Why a priest in Melbourne received Michael Collins's last letter


What may be the final letter written by Michael Collins has turned up in Melbourne, along with several other relics of Irish history. But who was Collins writing to?

YOU WOULDN’T expect a missing piece of the puzzle about Michael Collins’s last days to surface in Australia. But that is what has happened, thanks to Brenda Niall, who has written The Riddle of Father Hackett, a biography of an Irish Jesuit, Fr William Hackett, who spent the second part of his life in Australia having been sent into exile because of his political activism.

As part of her research, Niall sent the Melbourne Jesuits searching for some letters that had been known to have gone missing after Hackett’s death in 1954. In a suburban garage, the present Jesuit archivist Michael Head SJ found a collection that had been hidden for half a century. In it was a letter from Michael Collins, probably the last he wrote, acknowledging a note Hackett had left for him and saying he was sorry to have missed seeing Hackett that day. The letter was dated the day before Collins was ambushed and shot.

What was Fr Hackett, a Dublin Jesuit, doing at Collins’s headquarters in Cork on August 21st, 1922? Niall speculates that he was possibly trying to arrange a peace meeting between Collins and Éamon de Valera.

Few if any Irish Jesuits at that time were willing to side with de Valera and Childers against the Treaty with Britain. But Fr Hackett was the son of an unrepentant Parnellite, and his family did not agree with the Catholic bishops’ line on the civil strife.

Fr Hackett was friendly with Pearse and MacDonagh, leaders of the Easter Rising, and became an activist after 1916.

Part of his story is recorded in other letters discovered in Jesuit archives in Melbourne – letters from Éamon de Valera, Robert Barton, who signed the Treaty but later opposed it, and also from the controversial Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne, who campaigned for the Irish cause in Australia, the US and in England, where the authorities prevented him from landing in his native Ireland. About 50 letters from members of Childers family also came to light during Niall’s research, as well as a journal of the civil war period.

Often riding long distances on his bicycle, Hackett provided pastoral care for the rebels, but trod a very fine line between the pastoral and the political.

The Irish Jesuit leadership allowed him a free hand for years, but eventually seems to have become wary of his activities. In 1922 he was sent to Australia for motives that are not altogether clear. He accepted his unwelcome posting for the good of Ireland, the Jesuits and his soul.

Fr Hackett had a rich life in Melbourne as a teacher, as a maverick headmaster of Xavier College, as founder of the Catholic Library in the heart of Melbourne, and as mentor to a generation of Catholics who have influenced Australian social and cultural life.

He was a people person, always worried that he was an intellectual lightweight, but he convinced many Catholics that they should not just pray and pay but take ideas and books seriously.

Fr Hackett was also friendly with the Liberal prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, which was as politically incorrect as could be in the eyes of most Australian Catholics of Irish background. Fr Hackett seems to have prompted Menzies’s visit to de Valera in Ireland in 1941, which angered Churchill but gave the Australian a new slant on Irish neutrality.

In her biography, Brenda Niall is able to bring him to life in Melbourne partly because he was a friend of her doctor father and regularly visited the Niall home.

One of Hackett’s endearing traits was his humour, which did not desert him even at the end of his life. After being knocked down and fatally injured by a taxi when crossing a Melbourne street at night, before he died he is said to have remarked: “I never thought I’d have a taxi to take me to heaven.”

The Riddle of Father Hackett by Brenda Niall is published by the National Library of Australia