The Multiple Identities of the Irish in Victoria

By Patrick Morgan

John Cain senior with Archbishop Mannix

The text of a paper on The Mannix Era: Melbourne Catholic Leadership 1920-70, given at Newman College to the Irish Australian history seminar on April 16.

Tinteán published Brenda Niall’s review of Patrick Morgan’s book last issue.

Last year Harvard University Press  published James Chappel’s Catholic Modern on the Catholic Church in Germany, Austria and France in 1920-70, the same time span as my book and covering the same issues: the medieval revival between the wars, the church belatedly catching up with modernism and at the same time having to face Fascism and Communism, both of which it got badly wrong. Chappel’s book reveals that in these countries the Catholic Church had traditionalist and liberal wings, as here, which reacted differently on key issues, with the two wings varying in influence in each country over time. I found this consoling: it shows that we in Melbourne were not exceptional, just normal, and it enables us to widen our horizons by viewing our local disputes in a wider light.

One of my main interests in The Mannix Era was the extraordinary strength and inter-connectedness of the Melbourne Irish Catholic community. It has been analysed for its political and its Catholic profiles, but not as a tribal community in its own right. A foundation document of our community is the Jesuit Fr John Bourke’s history of his family, Victoria’s first and very extensive Irish Catholic cousinage group amounting to a clan. The Bourkes squatted on the Pakenham run in the late 1830s. A century later they became related by marriage to Sir Norman O’Bryan, a Supreme Court Judge from 1939 to 1969. A daughter of his married Frank Galbally, and a son married a daughter of Judge Arthur Adams, a key member of the Campion Society, whose own mother was a Billings, the family which produced Dr John Billings of family planning fame. A sister of Sir Norman O’Bryan married into the Buxton real estate family, another huge clan whose maternal line were the O’Briens, hotel owners from Nar Nar Goon. Two Buxtons married into the Irish Catholic Pitt families, marriages which produced heads of the State Library and the State Treasury between the wars. One member of that family, Kathleen Pitt, married, unhappily, the historian Brian Fitzpatrick, whose second marriage produced David Fitzpatrick, a great historian of Irish Australia, sadly recently departed. Kathleen Fitzpatrick wrote her Buxton/Pitt/O’Brien family history Solid Bluestone Foundations, like Fr Bourke’s a key document on our community.

The first Bourke in Australia, Michael Bourke from Limerick, naturally sought advice from a man he described as his Limerick kinsman. That man was Governor Bourke of NSW. In those pre-sectarian days people were linked more by local networks than they were divided by religion. Governor Bourke told Michael Bourke he had heard, when declaring Melbourne a town in 1836, there was good grazing surrounding it. Governor Bourke was a close friend of Lord Monteagle of Limerick, a member of the British cabinet at the time. Monteagle paid for many of his tenants, including the Bourkes, to emigrate to Australia in the 1830s to have a better life here. (This development has been documented in Christopher 0’Mahony & Valerie Thompson’s Poverty to Promise: The Monteagle Emigrants 1838-58.) Michael Bourke squatted on the Pakenham run, and in addition set up the Pakenham hotel and racecourse. Later dairy farmers and potato growers in the region were largely Irish Catholic. A direct descendent, Michael Bourke, was here in Newman College in the later 1950s. Only recently his brother David Bourke, Chairman of the VRC, internationalised the Melbourne Cup, leading to the Irish stayer Vintage Crop’s win. The present State member for South Gippsland, Danny O’Brien, comes from the Nar Nar Goon O’Briens. I’ve mentioned just one family and its extended connections. There are many other important cousinage groups, with members in law, medicine, sport, business and the church, which form Melbourne’s dense Irish Catholic community.

Another way to understand our community is to study its general demographic profile. The Irish were the only immigrant group to bring to Australia a large number of single females, about 30% of the total. In the goldfields decades of the 1850s 50% of Catholic women married out, Patrick O’Farrell tells us, so many Irish Catholic families are disguised by their English surnames, like the Buxton founder, JR Buxton, a Protestant, but most Buxtons since are Catholics. Out marriages continued to be common in freewheeling colonial Australia before sectarian hatreds in Ireland from the later 19th century onwards were transferred here. Sectarianism drove Melbourne Irish Catholics further together to deflect the flames of religious bigotry. The depression of the 1890s meant many country Irish Catholics moved to Melbourne, thus providing the community with more marriage partners. The large Catholic school system had the same effect. At the same time the Catholic Church was enforcing its rules against mixed marriages.  But from the 1960s these reinforcing patterns broke down for various reasons, and Irish Catholics began to marry out like the rest of the community.

I accidentally came across something else important about the Melbourne Irish Catholic community while looking at another area in writing this book. In New South Wales and Queensland, Irish Catholics dominated Labor and state politics. In those states they were in office about 60% of the time up till the 1970s. In Victoria the ALP was in office 12% of the time till the 1970s, an abysmal record. John Cain Senior’s second term, 1952-55, was the first majority Labor government in Victoria. The most recent historian of the Victorian ALP Paul Strangio called his book Neither Power Nor Glory. Catholics were very much on the outer in politics. The early ALP here was dominated by the Victorian Socialist Party, a secular, anti-State Aid group whose members, like John Curtin and John Cain Snr, were moving away from religion and investing their redemptive hopes in the socialist heaven on earth. They called it the social gospel, we call it social justice. Strangio tells us that in the 1920s a new group were trying to muscle its way into the ALP. They were called by other members ‘the Catholics’. This is amazing – it could never have happened in New South Wales or Quensland where they virtually were the party. But Kennelly, Calwell, and other Catholic party officials, prominent since the early 1920s, couldn’t get preselected until the end of the 1930s.

Why the difference in Victoria? Victoria’s demography was exceptional. In the 1850s the recently formed Port Philip District with its tiny population was swamped by the half a million diggers, whose composition differed from that of the other states and that of Britain, having a higher proportion of Methodists and other non-conformists, and fewer Tories. These aspirational lower and middle class imports looking for a better life in Australia became very influential here, setting the tone in the authority vacuum caused by the absence in Victoria of a settled and acknowledged ruling class. Among the heroes of this large new liberal group were David Syme, Charles Pearson, George Higinbotham, Alfred Deakin and Henry Bournes Higgins. A section of this group, those who were moving away from religion, formed the Victorian Socialist Party, opponents of the Catholics.

This situation led to two important developments. Firstly Melbourne Catholics were forced to put their main public energies, unlike their Sydney and Brisbane counterparts, into Catholic organisations like the Hibernians and CYMS and others, rather than political ones. For this reason the Melbourne Catholic community was a much stronger and more cohesive force in Melbourne than elsewhere, as Patrick O’Farrell noted.  Secondly Melbourne Catholics had to form public and political bodies outside the ALP to put pressure on it. At the time of the First World War Melbourne Catholics, with Mannix’s encouragement, founded the Australia Catholic Federation as a general pressure group, and the Catholic Workers Association, comprising Catholic union and ALP members (the same makeup as the later Movement) as a specialised group to (unsuccessfully) infiltrate and change the local ALP branch from inside. We can generally conclude from these facts that a body like the Movement was not necessary or even possible in NSW or Queensland. With a split looming in the early 1950s, Cardinal Gilroy and the long-time NSW Catholic Premier Joe Cahill were able to do a deal to prevent it in NSW. On the other hand some external body like the CWA or the Movement was needed here in Victoria, as the only way for those on the outer in the ALP to get a say. This procedure was replicated in the crisis of the late 1930s, when the Catholic Action and the Movement organisations were set up, once again with Mannix’s encouragement, by Melbourne Catholics.

Another main interest in the book is, naturally, Mannix, not so much what he did (he has many biographers), as his personality and motivations, and changes to them.  My view of Mannix in this book is based on an interpretation for which there is much circumstantial, but less definitive evidence: that in 1920 he wanted to play a key public role in Ireland in leading his own country out of the Anglo-Irish war and into freedom from Britain. He was supposed to be on ad limina visit to Rome but spent only a short time there in a fifteen-month trip. Mannix combined the leadership talents necessary in a national emergency: radical nationalist, prince bishop, tribal leader, astute political strategist, tribune of the people, and convincing orator, as The Advocate and a Dublin address to him pointed out at the time. He had beaten a Welsh PM here, had roused the United States Irish and hoped to similarly to rouse the Irish in Ireland against another Welsh PM, Lloyd George.

1920 saw the height of the Black and Tan war with terrible killings; leaders on both sides wanted an end to it. Mannix was suggested as a neutral negotiator by influential British figures. But in the United States, freed from wartime and British restrictions, he revealed his true position:

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 war, and now that the war is over she tells you to mind your own business.

The last sentence refers to the fact that Britain promised Home Rule for Ireland if it was deferred until after the war, and when the war ended Britain instead imposed martial law on Ireland. Lloyd George used Mannix’s US speech to prevent him landing in Ireland to carry out his aims. Mannix described himself as ‘in cold storage’ in England and as a ‘castaway in the south seas’, indicating by contrast his real ambitions. Many years later he admitted privately this speech was the biggest mistake of his life. In his last year when Montini became Pope, Mannix commented: ‘in Rome at the head of the Australian pilgrimage in the Holy Year [in 1925], I was the Archbishop of Melbourne, and he [Montini] was just another monsignor around the place. Now he’s come into his own. And I’m still here, sittin’ on the shelf’. Lesser men had overtaken him; he believed he had missed out.

This great mistake changed his personality. He retreated between the wars into a mild melancholy, holed up in Raheen. He no longer slogged it out in public with his foes, as he had with Billy Hughes. He changed from tribal leader to remote aristocrat. He vowed not to mix with the British Australian ascendancy while Northern Ireland was not part of Ireland. People have focused on his humour, but this was a mere by-product of a deep sadness at this lost opportunity. One lady who knew him said: ‘He saw life and public affairs as just a sport, played against a backdrop of the infinite.  Like all mystics too, he knew how to keep silent on the very deepest things while he made grand fun of ephemeral happenings.’

Ireland was always on Mannix’s mind, but for us things were different. We call ourselves Irish Catholics, which is true culturally but our spiritual formation was not specifically Irish, but continental Catholicism. Of the more than forty religious orders in Melbourne, only seven were founded outside Europe, five in Ireland and two in Australia. We got a good dose of central European baroque Counter-Reformation spirituality as part of the church’s recovery mission from the Reformation. Full-blown baroque churches in Europe are like scary dark caverns with images of saints burnt on griddle irons, to remind us we are fallen beings trapped in an alternating cycle of sin, penitence and grace, and sighing for paradise/Heaven, represented in earthy iconography by magnificent, elaborate, brightly lit baroque altars adorned with gold and other splendours.

This emotional religion was for us combined with French-based Jansenism (disdain of worldly things). The French church was also engaged on a recovery mission after the French revolution. The new orders founded in France in the nineteenth century who came to Melbourne included the Salesian, Oblate and Blessed Sacrament priests, the Marist and De La Salle Brothers, eight orders of nuns, and the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Many Irish students and priests went to France for their education and training. Ironically the church in Ireland and Australia had not lost the Catholic masses in the 19th century – that came during our own time – so the recovery mission was not as urgent in Ireland or here. Baroque and Jansenist ideology had in common the Manichean notion that the world was intrinsically evil. It believed the soul was like a bird trapped in a cage, seeking freedom to fly straight to God the Father, minimizing the agency of Christ.

This European spiritual formation was in our case filtered and watered down twice, firstly in Ireland and then here. This was shown by James Joyce who had a similar religious formation to us but detached himself from it, as we see in the mission sermons in The Portrait of the Artist, which he undermines by merely repeating them. In Australia we got a further dilution, with the sting taken out of baroque imagery here. The Irish baroque of St Francis’ church altar in Melbourne is fairytale, romantic baroque. The baroque influence here had always been an attachment, an add-on, not integral; we had received, to use a current phrase, a ‘plain vanilla’ version of baroque. When Vatican II came, overnight we got rid of the marble altars, we removed the Pellegrini ornaments, we painted over the murals, and hey presto, we had the straight clear lines of modernist church architecture.

This whole episode teaches us to beware of loosely throwing around hyphenated concepts like ‘Irish-Catholic’ and even worse ‘Anglo-Celt’, which automatically bind two notions tightly together, which is not always the case. In Ireland between the Easter Rebellion and the 1921 Treaty, for example, the Irish and Catholic strains were often at odds; Padraig Pearse and the Irish Catholic hierarchy had very different views on these matters.

We all have multiple identities: I can identify as Australian, Irish, British, Catholic, European, male, Melbournian and so on. Carl Jung said our personalities are like a building, with the top or visible storey our nationality, the basement the Roman one, and with a lot of layers in between. We all amalgamate and reconcile these variegated identities into our own personal myth to live by, at various stages giving more weight to one rather than another. But there are some things we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t privilege one of these identities to the exclusion of the others, living in a single identity silo and denigrating the rest. And we shouldn’t take today’s views, however admirable, and project them back on former times. How benighted our forebears were compared with our own enlightened selves! The patronising sin of presentism leads to bad history, and to counterfactuals, by trying to twist the shape of the past into our preferred image of it. Historians should show sympathy and understanding of their subjects in their own terms.


One thought on “The Multiple Identities of the Irish in Victoria

  1. The inclusion of the De La Salle order with those listed as being founded in the nineteenth century is incorrect. They were established in 1681.

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