By Brenda NiallNon-fictionText Publishing


Daniel Mannix, Archbishop of Melbourne from 1917 until his death, aged 99, in 1963, was a towering figure in Melbourne’s Catholic community. But his political interventions had a profound effect on the wider Australian nation too.

Award-winning biographer Brenda Niall has made some unexpected discoveries in Irish and Australian archives which overturn some widely held views. She also draws on her own memories of meeting and interviewing Mannix to get to the essence of this man of contradictions, controversies and mystery.

Mannix is not only an astonishing new look at a remarkable life, but a fascinating depiction of Melbourne in the first half last century.

Portrait of Brenda Niall

Brenda Niall

Brenda Niall is one of Australia’s foremost biographers. She is the author of four award-winning biographies, including her acclaimed accounts of the Boyd family. Brenda has degrees from the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University and Monash University. She has held visiting fellowships at the University of Michigan, Yale University and the Australian National University. In 2004 she was awarded the Order of Australia for ‘services to Australian literature, as an academic, biographer and literary critic’. She frequently reviews for the AgeSydney Morning Herald and Australian Book Review.

Judges’ report

Like the spires of St Patrick’s cathedral, Daniel Mannix loomed large during his 46 years as Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, and his influence casts a long shadow beyond.

In her wonderfully readable biography of Mannix, Brenda Niall has brought a researcher’s rigour and a born writer’s narrative sensibilities to recounting a life that spanned two hemispheres and almost a century, encompassing two world wars, the Irish civil war, and the Depression.

Both in his native Ireland and in Australia, Mannix displayed rare audacity in applying political pressure to effect social change. Struck by the poverty and inequality he witnessed, he worked to improve education and opportunities for Australia's Catholic community. He also promoted immigration and refugee policy, the rights of Indigenous Australians, and better conditions for all workers – issues we still grapple with today.

Readers not familiar with the divisive and enigmatic Mannix will gain great insight into the three main political controversies he was involved in – agitating against the 1916 referendum on conscription, advocating for Irish independence, and his role in the Australian Labor Party split of 1955.

Niall's fine storytelling also evokes Melbourne’s changing spiritual, social and political landscape during the first half of the 20th century, adding depth and context to the city we know today.


Between the time Billy Hughes succeeded Andrew Fisher as prime minister in October 1915, and Mannix’s succession, in May 1917, to become archbishop of Melbourne, the issue of conscription flared, dividing the nation. Before 1916, most Australians, including those of Irish birth or descent, supported the war. Anger over the British Government’s decision of two years before, to defer its promise of home rule for Ireland, erupted in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Nearly everyone thought the rising was foolish, or worse. Mannix shared this view but he pointed out that the British were reaping what they had sown. Within weeks, the brutal executions of the Irish leaders changed the general mood.

While Irish-Australian public feeling towards the war was shifting in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, Hughes was in England. He resolved to send more Australian troops to help the war and once back in Australia he announced a referendum on conscription to be held in October 1916. This shook the traditional beliefs of the Labor parliamentary party as well as its rank-and-file members. Conscription threatened civil liberties and economic stability. In this context, the Irish struggle for independence from Britain and the growing popularity of Mannix became increasingly important.

In other circumstances, Catholic working-class people might not have taken to this cool ascetic archbishop. But from the first Mannix took their side. He gave a voice to their grievances in the matter of education; and by refusing to defer to anyone in government or vice-regal circles, he gave Catholics a new sense of confidence. And when it came to the debates over the conscription issue, it was a tonic to watch him undermine the prime minister’s certainty. Cartoonists loved the two leaders. From his top hat, or purple biretta, to his buckled shoes, Mannix obliged by always presenting in costume. Hughes, ‘the Little Digger’, was defined by small stature, big ears and frenetic activity.

During the 1916 campaign, neither of Mannix’s two statements on the subject was especially fierce and Hughes did not mention Mannix. His reproaches, when the No vote prevailed, were scattered around the community: he spoke of 'the selfish vote, and the shirker vote and the Irish vote'. The following month, Hughes faced a Labor caucus bitterly divided over conscription and was under such fierce attack that he saw no point in waiting to be expelled. And out he strode. Twenty-four men followed him.

Hughes and his pro-conscription colleagues stayed in office with the support of the opposition; and in 1917 a new organisation, the Nationalist Party, emerged under Hughes’ leadership to fight the next election. Hughes announced that if his party won the May 1917 election, a second conscription referendum would be held ‘if national safety demands it’.

Irish political re-groupings after the Easter Rising and its aftermath had brought the radical republican Sinn Féin Party to the fore, so when Mannix declared himself a Sinn Féiner, Hughes had a new weapon. It was then that he told Lloyd George, that Ireland and Mannix were at the bottom of his government’s difficulties. Mannix took a less obviously aggressive tone. His 1917 speeches were a rich blend of fierce irony, reasoned argument and comic belittlement of his opponents. He addressed his audience directly, identifying himself with the working class who, he said, would pay the highest price in the war and after it be forgotten by the wealthy. He used homely images: ants running about with their eggs when their anthill is disturbed; leaders with no more backbone than a stick of boiled asparagus.

Hughes matched Mannix in vigour and quick repartee, but he didn’t show the comic sense that made Sundays such wonderful entertainment for Melbourne’s Catholics. The usual functions – opening parish fetes, laying foundation stones – stopped being dull and predictable. Mannix never used the pulpit for politics. But, out in the community in his black soutane and purple biretta, with his escort of black-suited clerics, he was always the complete archbishop. Both men drew huge crowds.

On Saturday 5 May1917,  Hughes’s Nationalists won the federal election by a comfortable majority, but the win left Hughes with the character of a Labor 'rat', a class traitor. A demoralised left wing, without effective leadership, looked to Mannix for a champion. The referendum was set for December and Mannix, now archbishop of Melbourne after the death of Thomas Carr, entered another conscription campaign, more bitter than the first.

Mannix was also under fire from sections of the Catholic community. The sharpest attack came from prominent Sydney Catholics who complained to Rome that Mannix was damaging the church. Non-Catholics, they said, were unable to distinguish between the utterances of Mannix the man and Mannix the archbishop. As the referendum vote came closer, one of them, Judge Heydon, sent a letter to the daily papers denouncing Mannix for disloyalty to the Empire and for being untrue to the teachings of the church.

Mannix’s reply turned up the heat. These so-called ‘leaders’ of the Sydney Catholic community, he said, had no more followers than would comfortably 'fit in a lolly shop'. Unfairly, he added that these men had attained social rank only by denying either their faith or their Irish origins. In the event, the December 1917 referendum was a defeat for Hughes and a win for Mannix.

Half a century after his death aged 99, Mannix still challenges biographers and historians. His long life has no parallel in Australia’s history. No political leader, no matter how persistent, durable or charismatic, has commanded the stage to the end, as Mannix did. No other churchman has taken part in national debates with comparable effect. From the conscription debates of 1916-17 to the ALP split in the mid-1950s, he was a dominant presence. Politicians watched him closely as the presumed deliverer of the Catholic vote. For his own Catholic people he represented stability in faith and morals, but he administered seismic shocks in matters of political and social policy that were felt nationally and internationally.

When Armistice Day came in November 1918 Mannix was not invited to the celebration at Government House. No surprise there; he and Hughes would have had to shake hands.  Hughes and others kept stirring the sectarian pot. When Mannix backed the workers in the seamen’s strike of 1919, it endeared him to trade unionists, but, at a time when anything with even a whiff of socialism brought the Russian Revolution to mind, it seemed dangerously radical to others. Add to that his vigorous commitment to an Irish republic, and his declaration for 'Australia First, the Empire second', and it is easy to see why he was demonised by Hughes in the early post-war period.

Hughes won the federal election in December 1919. Mannix was seen as a factor in the opposition Labor party’s defeat, by losing Protestant votes. His image as the bogey-man of Protestant Australia grew. Hughes returned to office with a reduced majority but his ‘Little Digger’ status was enhanced.


Edited extract from Mannix by Brenda Niall (Text Publishing, hardback, $50)

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