When he first set foot in Australia, in Adelaide in 1913, Daniel Mannix felt as if the pavement was melting beneath his feet. He thought to himself: “I’ll never live a year in this climate.”
Four years later, the Cork-born man became the Archbishop of Melbourne, a position he held until his death, aged 99, in 1963.
Mannix was a towering figure (literally as well as metaphorically – he was very tall) in the Catholic community of his adopted city, but his political interventions had a profound effect on the wider Australian nation, too.
A new book, Mannix by Brenda Niall, looks at his remarkable life, and that of Melbourne in the first half of last century.
Niall (whose ancestors came from Killaloe, Co Clare) grew upon the same street the Archbishop’s house, Raheen, was on in the Melbourne suburb of Kew.
“I remember seeing him on his famous walks, wearing a top hat, cloak and so on, walking to the cathedral. He was a very familiar figure throughout my childhood,” she told the Irish Echo.
She also saw him on visits Mannix made to the convent school she attended and even occasionally delivered letters on behalf of the headmistress to his house.
In 1959, Niall interviewed Mannix while doing research for Bob Santamaria on a biography of the Archbishop that wasn’t published until more than two decades later.
So familiar was Mannix that, she says: “It wasn’t too much of a surprise, or not really all that intimidating, to have to interview him.
“The point really was I was too young and too inexperienced in interviewing. I’d never done one and had no idea what to ask. I just rather innocently thought I’d say ,‘Your Grace, tell me about your childhood’, and that he would go from there but, of course, he didn’t,” Niall says.
“He was an old pro at dealing with interviews. He knew how to give just as much or as little as he wanted to. The idea of finding out what background he came from, family relations and things like that was just not part of his agenda.”
But, more than five decades later, when she started to research her own biography of Mannix, Niall was able to find a great many details which were hidden or obscured in the Archbishop’s lifetime, despite the fact most of his personal correspondence was burned after he died.
Mannix was outspoken in his opposition to conscription during World War I and on Ireland gaining independence from Britain. He also spoke out against how Aborigines were treated, the “White Australia” policy and anti-Semitism. Yet, on matters of politics, the Archbishop insisted he spoke as a private citizen.
“I think he must have known that he couldn’t really be a private citizen,” Niall says. “He didn’t speak about Ireland or other political matters that were important to him from the pulpit at St Pat’s. What he did was to use Sunday afternoon duties such as opening fetes or laying foundation stones for new churches.
“He’d be called upon to speak, but rather than a conventional speech wishing the people well, he would speak on whatever was on his mind, such as a striking speech he gave on anti-Semitism just post-war. He thought the Catholic people were not welcoming the Jews and refugees, and were being suspicious of them. He spoke quite sternly against this and the occasion was just a Sunday afternoon foundation stone thing,” she says.
Mannix knew how to use the press: “Because of the reputation he’d built up in the conscription period, where the Melbourne dailies, the Argus in particular, followed him around wherever he went, he knew pretty well that whatever he said would get into the papers. Then the story would be picked up by other papers, often all over Australia. He was very good with control of the media,” Niall says.
The Archbishop’s faith was behind much of his political activism. “He took literally that we are all God’s children, we are all equal. He had a strong feeling for the underdog, for those who were oppressed and homeless, and I imagine his Irish experience fed into that,” she says.
“A feeling for those who were deprived of their rights goes right through his public utterances …in the ’30s he felt the Aborigines were sinned against. He used the word ‘sin’ and spoke of the need for atonement and reparations. That was very early for a man whose archdiocese didn’t confront him, particularly at that stage, with the [plight of] the Aborigines.
“Where that might have come from is that he gave a house right opposite Raheen to an order of German missionaries, the Palatines, who worked in the Kimberley. They had a lot of contact with him and he used to speak at their annual fete. That’s where some of the comments about the Aborigines were spoken, at that Christmas fete,” Niall says.
Though Mannix is often thought of now as a conservative figure, Niall says he was quite a progressive until the end of his life.
“One of the most interesting discoveries I made are copies of letters he drafted at the time of Vatican II, to six of the most progressive or radical cardinals, saying he was lining up with change rather than the status quo.
“Many other archbishops in Australia would have favoured leaving things alone, but he was all for throwing the windows open and was saying his piece against clericalism and against what he saw as the hardness, even pride, of the document he’d been sent to give his comments on. No one has known until now that he not only sent that response, he also sent copies of it to half a dozen cardinals who were quite carefully chosen as the movers and shakers at the [Second Vatican] Council.
“So the image of him that has survived, because of his great age and his involvement in the anti-Communist campaign, has rather stereotyped him as a conservative. He certainly wasn’t a conservative so far as Vatican II is concerned and in most other ways there was a very strong radical streak in him.”
Mannix (Text Publishing), by Brenda Niall, is out now.