An outstanding work of historical scholarship
THE RIDDLE OF FATHER HACKETT:
A Life in Ireland and Australia
by Brenda Niall
(Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2009, 320pp, $39.95. ISBN: 978-0-64227-685-8. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Brenda Niall's biography of Father William Hackett, an Irish Jesuit born in Kilkenny in 1878 and stationed in Australia from late 1922 until his death in 1954 - all but the first few months in Melbourne - is an outstanding work of historical scholarship.
Father Hackett's main claim to fame will always be that, through his Central Catholic Library and his personality, he made an indispensable contribution to the Campion Society. Without that Society Bob Santamaria would not have followed the path he did, and there would have been no Movement, no National Civic Council, no News Weekly, no AD2000. Nor would there be a Campion College at Toongabbie, NSW. Australian Catholicism and Australian politics would have been different.
Yet Father Hackett was involved in momentous events even before he left Ireland. He was a friend of most of the nationalist leaders, especially of Erskine Childers. In 1920 he had a rifle hidden in his chimney when his room in Limerick was searched by British troops.
When the British gave Ireland dominion-style independence in December 1921, and the Irish Civil War broke out, Father Hackett sought to be a peacemaker. Michael Collins wrote to him on the night before being killed. Dr Niall has been assiduous in searching out relevant records, and these she handles masterfully.
Was Father Hackett sent to Australia because of a too-close behind-the-scenes involvement in the politics of the Civil War, as has been widely thought? Dr Niall tentatively believes he was, whereas Gerard Henderson, in published correspondence with Dr Niall, has argued that he came voluntarily. I tentatively incline towards Henderson's view.
As regards Father Hackett's three decades in Australia, Dr Niall's main themes are his early experiences of the Melbourne Jesuit community and of Xavier College; his enduring friendship with Archbishop Mannix; his establishment of the Central Catholic Library in 1924, and his continuous efforts to expand its collection and attract funds; his friendship with the Victorian Governor, Lord Arthur Somers, and Prime Ministers Scullin, Lyons and Menzies; his time as rector of Xavier College, 1935-40; his chaplaincies of the Australian National Secretariat of Catholic Action (ANSCA) and of the Movement; and his positions on the Church-State issues central to the 1954-55 Labor Party "Split".
Nobody could have been better qualified to cover these topics than Dr Niall. She has had two previous biographies published; Father Hackett was a family friend, with Dr Niall's father being his medical doctor; Dr Niall acquired from her parents and their circle an intimate knowledge of Melbourne Catholicism in the early decades of the 20th century; and she came to know personally most of those who were prominent in Melbourne Catholic affairs during the remainder of the century.
As she traces Father Hackett's career and contacts, Dr Niall provides us with prolific incidental insights into historically significant events and individuals, including Dr Mannix and his predecessor Archbishop Carr. Her book is dense with factual information, yet it is as well-paced and absorbing as a good novel. Her inferences are judicious and never bolt free of the evidence. Her use of personal knowledge and experiences is always apposite.
This excellent book should be on the shelves of anyone with pride in Australian Catholicism as it was, and especially in the unique Victorian Catholic tradition which enabled Father Hackett to have such a productive influence and a tradition which he enhanced.
Colin Jory is a Catholic writer and teacher based in Canberra, and is author of the definitive history of the Campion Society (available from Freedom Publishing for $15.00).