By Brenda Niall

Text Publishing

ISBN: 9781922182111

RRP – $50

Reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald


As far as I can tell, Brenda Niall’s new book is the ninth biography of the controversial Irish-born Daniel Mannix – who was the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne from 1917 to 1963.

A key theme of this well-written biography, repeated a number of times throughout the book, is that shortly after the 99-year old Mannix died about midday on 6 November 1963 – the day after Guy Fawkes Night and Gatum Gatum won the Melbourne Cup – there was an enormous three-day bonfire of the Archbishop’s private papers.

Niall claims that this systematic burning of most of Mannix’s papers took place at “Raheen” – the Archbishop’s palatial mansion in Kew and was allegedly a deliberate move on Mannix’s part to foil and frustrate any future biographers.

The main problem with Niall’s controversial claim is that there is little evidence to support it. Certainly there was nothing in Dr Mannix’s will about destroying any documents. Neither are there any written or direct instructions from Dr Mannix about his wishing to have eradicated any or all extant letters either by or to him, as a private person or as the Archbishop of Melbourne.

Niall worked as research assistant for Mannix’s official biographer – B.A. (Bob) Santamaria from 1954 to about 1961. Niall also knows that, in fact, there were a large number of Mannix’s personal papers and letters, which survived his death. Indeed, a number of these were used in, and quoted by, Santamaria in his book Daniel Mannix: The Quality of Leadership, published by Melbourne University Press in 1984.

Moreover, after Santamaria’s death in 1998, all these 12 boxes of letters and papers were returned to Rachel Naughton at the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission of the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne – where they remain.

In the mid 1980s, I accessed Mannix’s papers at Maynooth’s St Patrick’s College seminary. Mannix had been president of Maynooth between 1903 and 1913, before coming to Australia at the age of 49. The priest/librarian at Maynooth told me that I was only the second Australian to ask for the Mannix papers. The other Aussie was Bob Santamaria. In fact, the archive contained very few of Mannix’s letters, most of them – as was his wont – very brief and penned in his spindly hand.

All in all, I find it hard to believe that a three day bonfire of Mannix’s personal papers ever happened. And because Niall’s claim about the deliberate destruction of his papers, on the order of Mannix himself, is so central to her biography, it makes this reviewer somewhat sceptical about Niall’s other key statements concerning the long-serving and often-controversial Archbishop of Melbourne. This includes Niall’s claims about the radical, Irish-born Father W.P. (William) Hackett SJ – whose biography she published in 2009 and who was allegedly sent to Australia because of his support for the Irish revolutionary militant Eamon de Valera. This statement I regard as being dubious and unproven, to say the least.

Niall’s “bonfire” claims also cast doubt, in particular, about Father Hackett’s relationship with Dr Mannix. It is well worth recording that in The Riddle of Father Hackett: A Life in Ireland and Australia, Niall claimed that all of the Archbishop’s private papers were burnt on his say-so, whereas now in Mannix her claim has been changed and diluted to claiming that most of these papers were burnt.  But, significantly, in her 2015 biography Niall’s highly questionable statement about a three-day bonfire at Raheen still persists.

Some facts about Daniel Mannix and his life and times are incontestable. Born near Charleville in County Cork in March 1864, the son of a tenant farmer, Mannix was educated for the priesthood at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, the Irish national seminary. Further studies saw him awarded a doctorate of divinity in 1895 after which he took up a lectureship in philosophy and the chair of moral theology at Maynooth and was elected to the presidency of the college unanimously in 1903.  By 1912, however, it was clear Mannix’s stringent personality had alienated his superiors and he was not given a major see. In July 1912, he was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Melbourne and arrived at Melbourne’s Spencer Street Railway Station just before Easter 1913.

Tall, thin, gaunt, ascetic and often remote and austere, with a strong searching gaze and a powerful presence, Mannix was unforgettable and like no other archbishop in Australia or elsewhere. Mannix first came to public prominence in this country as a charismatic leader of the national anti-conscription campaigns. He played a part in the first conscription referendum, which was narrowly defeated on 28 October 1916, and especially in the resounding NO Vote in the second referendum of 20 December 1917 – when he was by then Archbishop of Melbourne. It was in part because of Mannix that the anti-conscription forces won out against the conscription advocates, who were led by the gnomic, Welsh–born and fervently pro-war prime minister W.H. (Billy) Hughes – who was widely known as the “Little Digger.’

It is clear that Mannix was a strict, total abstainer – who regularly spoke in strident advocacy of the so-called “temperance” movement and against the evils of alcohol.

After he became Archbishop of Melbourne, Mannix was regularly seen, in his top hat and frock coat walking, with a cane, from Raheen to St Patrick’s Catholic cathedral in East Melbourne, which is situated near St Vincent’s Private Hospital. On the way there and back, the imposing Archbishop would often dispense coins to young children and the needy.

As far as we know, Mannix never used the telephone and, in the main was indifferent to the motorcar. However, in his last years, he liked watching the news on television and the Western serial “Gunsmoke”.

Mannix had few friends and, after he was unable to attend his mother’s funeral in Ireland in 1925, he had little contact with his extended family. This meant that there did not exist a trail of familial correspondence. Even though he spent up to five hours each day in prayer, he left neither a spiritual journal nor a private diary.

While in the main aloof and reclusive, Mannix did have a decidedly messianic attitude to and belief in the militant Irish leader Eamon de Valera, who eventually came to power in 1932, and in the Australian Catholic anti-communist Bob Santamaria – both of whom he regarded in different ways as being “saviors” of their people.

Indeed it was with Mannix’s strong support that Santamaria, for years, effectively organised what became known as “the Movement” or “the Show”. This involved establishing an informal set of so-called Industrial Groups to take on the Communists in the Australian trade union movement. Indeed, Santamaria adopted the Communists’ own methods of establishing and developing secret “cells” in each union or Australian labour movement organisation. This method he used against communist infiltration of the trades union movement and, more broadly, against the Communist Party of Australia – whose influence was at its height at the end of World War II, and especially from 1945 to 1949.

For a while, the unstable federal ALP leader Dr H.V. (Doc) Evatt collaborated with Santamaria. But a few months after the increasingly erratic Dr Evatt was narrowly defeated in the May 1954 federal election, in a bid to hang on to his federal Labor leadership, he turned against Mannix’s Melbourne-based protégé. Evatt did this by denouncing secretive Movement members and supporters as being disloyal to himself and to the Labor Party.  In so doing, he exposed the then relatively unknown Santamaria’s role in undermining the ALP – both federally and in the states. Evatt’s intemperate outbursts led directly to the tumultuous Labor Split of the mid 1950s, which helped keep the ALP out of office for decades. Niall cogently puts it thus: “Another Labor split – the third in Mannix’s time in Australia – brought back much of the sectarian bitterness of the conscription period.”

After Father Hackett died in July 1954, Mannix’s most frequent visitor was Bob Santamaria who, on Saturday afternoons, would often drop in at Raheen on his way home from watching his team Carlton play football. As Niall recounts, the Archbishop was keen to hear details about the Victorian Football League.  According to Niall (who produces no clear evidence to back up her claim), Mannix supported my beloved club Collingwood, which she aptly describes as “the team of the underdogs, (Mannix’s) neighbors across the river from Raheen”.

The most touching scene in this well-produced book is when Mannix is observed at Raheen, arm gently around the shoulder, comforting his old enemy “Billy” Hughes – after the latter’s beloved daughter Helen had died prematurely in London in 1937. In Mannix, Niall makes a convincing case that the unmarried Helen Hughes had been pregnant when she left Australia and that she died of septicemia after giving birth. To this day, the identity of the father is not known.

The Mannix/Hughes meeting of 1937 was not their last. From time to time thereafter, until the Little Digger’s death in October 1952, aged 90, Hughes visited Mannix at Raheen, and the two ex-rivals regularly exchanged birthday greetings.

Throughout Niall’s book there are remarkably few typos and mistakes. However, the militant Industrial Workers of the World (commonly known as the IWW or the Wobblies) is wrongly rendered as the International Workers of the World. But, to be fair, this is a common mistake made by authors who do not understand the details of the radical international labour movement of the early twentieth century.

In a chapter entitled “The Last Hurrah”, Niall claims that, for her, “Evatt’s attack on the ALP men who were associated with the Movement wasn’t a complete surprise.” This was, in part, because she had read two articles that explained the link – written by Alan Reid, the influential, political journalist and lead correspondent for The Daily Telegraph. But, annoyingly, nowhere in the Endnotes or in the Bibliography of Mannix are Reid’s articles cited or even mentioned. This means that the reader does not know what were their titles, where or when they were published or what they had to say.

Professor Fitzgerald, a columnist with The Australian, recently edited Alan Reid’s unpublished Labor novel of the 1950s, The Bandar-Log, (Connor Court)