The Mannix Era

A talk by Patrick Morgan at the launch by Rev. Professor IanThe Mannix Era Waters of his book The Mannix Era 1920-1970 at the Catholic Theological College, East Melbourne, on November 21, 2018.

This bluestone building, once Parade Christian Brothers College, is the perfect place for this launch, as around 1920, when the story in this book begins, Archbishop Mannix was setting up a suite of institutions of post-secondary education, so that Melbourne might develop a Catholic professional and business class. A room in this building was set aside as St Kevin’s College for Brothers’ Matriculation students from all over Melbourne. At the same time Newman College and St Mary’s Hall were set up for university students, the Corpus Christi seminary at Werribee to train local priests, and, in addition, the Jesuit Fr William Hackett began the Catholic Central Library.

Some of our fathers, including mine, did their Matric year here. The title of this book could just as easily have been The World of Our Parents, as it is written in gratitude to parents, teachers, religious and others who created, often at some cost to themselves, the deepening of the spirit which gave Melbourne Catholicism its distinctive atmosphere. In his autobiography the writer Barry Oakley refers to his teachers:

The notion of sacrifice in the Christian Brothers ideal is now virtually incomprehensible. It was a life of plain food and plain rooms and weekend loneliness. No wife, no family, just the constant classroom grind. It was as relentless for them as it was for us, but because we were force-fed with the learning and literature of the Western world, we were, paradoxically, set free.

The church in those decades imposed itself on us as a great force, at once uplifting and overbearing. Even those who no longer practised the faith admitted they were indelibly marked by being raised as Catholics. Germaine Greer, the star pupil of Star of the Sea, wrote in the 1990s:

I am still a Catholic. I just don’t believe in God. I am an atheist Catholic  there’s a lot of (us) around.  I don’t want to escape from it. I’m very glad to be a Catholic. Very often, when Jehovah’s Witnesses and all those people come around to make a nuisance of themselves, I open the door and say: ‘This is a Catholic household.’ Which it is. At least it was; at one time we were all lapsed Catholics in the house. One thing lapsed Catholics don’t do is go in for an ‘inferior’ religion with less in the way of tradition and intellectual content.

I mentioned at the start the Catholic professional and business classes, about which very little has been written.  There’s an even bigger gap in recording the extensive Catholic hospital, charities and welfare sector, in comparison with the much documented education sector. There is little written on the Melbourne Catholic church as a large economic organization.  Why these gaps?

Previous discussion has been skewed. Dr Mannix’s public reputation was shaped by his first and last decades in Australia when he was a leading figure in political controversies, firstly over the Easter rebellion and conscription, and in the 1950s over Communism, the Movement, and the Labor Party split. An enormous amount has been written about both periods, in which Mannix is regarded as pre-eminently a political actor. These issues remain important, but this book includes other times, like the neglected interwar years, important figures other than Mannix, and the church’s and Mannix’s non-political initiatives.

The record is skewed in another way. From the 1960s Manning Clark, Geoffrey Blainey and Patrick O’Farrell began a great outburst of writing on Australian history; religion featured as a key ingredient. This wave of history writing has well and truly receded; in the academies and in public life, religion is no longer flavour of the month, but is often target of the month, as you may have noticed.

In each of the five decades covered in this book the archdiocese experienced dramatic events. This story has a wonderful cast of diverse characters whose activities fascinated (and entertained) me. I’m primarily interested in what motivated them, what made them tick, rather than rushing to judgement on them. One way I organized the massive material available was by comparing characters as doubles, who shared some traits and differed in others. For example, Archbishop Simonds & Arthur Calwell, both deputies to leaders, Dr Mannix and Dr Evatt, to whom they were ideologically opposed, both coming late in life to lead organizations fractured by the Split, both resigning in 1967, one quiet as a church mouse, the other resentful at the hand fate dealt him.

The biggest double was Mannix and Santamaria. Both were wonderful orators, but with contrasting styles: Mannix softly spoken, humorous and indirect, Santamaria full on, comprehensive and deadly serious. Each gave over five hundred recorded speeches, but despite all they said and others have written about them, their personalities retain a large element of mystery. We saw in each case only the public persona, a small part of the important activity going on below the surface; neither ever revealed his full hand. Both were protean but elusive in their activities, so we never have their full measure. It is best to approach any assessment of them as works in progress. In addition we will never fully understand the real relationship between them. Who was calling the shots? Who was running the show?

When was the notion of the Movement first publicly broached, and by whom? One likely answer is: in this building!  In 1933 Archbishop Mannix warned a meeting of the Old Paradians:

I have been told on reliable authority that the menace of revolution and Communism exists in Australia… I would appeal to you Paradians to exercise your individual and collective influence in factories and political and economic circles in opposing [Communist activities].

Mannix was from this early juncture exhorting Catholics to take Movement-like concerted industrial and political action. He had devised this strategy well before Catholic Action and the Movement were on the scene. A quarter of a century later the Vatican was so worried about who was running the show that it sent Cardinal Agagianian to Melbourne in 1959 armed with a papal instrument to depose Mannix, but the Cardinal’s soundings here convinced him such a move would be counter-productive.

Dublin is known as a city of elevated gossip; this book is in one sense a vast compendium of elevated ecclesiastical gossip. The word gossip originally meant God’s siblings, people related, not by blood, but by membership, through God, of a religious community. The Irish novelist James Joyce, who went to school with the Jesuit Fr Hackett, called apparently small occasions which become significant secular epiphanies, happenings which can transcend their genesis and reveal a whole word of expanding meanings. I gradually built up from below a mosaic of many illuminating incidents of this kind, which enlarge the main narrative, and sometimes modify it.

In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce memorably describes a Dublin Christmas dinner descending into acrimony as family members disagree about the sudden disgrace of Parnell, their lost leader. Melbourne Catholics repeated these scenes half a century later. Many families and individuals were ravaged by having members on both sides of the new divide. The Split produced few winners and many losers. A poem by the Irish writer Patrick Kavanagh reveals that local events can have epic proportions, depending on how we view them. Two Irish farmers in the townlands of Ballyrush and Gortin are having a spat over the boundary line between their properties:

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

Kavanagh’s approach enlarges our perspective – we can rise above seeing dramas like the conscription issue and the Split as just petty local squabbles.

I was pleased to come across one incident which illustrates in a nutshell some of Mannix’s main drives. On one occasion after the defeat of Germany and Japan in WW2, Mannix had in his audience the retired Australian bishops, Gsell and Vesters, of German and Dutch decent, who had laboured for decades on the mission fields of northern Australia and New Guinea before having to flee south from the Japanese downward thrust. Mannix began in good humour by saying we have here today two foreign bishops, at which the audience laughed. (These two bishops had been members of the Australian church for decades, Gsell for longer than Mannix, and of course Mannix was himself a foreign bishop). We all know, Mannix continued, that in the Dark Ages the Germanic tribes were converted to Christianity by Irish missionaries. Only for us Irish these two bishops here would still be benighted pagans; nonetheless we welcome them.

Welcomed, but ever so gently put in their place. Mannix was here playing with themes close to his heart, which he could only hint at so as not to offend his guests. The Irish had once been king of the castle in civilizing the Germans, but over time these roles had been reversed. The Irish had been subjugated for centuries, while the Germans, latecomers on the stage, had become a dominant power in the 20th century. So they, now again at the bottom of the heap after 1945, might appreciate the suffering we Irish had been through for so long.

Throughout his long career Mannix saw events though the distant mirror of the past, which brings them into clearer focus. Ireland’s extended travail could more easily be understood, though not excused, from this perspective. The deep religious disposition of vanitas vanitatum (the futility of human endeavour), evident in the strain of resignation and detachment in Mannix’s personality, underlay these worldly perspectives. Mannix’s remoteness, which derived from his two failed trips to Ireland, is I think more important in understanding him than his often-quoted humour, which is a by-product of his sadness at Ireland – and himself – missing out. I have tried to establish, following Mannix’s and Kavanagh’s lead, a wider perspective on events. The Split is here viewed as high tragedy rather than low politics.

I was writing this book during the years of the recent Royal Commission on child abuse, and couldn’t help seeing parallels with the earlier disaster of the Split. In both cases secrecy, denial and cover up by the church exacerbated the problem. On the other hand we are witnessing again today, as in the horrendous decade which followed the Split, the public mobilising of extreme animosities as a political weapon against the church and its actors, out of all proportion to alleged past mistakes. Unresolved issues from the Split days may be resurfacing again. This is my personal take on this matter, not raised in the book.

I was fortunate to be in the first cohort not affected as an adult by the Split. I followed post-Split events closely in the 1960s, publishing an article on them ‘Varieties of Political Catholicism’ in the late 1960s, described by the conservative Martin Haley in The Advocate, as a ‘deplorable confusion of untruths’. Undeterred by this early setback, I have fifty years later ventured on an expanded version.

It was Brian Buckley who suggested I write this book as a sequel to Melbourne before Mannix. Thanks to Fr Shane McKinlay and Jill Doncovio of the Catholic Theological College for organising and hosting this function. Thanks to the publishers Connor Court, who have also been academic contributors to this topic: Anthony Cappello wrote his PhD on Fr Ugo Modotti, chaplain to the Italian community in Melbourne, and my editor Michael Gilchrist is himself one of Mannix’s many biographers. The Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission, through its Archivist, Rachel Naughton, provided much assistance over the years, especially in the big job of digitalizing the photos, for which I am most grateful. Thanks finally to the three people Rev Professor Ian Waters, Douglas Kennedy and my wife Ann, who provided very helpful assessments of the text in manuscript form.


This book is a sequel to the author’s Melbourne Before Mannix. Patrick Morgan was educated at St Bernard’s CBC, Moonee Ponds, and at the University of Melbourne. He taught English at the Clayton and Churchill campuses of Monash University, and has written and edited books on topics where religion, politics and history intersect. He is a frequent contributor to Quadrant, Tinteán and other journals. 


The Mannix Era: Melbourne Catholic Leadership 1920-70 is available from the Central Catholic Bookshop, at St Francis’ Church, 322 Lonsdale St, Vic, 3000, Ph: 03 9639 0844, or from the publisher: Connor Court Publishing, Suite 2, 146 Boundary Street, West End, Qld, 4101. Ph: 0497-900-685; email: