Daniel Mannix: His Legacy

Book review by Elizabeth McKenzie


Daniel Mannix: Book Launch

Editors: Val Noone and Rachel Naughton: Daniel Mannix: His Legacy, Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission 2014

ISBN: 978 0 646 59698 3 (paperback)



In his essay, The Wind And The Trees, GK Chesterton tells the story of a four-year-old boy battling the wind while on a walk with his mother. After complaining several times about the windswept conditions, he suggests that if the manically dancing trees were taken away ‘then it wouldn’t wind’.

Chesterton remarks,

Any one looking for the first time at the trees might fancy that they were indeed vast and titanic fans, which by their mere waving agitated the air around them for miles. Nothing, I say, could be more human and excusable than the belief that it is the trees which make the wind.

The story sprang to mind when reading ‘Daniel Mannix: His Legacy’. There is an unmistakable suggestion that the world of the Melbourne Archdiocese was relatively stable if not staid in the immediate pre-Mannix years. There is a sense amongst historians, commentators, and the Catholic faithful, that the intrusion of Dr Mannix in this ‘sedate and predictable’ world was the cause of its demise. His 50 year tenure as Archbishop of Melbourne produced a number of ongoing storms and whirlwinds. Perhaps without his ubiquitous presence, life in the antipodes might not have been so windy!

But Mannix cannot altogether be blamed for the turmoil of world events as they were played out in Australia as Val Noone observes in the  opening paragraph of the Introduction.

 The following fifty years of his religious leadership and controversial intervention on public issues spanned two World Wars, the Irish War of Independence, the Irish Civil War, the Great Depression, The Cold war and post-war immigration. (p 1)

Daniel Mannix: His Legacy,  is a compilation of the papers presented at a Conference, held at the State Library of Victoria in March 2013, The Conference both celebrated the centenary of Mannix’s arrival and tried to bring ‘New perspectives on old stories’.

Three threads emerge from the Conference. There is, on the one hand, awe about Mannix’s stature as a public figure – to match his commanding physical stature – and almost everyone who had some experience of his influence and role in the Archdiocese has a story or anecdote about him, whether Catholic or not. However aware and/or informed we are of ‘the Mannix years’ we never seem to tire of hearing about their achievements and failures. In this thread, there is also an undertow of criticism, occasionally bitter, about his involvement in political affairs, from the Conscription debates to The Split of the ‘50’s. But there is also an ongoing quest to try to capture the essence of Mannix, the man, rather than the celebrity Archbishop. What was he really like actually? And then there is the subtheme of Mannix’s life – his relationship and ongoing involvement in Irish politics.

Both Patrick Morgan and Brian Costar deal with the public Mannix in their papers. Patrick Morgan presents an argument, in ‘Archbishop Mannix’s public roles’, of Mannix as eventually adopting the role of European ‘grandee’, with all the trappings of such an office:

the regal bearing, silken top hat —- black cape, and silver cane, doling out trinkets to the plebs —‘ (p 13)

not to mention the grand house, and social aloofness which epitomise such a role.

Patrick Morgan also suggests that Mannix took on the role, in the early years of his archbishopric, as a ‘Tribal Chieftain’. But, he posits that his ‘tribe’ was drawn from the Irish and Irish-Australians claiming ancestry from the south east quarter of Ireland, (basically Munster) and claims that the denizens of this region, the least subdued and most problematic demographic for the British administration:

instinctively understood his idiom – scorn of imperial pretensions was in their DNA. (p 9)

There would seem to be two schools of thought about Mannix’ s political nous. Patrick Morgan suggests that his ‘de-authorization of Hughes’ in the bitter Conscription debates during WWI, could well have been a deliberate ‘counter governmental’ strategy but elsewhere, both Brian Costar and Professor Dermot Keogh of UCD suggest that in fact Mannix was politically naïve.

Brian Costar portrays a much bleaker picture of the achievements of Mannix in the two specific areas of his greatest influence – conscription (1916/17 and the Labor Party ‘Split’ (1950’s)

 Despite his long life and regular forays into public life, his positive political achievements were few: he was on the winning side on the 1916/17 conscription plebiscites but most historians agree that he was not the major cause of their defeat. (p 23)

Nor does Costar approve of the relationship between Mannix and Bob Santamaria, leader of the Catholic Social Studies Movement, whose aim and task were to tackle encroaching communism in the Australian Labour Party. He takes stern issue with Mannix’s ‘moral and financial support’ of Santamaria and ‘the Movement’:

 the Movement had no compunction about penetrating the ALP branch structure by recruiting potential members from among Catholic parishioners. This was a successful but dangerous tactic and was based on the methods of the Communist party. (p 23)


Daniel Mannix

Michael McKernan in his presentation refutes the opinion that Mannix’s embroilment in the Conscription debate led to a more acrimonious sectarianism between Catholic and Protestant. He suggests that in fact by taking the stance he did and melding the political and religious, he encouraged religious affiliation when the horrors of the War threatened to bring about the demise of Christian congregations. But did Mannix appreciated the depths and bitterness of Australian sectarianism, wading into such contentious issues so soon after arriving in the country?

Archbishop Hart reinforces the image of  Mannix as a very much ‘hands on’ cleric:

 ..when he wasn’t administering Confirmation, most Sundays were spent laying foundation stones or opening new churches and schools. (p 7)

(It is heartening to know that even in extreme old age Mannix took issue with the Vatican II document De Ecclesia, deeming it to be ‘too much on the juridical nature of the church’, not user-friendly to the laity and was neither biblical nor sacramental enough in its context.)

In the Introduction Archbishop Hart also touches on an aspect of Mannix that continues to intrigue historian and laypeople alike. Who was the real person behind – the carefully constructed? – façade of the celebrity Archbishop? He was obviously homesick and lonely on his arrival in Melbourne and uncharacteristically let his emotional guard down at his official welcome at St Patrick’s Cathedral revealing that :

..it was a great sorrow and a great wrench for me to turn my face away from my own dear country and kindred (p 5)

Perhaps he found solace in his work as a parish priest at St Mary’s West Melbourne where he spent the first four years of his ‘exile’. Val Noone also stresses Mannix as a hands on cleric. Although he had had no experience of parish work in Ireland, never mind being catapulted head-long into a working class and decidedly socialist parish:

 ..home to many railway workers, watersiders, carters, factory workers, meat workers, and women in domestic service and factory jobs (p 115)

Mannix seemed to take on this role with vigour. According to Val Noone, it was during the years at St Mary’s that he became ‘radicalised’. It was certainly a steep learning curve for him, as he learned of the part the ALP played in the lives of his flock and honed his attitude to Australian politics and opposition to Conscription – a stance he was to retain for the rest of his long life. But there is also a sense of being privy to the ‘more human’ face of Mannix in this account. It was a busy thriving parish with more than its fair share of hardships. Mannix had spent all of his adult life in the hallowed walls of religious academia. He has left no personal account of his time at St Mary’s. But he emerges from Val Noone’s account as a diligent, hard working, compassionate, parish priest. Noone also notes in the Introduction that:

threaded through the political factors were his dignified and prayerful administration of sacraments and his preaching. (p1)



Something of this more personal Mannix emerges from Brenda Niall’s account of Mannix’s domestic life at Raheen. Living there, removed Mannix from the hustle and bustle of both parish life and the demands of social and domestic life at the Cathedral. His famous daily walk from Kew to the Cathedral through the (then) slum area of Richmond was the nearest he came to the hands on, nitty-gritty life he would have known at St Mary’s. Yet in her account of his domestic arrangements at Kew, Niall conjures up the ordered, simple life of a much more humble prelate. This would seem to be at odds with the ‘grandee’ image he seemed to encourage about himself but perhaps Raheen provided the space and quiet he needed to be his authentic self.

This more intimate/less austere picture of Mannix is echoed in Elizabeth Malcolm’s contribution – a study of contemporary cartoons and photographs of Mannix. ‘His physical distinctiveness of course made Mannix a gift to cartoonists’. (p 97) There was a particular fascination with the Archbishop’s ‘strong searching eyes’. Many of the cartoons reflected an image of Mannix as the stereotypical Celtic trickster:

Devious characters, who break accepted rules and get the better of their opponents, often authority figures, in clever and frequently funny ways. (p 97)

But while many of the faithful could take umbrage at the depiction of their dignified Archbishop as a subject for rakish cartoons, such exposure would seem to indicate an interest on the part of the wider public in was generally considered an inaccessible public figure

In championing the establishment of University Colleges for both men and women, Mannix was also very hands on, according to Gabrielle McMullen. He was involved in both the architecture and finances of the Colleges and it was a project close to his heart. He firmly believed that Catholics had a right to University education if they were to influence the society in which they lived. However, he was not in favour of a separate and specifically ‘Catholic University’. He believed that if the Church was to flourish in a sectarian world, it would need university graduates to enter the professions. Here again is evidence of Mannix’s awareness of the vital role the laity should play in the life of the Church and the wider society.

One of the problems of accessing the person behind the persona of Archbishop Mannix is the total lack of personal papers. There is a handful of  letters, no diaries, no scripts of speeches or sermons. But one correspondence did survive. It was between the two Archbishops of Melbourne, Mannix and Archbishop Head, the Anglican archbishop. David Schutz recalls how Archbishop Head took issue with Mannix over the procession of the Blessed Sacrament through the streets of Melbourne at the opening ceremony for the Eucharistic Congress of 1934. Even though the City Council sanctioned it, Archbishop Head continued to question the propriety of such a display of Catholic triumphalism. The letters have been meticulously indexed and give an insight into the personalities of both men. I found it intriguing that Mannix often hastily wrote a draft response/riposte to Head on the back of the letter from the Archbishop. In one case he actually wrote on:

 ..two pages on the back of a booksellers catalogue plus one page on a piece of brown paper (p 113)

Here is an interesting observation of someone whom we might be excused for thinking was perhaps obsessively tidy, although it has also been noted that his desk was covered with a jumble of books. The letters also reveal the sardonic wit/condescension for which Mannix was famous among his colleagues and students at Maynooth. In one exchange he suggests that Head should be comforted by the

..humble thought that you have made your protest and forget all about the Procession and enjoy your holiday. (p 110)

A neat put down!

In the longest contribution in the book, Professor Dermot Keogh of UCD discusses the two return visits made by the Archbishop to Ireland. The first in 1920 was aborted by the arrest of Mannix on the high seas by the British Navy. This did not prevent Mannix giving talks at public meetings in the UK although several cities with large Irish populations were proscribed. The minute details of his second visit to his native land, take up most of Dr Keogh’s paper.

What is revealed is: a) Mannix’s continued interest in the political situation in Ireland and b) his tremendous popularity amongst the populace to such an extent that his travels resemble a ‘Royal Progress’ rather than ‘the humble prelate’ on a speaking tour! In 1925 he was on a mission, to support, even revitalise, the Republican movement led by Éamon De Valera. Defeated in the Civil War, which established the Irish Free State. both De Valera and Sinn Féin were languishing on the margins of the political scene by 1925. Mannix redressed this situation and in public meeting after well attended public meeting encouraged the Irish people to continue to fight for a free and republican Ireland. The price he paid, being ignored – even ostracised – by both the government and the hierarchy obviously hurt him and although the public meetings were supportive of him and his message there is little to suggest that he had any real effect on the Republican movement. De Valera did break with Sinn Féin the following year to form the Fianna Fáil party but Ireland (26 counties) did not become a republic until 1948.

The relationship between Mannix and De Valera is also the subject of Patrick Mannix’s paper. He records the ongoing cordial relationship between the two men, which lasted their lifetimes. Mannix had been instrumental in obtaining a post for De Valera at Maynooth in 1912 and was to become something of a mentor in the US where they were both on a talking tour and again during Mannix’s 1925 visit when he backed De Valera against the prevailing Church and government orthodoxy. Patrick Mannix rightly points out that:

 The Archbishop’s legacy in Irish history remains in the footnotes of momentous events during the Irish Revolution and Civil war. Underlying that legacy was the important friendship and mutual respect between Mannix and de Valera. This friendship ——– had a lasting effect on modern Ireland. (p 143)

This epitaph would have pleased the late Archbishop of Melbourne.

Fr Edmund Campion had the unenviable task of summing up the Conference papers which he die succinctly and with consummate skill, even adding an anecdote or two of his own. (His article summarising the Conference was published in Tinteán online in May 2013. See: Daniel Mannix: His Legacy)  

I have two very minor quibbles with the production of the book. Some of the photos seems rather haphazardly placed, and some papers, prepared for the spoken word, could have been judiciously edited for reading.

Val Noone and Rachel Naughton are to be congratulated on the planning and execution of the highly successful conference. It certainly produced new perspectives and insights into the old stories about the enigma that is Daniel Mannix. The book is handsomely produced. It has a pleasing heft, good quality paper and a brilliant cover, (Max Meldrum’s 1919 portrait of Mannix) which aptly sums up the content of the Conference. Against a stark black background, relieved only by his purple biretta and stern face, Daniel Mannix is coming out of – or perhaps melting back into – the shadows?

Elizabeth McKenzie is a member of the Tinteán editorial team