An extract from a forthcoming book, The Mannix Era: Melbourne Catholic Leadership 1920-70, by Patrick Morgan, to be published by Connor Court in November 2018
After the first world war the Vatican had instructed Mannix to heal divisions in the Victorian community. At the St Patrick’s Day march in 1920 Mannix was escorted by a guard of fourteen resplendently dressed Victoria Cross winners, a publicity stunt organized by John Wren, through which both he and Mannix hoped to gain badly needed respectability in mainstream circles. During the war Wren had sponsored sportsmen volunteering together in an endeavour to overcome his dubious reputation. It was just as cheeky for Mannix to seek credibility by posing as the army’s friend now that the war was over, as he had made a number of very uncomplimentary remarks about war, militarism and the British Empire in general. Over the preceding four years Mannix had successfully brought Melbourne Catholics around to agree with him on these matters, so to now suddenly drape himself in army finery was confusing to his supporters, and a bridge too far. As Mannix and Wren were still regarded as disreputable operators by the establishment, a predictable frenzy of criticism erupted over their use of the VCs. Newspapers like The Argus claimed the VCs had been duped by Mannix, who replied in a speech (The Advocate, 15 April, 1920):
In the mind of this clumsy [Argus] writer, these “gallant and distinguished soldiers” have that type of courage that may be found in the zoological gardens, but have not sufficient intelligence to know that, in the St Patrick’s Day procession, they were walking after the greatest traitor in Australia. (Laughter) Mind, they had no excuse. My treason was plain and palpable to even the dullest. (Laughter and applause) The “Argus” found it out long ago, and made no secret of it. (Laughter)
After the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1921 by the Irish Free State Government, led by Arthur Griffiths and Michael Collins, it was opposed by the Republican breakaway faction led by de Valera, who would not accept an oath of allegiance to Britain nor a separate Ulster. Mannix supported de Valera in opposing the Treaty. One possible reason was that de Valera could now carry out the ‘save the nation’ role, as a surrogate for Mannix missing out that role himself. Mannix and De Valera had swapped places; 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 Roy Foster’s phrase, an ‘aloof charisma’. In both an attitude of superiority led to them positioning themselves above the fray, taking a ‘pure’, uncompromising, long-term view.
In April 1922 a large Pan Irish Conference in Paris produced the headlines: ‘Unbounded Enthusiasm and Unbroken Unity: Glorious future of the Gael’, all unfortunately the opposite of what was about to transpire. In Ireland internal hostilities broke out in June 1922, followed by Irish-on-Irish guerrilla fighting, terrible cruelties, split families and disbelief that the high hopes for Ireland could have come to this. The civil war ended after a year when de Valera’s Republicans surrendered militarily in May 1923.
Melbourne Catholic opinion was now divided on the Irish question. The old guard of moderate Home Rulers, followers of John Redmond, transferred their loyalties to the Treaty and the new Free State government. The Tribune, the Catholic paper of the silent majority, adopted this stance. Mannix was now back in a minority position. The anti-Treaty de Valera faction was less popular in Melbourne, but noisier, as it had the backing of The Advocate, Mannix and a new organization, the Irish Republican Association. Bishop Phelan of Sale was in favour of the Free State, but Mannix maintained: ‘I would never have put my signature to the Treaty, which was signed in London under threat of war’, so he had ‘bowed his head to the Republican colours’. The Advocate avoided editorializing on the matter, but its news reports overwhelmingly favoured de Valera. Its letter columns gave space to both sides. T.P. Walsh and Agnes Murphy were the leading pro-Republicans, and Thomas Shorthill and The Tribune newspaper the main Free Staters.
In 1923 two de Valera delegates, Sean O’Kelly and Fr Michael O’Flanagan, toured Australia to promote their cause. Mannix in characteristic mode said he was not taking sides, but gave the delegates a good hearing and continued to argue the anti-Treaty case. The Tribunehad been edited for a decade by Fr Mangan, a chaplain during the war and founder of the Newman Society. His newspaper considered the de Valera delegates ‘irregulars’, and a disaster for Ireland. The Tribune favourably compared the rebels of 1916, who fought the English, with the de Valera rebels of 1922 who were fighting their own countrymen, accusing Fr O’Flanagan of ‘blood-stained zeal’.
The issue soon developed into a spat between the two Catholic papers, with The Advocate accusing The Tribune staff of being ‘Castle Catholics’. Sean O’Kelly described Fr Mangan, a man of diminutive stature, as ‘a little Papish mosquito’ who took the same position as the Orange Lodges and the Protestant Federation. The Advocate had to apologize to The Tribune for publishing these insulting remarks. The Tribune’s peculiar status as a Catholic paper, though not owned by the church, was revealed when its long-time editor Fr Mangan resigned from his position at the end of the year. The paper commented that his announcement ‘caused some surprise’. A Mannix favourite, Fr Monyihan, soon to be editor of The Advocate, replaced Fr Mangan on The Tribune staff, and the paper gradually moved to the de Valera position. Mannix had control over what his priests did, and therefore ultimately over The Tribune, the editorship of which could only be held by a priest with his approval, which he had most likely withdrawn. Mannix had form on this issue. During the conscription controversies, he contrived to have the pro-conscription editor of The Advocate, Tom Brennan, replaced by an anti-conscription one, Thomas Shorthill, even though the paper was not then owned by the church. Both sides had long memories of these events. When Fr Mangan died in 1960 he was buried by Archbishop Simonds, who remarked in his panegyric: ‘There were times when his audacity as a writer led him into troubled waters’.
When the Irish civil war broke out old Irish stalwarts like Morgan Jageurs and many Melbourne Irish simply retired from the fray, appalled by the descent into civil war after all their efforts. Mannix vainly tried at intervals to revive passions on Ireland. He gave comfort to the republican delegates’ visit in 1923, he stumped the country for de Valera during his 1925 visit to Ireland, he encouraged Calwell in 1933 to start up the Irish Review, he backed the founding of ‘The League for an Undivided Ireland’ in 1948, but none of these efforts aroused any momentum here. Irish affairs were off the agenda until 1969, after Mannix’s death, when the new Northern Irish troubles began.
The Western Australia Irish Famine Committee with the support of the City of Subiaco council have a memorial dedicated to the Irish girls. An Gorta Mor was unveiled by Michael D Higgins last year. See https://youtu.be/gsTvGdU4edc
Fred Rea chair WAIFC