BRENDA NIALL Mannix. Reviewed by Yvonne Perkins
This biography is a valuable and engrossing contribution to Irish-Australian history.
‘Archbishop Mannix used to live there,’ my Presbyterian grandmother said as we passed the stately mansion Raheen on Studley Park Road. It was the mid-1970s and the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne had died before I was born, but I remembered this remark. Even as a child, I realised from her words that his influence extended well beyond Melbourne’s large Catholic population.
When Brenda Niall’s biography was first published, I knew it was my duty to read it. I am writing a book about the beliefs of Australian men in World War I so I knew I should understand more about Mannix’s very public and divisive pronouncements about conscription during Australia’s two wartime referendums on the issue. But I was not excited about reading the biography of a cleric.
I finally picked the book up and was engrossed. Simply titled, Niall’s latest biography is thoroughly deserving of the National Biography Award it won this year. Mannix was an austere person, a prominent pillar of an ancient church, a person known through his public pronouncements and political power. Biographies of important dead white men have a long tradition of being uncritical celebrations of public personae and weak depictions of the humans behind the fame. Not so with this book. Despite the paucity of sources for Mannix’s private life, Niall breathes life into him.
Mannix left behind reams of public words but only a tiny remnant of his private thoughts and life remains. Niall could have easily filled this biography by analysing his public pronouncements, but she chose the more difficult path of focussing on Mannix the private person: ‘… a shy man, who coped more easily with a massive audience than an intimate group …’
Where the sources threaten to fail her, Niall recreates the rich context of Mannix’s life by including those who interacted with him, many of whom were prominent in their own right. She gently but persistently insists that while the views of the clerics dominated, there always was diversity of opinion in Melbourne’s Catholic community, as there was during the divisive WWI conscription debates and during the Labor Party turmoil of the 1950s. Only when writing about the influence of BA (Bob) Santamaria does her focus threaten to waver from Mannix himself.
A weakness of popular Australian history is how the lives of the millions of immigrants we have received over the centuries are truncated. Their early lives in their countries of origin are too often dismissed in a few paltry paragraphs. It is almost as if the act of arriving in Australia makes the immigrant a tabula rasa, his or her life only starting when setting foot on Australian soil. Biography provides the corrective by looking at the whole life of the subject, but the biographer’s task for someone like Mannix is more difficult, as it’s necessary to explore the archives and the cultures of two countries, not one.
Mannix had lived just over half his life before he arrived in Melbourne in 1913. His first 50 years are well represented in this book. Born in 1863, he lived through the tumultuous political upheavals that Ireland endured after the horrific ‘Great Hunger’ famine when a quarter of the population died. Rich in context, Mannix introduces the Australian reader to Irish history and politics of the latter part of the 19th century. Niall traces Mannix’s life from his childhood as the son of a tenant farmer in Charleville, County Cork, to becoming President of St Patrick’s College at Maynooth, a large training institution for Ireland’s Catholic priests:
A Maynooth man … might go on holiday to Dublin with his family, but he had better not be seen in public with any female members. Mother, sister, cousin, it was all the same … The reasoning behind this is not just that female company means moral danger. The priest must be a man apart from human ties. That was clericalism, destructive then and ever since.
Soon after Mannix was released I read a comment by someone who knew Mannix, congratulating Niall for capturing his personality so well. Her job was surely made easier because she was brought up a Catholic, just a short walk away from Mannix’s stately home, and she revisits her own early career in this biography – as a young university graduate she was hired by Santamaria to interview Mannix for a biography Santamaria was writing.
Her reflections on the biographical process fit seamlessly into the narrative:
Some questions that seem obvious to me in 2015 would not have occurred to a biographer in the 1960s or the 1980s, not because I can claim to be more perceptive but because the world has changed, and will keep changing. This won’t be the last word on Daniel Mannix.
There is no evidence that Mannix knew anything about the horrific child sexual abuse within the church. But Niall points out that his hands-off management style, combined with the eagerness with which the Catholic Church accepted candidates for the priesthood during his tenure, was conducive to the abuse that flourished over the succeeding decades. She does not let this issue lie and reflects on it at a couple of points in the book.
Mannix lived a long life, dying at the age of 99. As each chapter unfolded I was expecting that this would be the chapter where the narrative would flag, particularly as Mannix entered his final decades. But my attention never wandered.
The Mannix mind was active until his last breath. Niall’s Catholic background and writing skills are invaluable in explaining church politics and theology throughout his life, and no more so than in Mannix’s contribution from Melbourne to the debates of the Vatican II Council. ‘The Final Act’ chapter about the momentous theological debates that shook the Catholic church and Mannix’s views on the proceedings could have been dry and sleep-inducing. Under Niall’s deft pen, it is engrossing and a lesson in story-telling for aspiring writers.
Mannix is a valuable contribution to Irish-Australian history. It can be seen as a companion to two other books Niall has written. The Riddle of Father Hackett: A life in Ireland and Australia is a biography of an Irish-Australian Jesuit priest who was possibly the closest person to Mannix in his later years. Father Hackett was also an émigré in mid-life, and the first part of this biography shares with Mannix much about early 20-century Irish political history. Niall’s memoir Life Class: The education of a biographer is also definitely worth reading for its insights about writing biographies and her early life in Kew.
Brenda Niall Mannix Text Publishing 2016 (HB 2015) PB 463pp $32.99
Yvonne Perkins is a professional historian and is currently writing a book about the diverse beliefs held by Australian soldiers as they served in World War One. She also writes about history on her blog www.stumblingpast.com
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