Sympathetic biography of ‘the powerful enigmatic Mannix’

Brenda Niall, Mannix, Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2015.

ISBN 9781922182111.

RRP $50.00.

In her new biography of Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne (1864-1963), Brenda Niall says that eight lives of Mannix have already been published. However, her bibliography actually lists sixteen earlier books wholly devoted to the man, plus thirteen journal articles. And the output of Mannix studies is currently accelerating: in addition to Niall’s volume, four other studies have appeared within the last three years. Faced with this substantial body of work, a reviewer is inevitably driven to ask: do we really need another biography of Daniel Mannix? I think the answer to that question is both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

Archbishop Mannix

Archbishop Mannix

Niall stresses in her introduction that Mannix was a ‘divisive figure’ (p 4-5). That is certainly true, and he divided not only opinion during his lifetime, but also the many works written about him both before and after his death. Much of the literature is characterised by either hymns of praise or howls of abuse, with the former probably predominating. From personal experience, however, I can attest that immersion in this cacophony of partisan noise can leave one with little more than a sense of bewilderment, accompanied by a bad headache. So, yes, there are too many works about Mannix, and especially works written from a committed standpoint aimed to convince readers that the man was either a saint or a sinner.

Niall’s book is an addition to the literature produced by people who knew and admired Mannix. She informs readers that Mannix was a friend of her parents and that she first met him as a schoolgirl. After finishing university, she worked during the mid 1950s as an assistant to Mannix’s political protégé, BA Santamaria, who invited her in 1959 to help him in writing a biography of Mannix. Although this project came to nothing at the time—Santamaria’s biography did not appear until 1984—Niall interviewed Mannix about his life on several occasions and also gathered information from others who knew him. Given such a background, it is hardly surprising that this book takes a personal, indeed quite an intimate, approach to Mannix. It is certainly not uncritical: Niall acknowledges in her ‘Afterword’ that Mannix has suffered in the past from an ‘excess of idealisation’; still, she does treat him very sympathetically (p 376).

Niall’s account is therefore far from a detached, academic assessment of Mannix’s life in the context of his times. But I would argue that this is exactly the sort of study of Mannix that is now sorely needed. We have had enough accounts written by Melbourne insiders, intended either to defend or defame the archbishop. The opposing approaches often produce far more heat than light. I couldn’t help but notice the restrained and understated way in which Niall often treats aspects of Mannix’s life, in contrast to the way in which the same material was treated by James Griffin in his hostile 2012 biography. For example, Niall portrays Mannix’s familial relations fairly positively, although acknowledging that he was later estranged from some of his closest relatives; for Griffin, on the other hand, the family was ‘dysfunctional’ (p 92). Of the mother, Ellen Mannix, Niall admits that ‘family stories suggest a formidable quality’ and a preoccupation with ‘discipline’ (p 34). According to Griffin, the woman was a ‘termagant, a ‘Tartar with the tongue, a hegemonic madonna, whose moral scruples amused even her doctrinaire son’ (p 89). Merely a ‘formidable’ woman or a ‘termagant’ and a ‘tartar’? The choice of language by the two biographers highlights their widely differing interpretations; and these differences apply not only to his mother, but to Mannix as well. Which one should we believe? Reading Niall alongside Griffin reveals how even today, half a century after his death, Mannix continues to divide writers with roots in Melbourne’s Catholic community. And it is this persisting disagreement that persuades me of the need for a much more detached assessment.

Niall’s close focus on Mannix is such that we are given much personal information concerning, for example, his eating habits, his bedroom, even his bath, his clothes and the day-to-day running of his household. For Niall, Melbourne’s Catholics in the first half of the twentieth century were ‘tribal’, with Mannix filling the role of autocratic ‘tribal chieftain’: living in splendid isolation in his Kew mansion, but, on his daily walk to the cathedral, descending into the slums to show himself to his admiring followers and reward them with small gifts and gestures (p 231, p 316).

However, in many instances the broader political, religious and social contexts in which Mannix operated, and which determined his ideas and actions, are only thinly sketched; and sometimes these sketches are by no means accurate. The book suffers from a shortage of specialist research. This is particularly true of the first half of Mannix’s life in Ireland and also of his role during World War I in Australia. Niall is quite right to stress the importance of the land question in Ireland to the increasingly prosperous ‘strong’ farming class from which Mannix came. Yet, although the land question has been researched extensively by Irish historians over the last forty years, she uses not a single one of these many studies. The same is largely true of politics, religion and culture. She uses hardly any specialist studies of the Home Rule movement or of the Irish Catholic Church or of the Gaelic Revival. The inevitably limited nature of her knowledge is apparent in a series of factual errors: many minor, but some significant.

As for World War I in Australia, her book features none of the detailed studies available of Catholic opinion about the war or levels of Catholic military recruitment or Catholic voting patterns in the 1916-17 conscription plebiscites. Instead, she devotes much space to constructing an elaborate and rather fanciful comparison between Mannix and WM Hughes. Though like ‘fire and ice’, being very different in appearance and ‘personal style’, nevertheless, ‘they were both Celts’ and ‘Celtic passion informed their politics’. Thus, despite being at odds, they helped shape each other and ultimately, twenty years after the war, they ‘became friends’ (p 80-82, p 100). She gives priority to the personal over the political and, in doing so, she exaggerates Mannix’s importance in the controversy surrounding conscription.

In considering Mannix’s later dealings with politicians such as Eamon de Valera, B A Santamaria and Arthur Calwell, again as with Hughes, the stress is often on the personal. Niall repeatedly employs the family as a paradigm in an attempt to explain both political alliances and conflicts. Readers are informed that, when they met in the United States in 1920, there was an ‘instant rapport’ between Mannix and de Valera; in fact, they looked so much alike, ‘they could be taken for brothers’ (p 158). There was a similar ‘immediate rapport’ between Mannix and Santamaria, although they certainly did not resemble each other. Niall instead highlights the ‘striking parallels’ between Santamaria and de Valera: both deeply religious ‘outsiders’, ‘tough’ and devious, with ‘an extraordinary self-belief’ (p 277-8). As for Calwell, she cites the biblical tale of the rivalry between Jacob and Esau in order to portray Mannix as a ‘father-figure’ to both Calwell and Santamaria. But when Mannix favours the ‘younger son’, Calwell is consumed by ‘rage’—not ‘strangely’ against Mannix, but against Santamaria instead. In fact, Niall goes so far as to claim that a ‘degree of compromise’ on the part of the angry, rejected Calwell ‘might have avoided the wrecking of the Labor Party’ in the 1950s (p 358).

Niall’s grasp of her material does become rather stronger when her narrative reaches times and places she is more familiar with. Thus she provides interesting accounts of Mannix’s lax administration of his archdiocese and of his battles with the Italian papal nuncio during the 1930s to keep the Australian hierarchy Irish. The discussions of Mannix’s attitudes to sex education and immigration restriction are revealing. But her accounts of the activities of the ‘Movement’ during the 1940s and of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) split during the 1950s are again undermined by inadequate contextual research. She employs virtually no specialist histories of Australian trade unionism, or of the Australian Communist Party, or of the ALP either. Her view is very much an insider’s one, and her fondness for Santamaria, who was her boss at the time of the split, is apparent on virtually every page. She praises him for his ‘remarkable courage and charisma’ and often refers to him simply as ‘Bob’, underlining for readers her strong identification with him (p 295, p 335).

This is a very well-written book and one that is certainly pleasant to read. For anyone who knows little or nothing about Mannix, I think it offers an accessible and informative introduction to the archbishop and his life. But, as Niall readily admits herself at the end of the book, it ‘won’t be the last word’ on the subject (p 376). I very much hope that what follows Niall’s work will be a more ambitious and scholarly analysis that dispassionately gauges, not only Mannix’s immediate impact, but especially his long-term significance as regards religious and political affairs in both Ireland and Australia during the century and a half since his birth. Those aspiring to write about Mannix in the future need to resist being dazzled or disgusted by the man’s personal mystique; they should strive instead to ‘caste a cold eye’ over the life and achievements of this very ‘turbulent’ priest.

Professor Elizabeth Malcolm

Elizabeth is Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne

One thought on “Sympathetic biography of ‘the powerful enigmatic Mannix’

  1. Brenda Niall never says that her parents were ‘friends’ of Daniel Mannix. First of all, he didn’t have friends. Secondly, they never met, despite living so close, until after her father’s death, when Mannix spoke to her mother and offered to remit school fees for the younger children (an offer she declined). Mannix would have known of the family because many Catholic clergy, including bishops, were patients of Brenda’s father.

    The descriptions in the book of Mannix’s living conditions serve to illuminate his character and personality; comfortable living was not something that mattered to him.

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