By Patrick Morgan
A talk given at the Irish Australian history conference in Adelaide November 2016.
Exile From Ireland
Mannix’s personality contained an intriguing mix of humour and sadness. The humour has been endlessly noticed, but not the sadness, the more important of the two, and from which the humour ultimately derived. How can we explain the profound sadness of his demeanour?
Well firstly being sent to Australia. Others saw it as a clerical promotion, but Mannix viewed it as an exile. As a deep Irish nationalist he could see, as Home Rule was beginning to go through the British Parliament, that this might be the defining moment in Irish history when centuries of external domination were lifted.
And just then, as things were really beginning to heat up, maddeningly, he was sent out to Australia. He now had to watch these events from afar as an observer, not an actor in them. He followed events closely. He got the Easter Rising right (unlike the Irish hierarchy), he effortlessly wiped the floor with a Welsh Prime Minister here when his Irish compatriots couldn’t lay a glove on another Welsh Prime Minister in England. In Australia he demonstrated the qualities needed in a time of crisis to lead on the public stage.
Ireland conspicuously lacked a leader in a messy sequence of events: the postponement of Home Rule, the Easter Rising, the Black and Tan war, the disputed Treaty negotiations, the formation of a divided Ireland, and the consequent Irish civil war. It lacked a leader who could operate above the fray, command universal respect, and lead his country out of chaos to freedom.
There is a notion in history of a person outside the establishment being called by the populace in desperate times to lead his country, or I should also say her country, as Joan of Arc is such an example. The paradigm from classical times is Cincinnatus, a Roman who left his farm to enter public life to save the republic
As a public figure, Mannix combined the talents necessary for a leadership role at this juncture: radical nationalist, prelate, tribal leader, tribune of the people and spell-binding orator; no one else in Ireland had his combination of talents. These qualities were recognised at the time. A correspondent to The Advocate, 9 November 1922, wrote:
There is no other man in the world today who possesses the confidence of the conflicting parties in Ireland etc…[his] proved ability and oneness of purpose, as well as in his sacerdotal office and personal character must undoubtedly prevail in a conference of the conflicting parties…Archbishop Mannix is the only living man whose personal intervention would put a stop to the internecine strife that is rending our beloved ‘Dark Rosaleen’.
Mannix’s performances in Australia conclusively demonstrated that he possessed this set of skills. So it must have driven him to distraction to be stuck, in Ireland’s hour of need, in Melbourne, unable to apply on a larger stage the talents he had revealed in Australia.
Mannix had a further quality the Irish situation needed. In Ireland one great fault line was religion. The Irish hierarchy was divided and leaderless; when the Easter Rising came it jumped the wrong way, thus forfeiting any national leadership role. Moreover many Sinn Feiners had moved away from religious belief as part of the process of personal radicalisation. Mannix could have joined the traditionalist Catholics and the radicals together, as he embodied both views.
Mannix’s 1920 Ad Limina Trip
In 1920 Mannix had been in Australia for seven years, so his ad limina visit to Rome was now due. But Rome was just a minor stopover on this 15-month trip: he couldn’t wait to get to Ireland. His ten months in the United States and the British Isles took up most of this trip whose principal purpose was to rouse up the United States against the British authorities, as he had done so successfully in Australia, and then act as a unifying player, not just a speechmaker, on the Irish stage.
This was a crucial time, the height of the Anglo-Irish war, with pointless slayings which both sides wanted ended. Two influential figures, the English Benedictine head Cardinal Gasquet and Sir Shane Leslie, Churchill’s cousin and a British member of Parliament, were suggesting Mannix as a negotiator between the sides.
Because of wartime censorship Mannix couldn’t be frank about his real views in Australia during the First World War, but in America on his way to Ireland he now felt freer. However he went too far in his Plattsburg address in New York State when he revealed his deepest convictions:
England was your enemy. England is your enemy today. England will be your enemy for all time. England is one of the greatest hypocrites in the world. She pretended to be your friend in the [World] War, and now that the war is over she tells you to mind your own business.
This was a great mistake, as he admitted in later life. His absolutist sentiment played into Lloyd George’s hands, as he now had enough damning evidence to move against Mannix. It shows the foresight and cunning of the British PM, no slouch in these matters, that he recognised the danger that Mannix could successfully rouse and unite Ireland. So he took the extraordinary step of having a British destroyer prevent Mannix from landing there, confining him to England instead.
An Advocate editorial, 19 August 1920, confidently claimed that ‘even from England’s point of view’ the arrest was ‘the greatest mistake that could have been made’. But the opposite was true. It was in fact the greatest mistake Mannix ever made, as his banning from setting foot in Ireland was a fatal obstacle to his true purpose. Lloyd George had snookered him.
Corralled in England, Mannix spoke to certain parts of English opinion there, but that was essentially a side show. He described himself as ‘in cold storage’ in England, indicating by contrast his real ambitions. It was this lost chance, this great blow, which had a determining effect on Mannix’s personality for the rest of his life.
Mannix lingered on in England, reluctant to go to Rome, which had already twice reprimanded him, and then home. The young Fr Norman Gilroy, studying in Rome at the time, noted in his diary:
‘[Mannix] said he loved Ireland above any nation in the world, afterwards adding however that he loved Australia the land of his adoption with Ireland land of his birth.’
Gilroy disapproved of Mannix’s Irish priority, and wasn’t convinced by the qualification that he loved Australia equally. For once Gilroy was right – it was Ireland that was foremost in Mannix’s mind.
Return to Melbourne
Mannix then backed de Valera in opposing the 1921 Treaty, a minority position in Ireland and Australia. One possible reason he backed de Valera was because de Valera could now carry out the ‘save the country’ role, as a surrogate for missing out that role himself. Mannix and De Valera had swapped roles – De Valera in his early years wanted to be a bishop, Mannix now aspired to the role of statesman. Both were tall, aristocratic, and with, in R F Foster’s phrase, an ‘aloof charisma’.
In Melbourne most supported the Treaty, but more importantly when the civil war broke out they were disgusted with the Irish squabbling among themselves, and relinquished their sympathy. Mannix vainly tried at intervals to revive passions on Ireland: the republican delegates visit in 1923, his 1925 visit to Ireland stumping the country for De Valera, encouraging Calwell to start up the Irish Review in 1933, beginning The League for an Undivided Ireland in 1948, but none of these efforts aroused any momentum here. Irish affairs were off the boil until 1969, after Mannix’s death.
Ireland On His Mind
As far back as 1924 Mannix had referred to himself wistfully as a castaway in the southern seas, a rare glimpse of how he saw himself as an exile. For the rest of his life he acted in ways consistent with regret with having missed out on a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be his nation’s saviour.
In the inter-war years, for him nothing remotely matched these Irish events in importance. He did not involve himself in local political contests as he had with Hughes. He adopted an air of having seen it all. He did not take to Australian life, he barracked for no football team, his accent did not change, he did not assimilate, preferring to spend his time with Fr Hackett, himself a refugee from these tumultuous Irish events.
He did not mix socially. He told Calwell he would never attend Government House and other official functions while Northern Ireland was separate, and he stuck to his pledge, nursing his wrath. And he didn’t mix overmuch with Catholics either; he confined himself physically to Raheen, St Patrick’s and speaking functions, after which he declined to enjoy refreshments with the parish priest. He maintained a patrician detachment. He let others run the archdiocese, he travelled less overseas and interstate, a scholar prelate cocooned at Raheen, musing on events.
World War Two
World war two revived and changed him. Australia was facing a crisis with the nation in danger, just as Ireland had been in the 1910s. And in Bob Santamaria he found a kindred soul, a fellow Cincinnatus who believed he had been called to save the nation from its mortal peril. Santamaria now became another surrogate for Mannix’s former ambition, as de Valera once had been.
After a quarter of a century when he had never taken Australian affairs close to his heart, they now took priority over Irish affairs for the remaining two decades of his life. The Movement was founded in August 1941, a crucial date, the time when Hitler was invading Russia, the Japs were pushing down towards Singapore, the period of maximum peril for the Allies, the month Curtin took over from Menzies as Prime Minister. Like Mannix, Menzies had blown his chance of going down in history as his nation’s saviour; for both, no amount of subsequent accolades could make up for failing in this.
Further setbacks beset Mannix. When Gilroy was made a Cardinal in 1946 Mannix’s comment on him was a piquant example of damning with faint praise. He outlined Gilroy’s career, inferring that Gilroy had devoted himself to understanding the inner workings of the church for his own preferment rather than undertaking pastoral duties. Mannix finished by comparing Cardinal Gilroy with Cardinal Newman:
The one [Newman] was all his life a student, the other [Gilroy] has been a man of action which left little time for academic leisure. The one was 80 years before the cloud of suspicion and calumny was lifted, and he was created a Cardinal; the other has reached the same goal by pleasant ways and easy stages.
But this is not just comparison between Newman and Gilroy – it is more importantly an identification of himself with Newman. Mannix was 82 years old when he came out with this, he knew the ‘cloud of suspicion and calumny’ had not been lifted from himself.
In the political sphere he had been sidelined by his absence from Ireland; in the ecclesiastical sphere he had been sidelined by the Vatican and its Apostolic Delegate Panico. These experiences reinforced his tendency to display a subtle derision for centres of authority both ecclesiastical and secular. He remained wistfully resigned to his dual banishment. The Cardinal’s hat he missed out on, but never sought, was collateral damage for his activities in Ireland and Australia.
The Later Years
In his personality an attitude of vanitas vanitatum merged with the long-range perspective the Catholic Church induces in its grandees. He understood history as a panorama of dominant and suppressed cultures changing places all the time, of empires congealing and then breaking up again.
On one occasion after the defeat of Germany and Japan in the second world war, Mannix had in his audience the retired German and Dutch Bishops Gsell and Vesters, who had laboured for decades on the mission fields of northern Australia and New Guinea before having to flee south. Mannix began in good humour by saying we have here today two foreign bishops; we all know, he continued, that in the Dark Ages the Germanic tribes were converted to Christianity by Irish missionaries; only for us these two here would still be benighted pagans; nonetheless we welcome them. Welcomed, but ever so gently put in their place.
Mannix’s attitude to church figures and to himself emerges clearly in remarks he made in his last year to the young Fr Joe Broderick, on Cardinal Giovanni Montini becoming Pope Paul VI in June 1963:
I believe he [Montini] remembers me. I can’t say I remember him. But that’s not surprising. After all, in Rome at the head of the Australian pilgrimage in the Holy Year [in 1925], I was the Archbishop of Melbourne, and he was just another monsignor around the place. (longish pause) Now he’s come into his own. And I’m still here, sittin’ on the shelf.
A rare personal statement, with an uncharacteristic touch of the maudlin about it. At 99, the world saw Mannix as a great leader and heaped plaudits on him, whereas he saw himself as missing out in Rome, as he had in Ireland. Lesser people had overtaken him. His humour came from this self-deprecation, and detachment from worldly ambition. He was never bitter; instead he cast a cold and witty eye on the passing parade of events. For example he once said that the First World War was fought ‘for the little nations fortunate enough not to be Ireland’.