Melbourne Catholics: Dr Mannix's impact

Melbourne Catholics: Dr Mannix's impact

Patrick Morgan

Patrick Morgan has written a number of books and articles on the connections between literature, history and politics, and has edited two volumes of the writings of B.A. Santamaria. His latest book, Melbourne Before Mannix: Catholics in Public Life 1880-1920, will be launched by Connor Court Publishing on 16 October, and be available from the Freedom Publishing Bookshop.

A century ago this October Archbishop Daniel Mannix was consecrated as Coadjutor Archbishop of Melbourne. To celebrate this important occasion, I have written a book, Melbourne Before Mannix: Catholics in Public Life 1880-1920.

Archbishop Mannix has had more biographies written about him than any other Australian. This is because there are still unanswered questions about his controversial career in Australia. For example, there is no evidence he was the fire-breathing Irish nationalist in Ireland that he became in Australia — when and how did he become so?

And there is still some dispute about just how influential his interventions in the conscription debates were in determining the outcomes, and about how important a role Irish events, such as Home Rule agitation and the 1916 Easter Rising, played in Australian politics.

Moreover, Dr Mannix's personality — beguiling, elusive, detached — retains an air of mystery, which he partly cultivated by assuming the role of clan chieftain and revealing very little about himself and his innermost thoughts.

Nineteenth century Melbourne's population was almost a quarter Irish Catholic. It became the focal point of Irish consciousness in Australia because of the combined activities of The Advocate publisher Joseph Winter, the Home Rule activists, Nicholas O'Donnell and Morgan Jageurs, and the presence of the Irish Christian Brothers.

Dr Mannix's arrival here was not entirely fortuitous. He came to the Australian city best prepared when Irish events began, from 1916 onwards, to play a role in Australian affairs. Melbourne's Irish propagandists were however more moderate on Irish issues than their American counterparts and the Archbishop.

Coinciding with the time of Dr Mannix's arrival, the settled pattern of the previous decades was shattered by world events. The pace of these events suddenly accelerated, like a film being speeded up. The years from 1914 to 1920 caused seismic shifts in the positions of the key people in the Melbourne Archdiocese. A series of cascading, interwoven eruptions took centre stage: the Home Rule Bill of 1914, the death of the Pope, the outbreak of the First World War, and a short time later, the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, the conscription referenda in 1916 and 1917, and the Anglo-Irish war from 1919.

These events took everyone, including Dr Mannix, out of their previous comfort zones. Soon after his arrival in Melbourne the Archbishop became a controversial figure. But what was tumultuous was not his coming, but the events themselves. Melbourne Catholics would have been disconcerted by these events even if Daniel Mannix had not been appointed here, and would have formed new alignments under the pressure of events.

Public debate

Dr Mannix changed the style of public debate in Australia by cleverly undermining his opponents, rather than frenziedly denouncing them as had been the local style in the past. He patronised them, treating them as passé, more to be pitied than worried about. And he employed humour and ridicule, chipping away at the establishment verities of the time in a soft but clearly articulated voice.

Because of sectarian feeling and wartime curtailment of freedoms - military lawyers and censors were after him - Dr Mannix couldn't say openly that he didn't believe in the British Empire nor the reasons Britain gave for going to war, nor could he say that Ireland would be freed only by armed insurrection. So it is in his apparently throwaway lines that his real position can be discerned. When he said "my loyalty to the Empire, such as it is", or "the Empire, to which, fortunately or unfortunately, we belong", or "we are paying in men and money for other people's ambitions", he was insinuating he had grave doubts about the Empire and the war.

Melbourne's Catholics had been brought up, unlike Dr Mannix, in a society where the British connection was important. Yet here he was leading his flock to weaken that connection, and to act in the more forthright way American Irish Catholics always had. In Australia he kept his opinions below the radar of the censorship authorities by not making them explicit, resorting instead to cryptic utterances.

The great Labor split of 1954-5 and the public exposure of the Santamaria Movement had explosive ramifications for the Melbourne Archdiocese late in Dr Mannix's career. It was considered an unprecedented event, and Santamaria a sui generis political operator, whose unique strategy had been to utilise Catholic parish lists to get out the numbers at union meetings. But some historical precedents existed.

I discovered to my surprise while writing this book that on a number of occasions in the past Melbourne Catholics had organised a Catholic bloc vote based on parishes to try to achieve their political ends. It has been previously assumed that Bob Santamaria thought up the idea of the parish-based Movement to fight Communist influence in the unions and the ALP, and that in the background Dr Mannix provided spiritual and financial assistance.

In 1941, when the Movement was formed, the Archbishop was a wily 77-year-old and Santamaria an inexperienced 26-year-old. Given Dr Mannix's involvement in a previous attempt in 1914-15 by the Catholic Workers Association to use parish lists and unionists in an attempt to influence the local Labor Party, it is possible that the Archbishop had a more crucial input into the Movement's inception and tactics than has been previously realised.

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