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Bishop’s legacy of secular, social divide

13 July 2013 1,405 views No Comment

Daniel Mannix: Beyond the Myths
By James Griffin,
Garratt Publishing, 397pp, $44.95

MELBOURNE’S long-serving, Irish-born, Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, died aged 99 on November 6 1963, a day after having a flutter on the Melbourne Cup. Unfortunately, Jim Griffin, whose acerbically cantankerous, but lively and well-researched biography was completed only after Griffin’s death with the diligent aid of Paul Ormonde, does not tell us if the controversial prelate won.

When, twenty years ago, I searched for papers concerning Dr Mannix in the archives of Ireland’s Maynooth seminary – where he had been professor of moral theology and eventually president – the priest in charge said that, other than Mannix’s devoted disciple B.A. (Bob) Santamaria, I was the only Australian to do so for decades. However there was almost nothing there save a few brief, insignificant letters scrawled by Mannix in his barely legible, spindly hand.

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As it turns out, this is not surprising. According to Griffin, and to Santamaria – whose 1984 biography of the archbishop is bagged by Griffin unmercifully , Mannix was often reluctant to put pen to paper. Moreover, up to his death at almost 100, Mannix burned almost all of his few remaining letters and other documents.

Sadly, after he left Ireland for Australia in 1913, for a variety of reasons usefully explored by Griffin, the radical pro-Irish, anti-conscription archbishop never set foot in his beloved Maynooth again.

What is clear is that, throughout his long and tumultuous life, Mannix remained a strong supporter of the militant Irish patriot and politician, Eamon de Valera.

It is also clear is that, especially when dealing with Mannix’s anti-British statements up to 1925, Griffin presents what might be termed the case for the prosecution. Hence in his evaluation of Mannix during World War 1, Griffin sometimes comes across as a virulent antagonist.

Perhaps the most fascinating section of the book, much of it written by Ormone, deals with the fiercely anti-communist Industrial Groups that operated so effectively within Australia’s trade unions and which in many ways mimicked the tactics and structure of the Communist Party.

The core of the Groups, Griffin states, “was organized by the Mannix protégé, B.A. Santamaria through his so-called ‘Movement’, using church resources and facilities. For its part, the Movement, under Santamaria’s guidance, invoked -“intensely and frequently – the name and authority of the venerable Archbishop of Melbourne.

Indeed there seems little doubt that, especially in the mid-1950s , at the time of the great split in the Australian Labor Party , Santamaria was Australia’s most powerful Catholic layman, who was widely believed, especially in Victoria, to reflect the mind of Mannix.

It is certainly the case that this biography of Dr Mannix often is far too unambiguously critical of the archbishop’s relations with and strong support of Santamaria. Indeed, Griffin’s negative portrayal of that influential, Melbourne-based, Catholic lay activist sometimes seems to border on the obsessional.

But in the context of the book as a whole, this is a relatively minor quibble.

All in all, it is pleasing to report that, in terms of interest and readability, the often provocative ‘Daniel Mannix: Beyond the Myths’ is on a par with Griffin’s 2004 revisionist biography of the archbishop’s friend, the Collingwood-based “entrepreneur, John Wren, which was similarly subtitled ‘A Life Reconsidered’.

This long-awaited biography captures superbly the fact that the major division in Australia at the time Mannix was archbishop of Melbourne was between Catholics and Protestants, with a Protestant ascendancy being the prime social and political reality.

Unforgettably for this reviewer, when I was 10 years old I was refused admission to Sunday School at St Mark’s Anglican Church in Melbourne’s East Brighton because I was wearing a hand-me-down blazer from Xavier College – where, as it happens, Jim Griffin had studied and also taught.

But from the day I was refused entry for wearing a Catholic blazer, I became a committed non-believer.

Later on, when I was hitchhiking along Melbourne’s St Kilda Road in the early 1960s, a well-dressed middle-aged bloke in a Daimler who picked me up asked, “Are you a Catholic or a Protestant? When I replied that I was an atheist, the man persisted: “Are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?

Some fine black-and- white photographs grace this important book. One of my favorites is of a stern-faced, young Mannix at Maynooth in 1890, the year he was ordained as a priest. The other is that of the elderly archbishop – tall, austere, sharp-featured and wearing a top hat – on his regular 5km walk from St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne to his splendid double-storey villa in Studley Park, ‘Raheen’, whose 4.5ha of grounds descended to the Yarra River.

On the downside, unfortunately there are a number of typographical mistakes in the book. For example, the surname of one of the archbishop’s early biographers, Jack O’Sheehan, is rendered in the text as Sheehan. Sinn Fein supporter O’Sheehan’s largely uncritical book ‘Archbishop Mannix: A Sketch of His Life and Work’ was published to considerable interest in Ireland in 1925.

Ross Fitzgerald, emeritus professor of History & Politics at Griffith University, is the author of 35 books, including his memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’ and the political satire ‘Fools’ Paradise’.

The Weekend Australian, July 13-14, 2013, Review, Books, p18