not a bit revisionist -a significant number of people were anti Treaty not just Dr Mannix !

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