Daniel Mannix: the republican archbishop who took on the British Empire

The long-serving archbishop of Melbourne successfully fought conscription in Australia and was arrested at sea on Lloyd George’s orders to stop him from returning to Ireland

When Daniel Mannix left Ireland in 1913 to become archbishop of Melbourne, he was best known as the quiet and austere president of Maynooth seminary in Co Kildare. The Easter Rising transformed this moderate nationalist into a radical republican. Tens of thousand of Melbourne Catholics turned out to hear him speak about Irish freedom. They also heard him challenge the Australian prime minister Billy Hughes who wanted to introduce conscription. The defeat of two conscription referenda in 1916 and 1917 owed a great deal to Mannix. He was a strikingly handsome figure and an electric speaker. Prime ministers Billy Hughes and David Lloyd George agreed that Mannix posed a danger to the British empire. But they did not know how to restrain a churchman of such standing. His travels to Rome by way of the United States in 1920 brought matters to crisis point.

When Mannix and de Valera shared a platform at Madison Square Gardens in New York in July 1920, it must have been hard to say whose words were the churchman’s and whose the politician’s. An audience of 15,000 people heard Mannix’s demand that Ireland be given the same status in postwar planning as the other small nations of Europe whose fate was being decided by President Wilson’s Fourteen Point Plan. Two hundred and thirty police and 10 mounted men were sent in case of trouble but that trouble was confined to ‘a volley of hisses’ when the president was mentioned, and ‘gales of groans, boos and hisses’ for Lloyd George. That night the alliance between Mannix and de Valera was made plain when the Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Hayes, offered Catholic New York’s ‘esteem, affection and loyalty’ to the two most distinguished Irishmen on the Atlantic seaboard, Mannix and de Valera. The applause that greeted Mannix lasted 15 minutes.

The strain on Mannix the public performer was plain to see. While celebrating a solemn Mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, he showed signs of exhaustion and he had to withdraw from the altar and lean back on Cardinal Hayes’s throne, while Hayes moved to a chair beside the other clergy.

All through the remaining days of his tour, Mannix linked Ireland’s cause with de Valera’s name. He openly identified himself with the Easter Rising: ‘I am going to Ireland soon and I am going to kneel on the graves of those men who in Easter Week gave their lives for Ireland.’ He also made it clear that he wanted nothing less than a republic for Ireland.


Going to Ireland? Not if the British government could stop him. Mannix had official warning that he might not be allowed to land in Ireland. As always, he took no notice. There could be no better proof, he said, of the 'jumpy and frenzied' state of the Lloyd George government than this proposed prohibition. His planned voyage from New York to the Irish port of Queenstown (Cobh) began with industrial trouble. After being farewelled by de Valera along with thousands of Irish-American fans, he boarded the White Star liner Baltic on July 31st. Once on board, he heard that the British cooks and stewards would go on strike rather than accept him as a passenger. 'Take him off!' they said. This provoked the Irish firemen. Remove Mannix, their leaders said, and we go on strike. When the firemen were backed by the longshoremen who promised to 'deal with' the cooks and stewards, the captain of the Baltic had no choice but to set sail with his troublesome passenger on board. Several British secret service agents kept watch. Mannix was almost never alone.

The Baltic was so close to the Irish coast on August 8th, 1920 that Mannix could see the lights of Queenstown and the flames of huge bonfires of welcome on the hilltops. He could also see a ‘smudge of something’ which as it came closer was revealed as a British destroyer, the Wyvern. The Baltic was ordered to stop, and to lower a gangway for a naval lieutenant and two Scotland Yard detectives. The archbishop was summoned to the captain’s cabin where Mannix’s secretary, Fr Arthur Vaughan, joined him. They were told that the British government would not permit Mannix to land in Ireland. Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow (all of which had big Irish populations) were also off limits. The destroyer would take him to another British coastal destination.

The British cabinet had been taking legal advice as to how best to deal with Mannix. Under the Defence of the Realm Act he could be kept out of Ireland, where his presence might lead to violent demonstrations. It was also claimed that his speeches in the United States amounted to sedition, and that if he landed in England he could be arrested and deported. The idea of charging Mannix with sedition was rejected on the grounds that the archbishop would get bail and that there would be a long drawn-out trial. As a compromise it was decided to have him arrested at sea, brought to England, and kept under surveillance.

Vaughan described the drama in the captain’s cabin and the ensuing scene:

We took our time getting ready for the transhipment. When quite ready we went to the deck, where the gangplank was let down to the waiting pinnace with its crew of British Jack Tars. The Archbishop then quietly and deliberately said: ‘I refuse to leave this vessel’ thereupon throwing the onus for his removal entirely on the British Government. One of the Scotland Yard men then placed his hand on the Archbishop’s shoulder, which amounted to a technical arrest.

Rather than make an angry protest against being kept out of Ireland and denied the chance to see his mother, Mannix played it as comedy. The British government helped by landing him at Penzance on the Cornish coast. Calling himself the Pirate of Penzance, he provided a perfect line for the press, and made the government look silly. All the same, his mood was grim. That glimpse of the Irish coast stirred longings for home.

There was no one to meet him at Penzance. He was tired and hungry, having been too seasick to eat anything on the destroyer. No one was at home in the local Catholic church. Vaughan found a convent, where nuns gave them breakfast, and made some phone calls. A well-placed old friend, Bishop Timothy Cotter of Portsmouth, offered to meet the London train en route and work out the next move. One of the few Irish bishops in England, Cotter was as intransigent a nationalist as Mannix, and just as outspoken. Two years younger than Mannix, he had been to the same school in Fermoy, Co Cork, and had followed him to Maynooth before being sent to parish work on the Isle of Wight.

Advised by Cotter, Mannix went on by train to London where he had the satisfaction of refusing the government’s offer of a suite of rooms at the Jermyn Court Hotel. Instead he stayed at a retirement home for priests at Hammersmith, run by the Sisters of St Joseph of Nazareth. Here he amused himself by slipping in and out without being seen by the Scotland Yard men assigned to keep watch. As always he fed the press some good lines. The best of them appeared on August 11th, 1921 in the London Times:

‘Since the battle of Jutland, the British Navy has not scored any success comparable with the chasing of the Baltic from the Irish shores and the capture without the loss of a single British sailor of the Archbishop of Melbourne.’

For more than a year, the British government had Mannix on its doorstep, refusing to go away or to accept whatever concessions they offered him. He did not need bed and board. The Hammersmith nuns, and later the Bishop of Portsmouth, were happy to look after him. Prime minister Lloyd George tried to remove a grievance that Mannix’s friends exploited: a poignant image of 89-year-old Ellen Mannix waiting in Charleville to see her son, probably for the last time. ‘The Mother Who Waits in Ireland’ was one emotive headline. Mannix haughtily refused the government’s offer to bring his mother to London.

Although it has been claimed that Ellen Mannix did come to London, the evidence is against it. If known, her visit would have deprived the archbishop of a telling reason to prolong his stay. He could not afford to let Lloyd George appear magnanimous. The risks of smuggling her in were overwhelming. British intelligence would have been watching the mother as well as the son.

Mannix by Brenda Niall is published today by Text Publishing, priced £24.99. Prof David Fitzpatrick of Trinity College Dublin reviews it in The Irish Times this Saturday, September 24th