Mannix in his own words

Mannix in his own words/Book launch

A talk given by Patrick Morgan on St Patrick’s Day to launch the anthology The Real Mannix From The Sources, edited by James Franklin, Gerald Nolan & Michael Gilchrist, Connor Court Publishing

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Archbishop Mannix

Ned Kelly and Dr Mannix are the two Australians with the most biographies written about them, but I can’t think of an Irishman who has had more biographies written on him than Mannix, with the possible exceptions of Daniel O’Connell and St Patrick.  In Mannix’s case, after so many books on him, we desperately needed one by him, which we now have. With this anthology of his own words and articles, Mannix is speaking to us unvarnished, so we can make up our own minds about him. His book reveals a mind by turns subtle, sly and complex, a mind operating on many levels at once, whose workings are so smooth and well-oiled that it can produce clear formulations seemingly without effort.

Mannix’s reputation has centred around two turbulent decades, 1913-23 at the beginning of his Australian career with the Easter rebellion, conscription and the Anglo-Irish war, and 1953-63 at the end with the Split, and the exposure of the Movement and its long aftermath. In both these decades Mannix was seen pre-eminently as a political figure. This book corrects that over-emphasis, by including other times, like the neglected interwar years, and themes other than the political, and it exposes to our view the great variety and scope of Mannix’s  interests, which often surprise us, like his view (which he shares with the present Pope) that Catholics are too hung up on sexual matters.

Mannix is always one jump ahead of us. Normally we think at some stage we understand what makes a person we’re interested in tick, but Mannix is so protean and so elusive that it’s better to admit we are still learning about him. You never have him taped. Mannix was a master of the putdown, the deadpan comment with a sting in the tail. There are many examples in this book. He once said in the presence of his closest friend Fr Hackett:

I always knew the doctrine of the Trinity was a great mystery, but I never realised how mysterious it was until I heard Fr Hackett giving a sermon on it.

Like the Trinity, I always thought Mannix was a mystery until I read this anthology. I now know a lot more about him, but I also know there is a lot more to understand about him. With all the new information in this book it is possible to show Mannix followed a consistent trajectory throughout his career, but to do so we have to stretch our own minds to encompass a mind as capacious as his, which I find the great challenge in reading this book.

My wife Ann and I met Mannix in 1960  – we weren’t married then  – as part of a group of students from a Newman Society summer camp who took a ferry from Queenscliffe to Portsea to see him. He was in good form, but when we were introduced, he became a bit agitated and asked why there were young ladies from Newman College present, fearing that someone, perhaps the dreaded Archbishop Simonds, had made Newman College co-educational behind his back. His clerical minders calmed him down by saying we were from the Newman Society, not Newman College, but for a brief moment we glimpsed the legendary fierceness of a not entirely extinct volcano.

Simonds had been Hobart’s reigning archbishop with full faculties. In 1943 he was demoted to be coadjutor or assistant in another archdiocese, Melbourne, a Vatican attempt to corral Mannix, unsuccessful as it turned out. When Simonds arrived in Melbourne in 1943 Mannix gave him an enormous reception at Cathedral Hall, a pro-Cathedral St Mary’s West  Melbourne, a priest as full-time secretary and a car, and then consulted him on no important issue over the next two decades. Poor Simonds, the best 20 years of his life were wasted and when he finally came into possession of the Melbourne See in 1963, he himself was old, infirm and almost blind, which occasioned the then current witticism:  ‘Long time, no See’, a double pun on ‘see’.

Fifty years ago the Melbourne Archdiocese prepared a great celebration for the 100th birthday of its famous archbishop, a celebration which the guest of honour, with his customary reticence and sense of timing, narrowly managed to avoid. I was in Newman College when Mannix died and we all huddled around a TV set watching his funeral. They’d opened up a vast hole in the floor of the cathedral to bury him, and the camera showed Bishop Fox grasping Archbishop Simonds firmly by the vestments on his back as the two shuffled slowly across the floor till they stopped near the edge of the abyss with Fox still holding Simonds by the back. As the coffin was lowered the TV camera caught Bishop Fox’s face, and the commentator remarked:

I wonder what Bishop Fox is thinking at this profound moment.

and someone said:

One more step and I’ll be the next Archbishop of Melbourne.

The editors of this anthology have put it together very efficiently from a wide range of sources. Jim Franklin is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of NSW who has written a wonderful history of philosophy in Australia.  Gerry Nolan is also a researcher from Sydney. Michael Gilchrist is a former teacher’s college lecturer who has written two books on Mannix, has edited the religious magazine AD2000, and now works for Connor Court.

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Archbishop Mannix

We are all in our debt to Anthony Cappello, the founder of Connor Court, for filling a gap by providing a middle-range publishing enterprise, where non-celebrity authors can get a guernsey, writing on religion and other non-fashionable issues which the larger publishers, the media and the opinion formers usually won’t touch.

One final anecdote from the many in this book. One day two bishops were flattering the aged Mannix about what posterity would think of him. Finally one bishop triumphantly declared:

I say that Mannix dead will be more powerful than Mannix alive.

At this Mannix in his quiet voice said:

That’s all very well for you, but what does it do for me?

I am convinced this book does do a lot for Mannix, it does make him more powerful in death, and still a haunting presence for all of us today.

Patrick Morgan is the author of  Melbourne Before Mannix; Catholics in Public Life 1880-1920 published by Connor Court Publications.