A Vision of a Community of Scholars based on Openness

Book Review by Michael McGirr

Brenda Niall, Josephine Dunin and Frances O’Neill: Newman College A history 1918-2018, Melbourne, Newman College, 2018.

ISBN 978-0-6467-98300-4

RRP: $70 hardback

It was a stroke of genius to commission three women to write the centenary history of Melbourne’s Newman College. For most of its history, the Catholic residential college attached to the University of Melbourne has been a male preserve. Its slow and jolting growth towards a more diverse culture is one of the central, perhaps the central, theme of this absorbing history. This is one of the ways in which this book is a much more significant project than a narrowly focussed institutional history. It is a perceptive examination of a century of change in tertiary education, told with affection but not sycophancy. The book honours the ideal of a community of scholarship based on openness. It despises a culture of mindless privilege. Indeed, its writing embodies some of the breadth of humanity at the core of John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University. This landmark book contributed to the college finding its name. It is high time, with tertiary education becoming more and more commercialised, that we all looked at it again.

The authors bring rare qualifications to their task. In an afterword, they explain that Frances O’Neill waded through mountains of archival material. Josephine Dunin conducted many interviews with past and present staff and students. Brenda Niall created the beautifully balanced prose which turns what may have been a staid coffee table volume into a lively reading experience. Niall and O’Neill are both daughters of Frank Niall, a member of the first intake to Newman College in 1918. They have lived the full story and are by no means blind to its darker moments, handling them with wisdom and insight.

Newman College came about because of the vision of Archbishop Daniel Mannix and the money of Thomas Donovan. Its official opening, like much involving Mannix, was a political and tribal event. Of the 40,000 who attend the ceremony, few would ever aspire to tertiary education. Indeed, this history reminds alumni to esteem the poor because it was they who, in large measure, funded the project. Mannix was their champion and his involvement in the conscription debates of World War I was a fresh memory. He supported the now legendary building designs of Walter Burley Griffin and his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin; their plans went right down to every item of furniture. Mannix’s enthusiasm for such an original design was one of many ways in which he could spring a surprise; Brenda Niall’s superb biography, Mannix, details some of the others, such as his support for some of the most significant changes discussed at Vatican II. Mannix’s intention was clear: he wanted doors opened to his predominantly Irish community that had long been locked from the inside. Newman College: a History 1918-2018 shows Mannix’s intransigence in business but also moments of sound judgement and wit. When it was proposed to build St Mary’s College for women on an adjacent plot to Newman, he quipped that they would need a nursery between the two establishments.

Of the many powerful pen portraits in Newman College, the portrayal of Fr Jeremiah Murphy SJ, the rector of Newman from 1923-1953 is among the most poignant. He came from Kilkenny and had been in Australia for only a short time when he took over at the age of 39, becoming, along with Fr Bill Hackett SJ, one of Mannix’s few confidants. He was affable, scholarly and often to be found in his study. Murphy had lost his parents at an early age. At the other end of his life, he did not cope well with his removal from his rectorship after three decades when he was put on light duties at Xavier College. It seems as if Newman was his one place of belonging, his only home. He cared for it with genial obsession; the book describes his personal agonising over the minutiae of accounts. He was unable to delegate. Indeed, as the story progresses, the challenge of leadership in the context of a youthful academic community comes to light again and again. For a while it appears that the college was little more than a drinking barn with sport thrown in to provoke a thirst. This history honours rectors such as Bill Uren SJ and Peter L’Estrange SJ and the provost, Sean Burke, who facilitated radical cultural change. The story of Uren in particular is superbly told.

Newman College: a history 1918-2018 runs a valuable parallel between the opportunities afforded to men and women respectively. It points out, for example, that St Mary’s Hall, a residence for women, was inaugurated in a far less convenient location with far less fanfare. Not one woman spoke at its opening. Co-residency began with just 17 students in 1977 and was slow to gain acceptance. People spoke against it because it may diminish Newman’s sporting success. The furnishings were unsuitable. The authors describe the process of initiation of freshers which was always questionable but, in the case of women, often appalling. The book charts a passage to greater awareness of the many dimensions of sexual abuse. It also considers the experience of homosexual students.

Newman College has also had its part of play in politics both inside and outside the Catholic fold. This story brushes up against the Campion Society and the Newman Society. It was often enough a citadel for those fighting for a vision of the world at large.

Yet the institution is at its most appealing when the authors describe connections and relationships, some of them delightful. It ends with the death of the great poet, Peter Steele SJ, who had been a professor of English at the university and who lived at the college for over twenty years.  He was a truly marvellous human being. Diagnosed with cancer, he chose to die at the college, nursed by staff and students. Professors and undergraduates alike took turns to be with him through the night. Here, the authors tell us, is a community ‘capable of love.’

Unity of faith and purpose is what the founders of Newman would want for their students, and for themselves.

Michael McGirr is the dean of faith at St Kevin’s College in Melbourne, also founded in 1918 with similar aspirations to those of Newman. He is the author most recently of Books That Saved My Life (Text)