An Irishman’s Diary on the anti-conscription Archbishop of Melbourne and the pro-conscription prime minister

Daniel Mannix and Billy Hughes


One hundred years ago, on April 25th 1915, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) landed at Gallipoli in what is now Turkey.

The Anzacs suffered massive casualties, but the battle is often considered to be the foundation stone of modern Australia.

Less well remembered, but equally important from an Irish Catholic perspective, was the battle over conscription in Australia in the following two years. When the 1916 conscription plebiscite failed by 51 per cent to 49, the then prime minister Billy Hughes blamed “the selfish vote, and the shirker vote and the Irish vote”.

A Baptist who was raised in Wales, Hughes’s main opponent in the lead-up to the second referendum 14 months later was Daniel Mannix, the Cork-born, Maynooth-educated, Archbishop of Melbourne.

Physically, the archbishop towered over the short prime minister. As Brenda Niall writes in her book Mannix (Text Publishing), he was so tall as a child that when the inspectors came to his school in Charleville to choose those ready to move from the Sisters of Mercy to the Christian Brothers, the nuns hid him in a cupboard.

Intellectually, Hughes and Mannix were a match for each other. Hughes was an umbrella repairer who had become a barrister, and Mannix had been president of St Patrick’s seminary at Maynooth. In the battle for hearts and minds during the second referendum campaign, Hughes said Mannix was “a man to whom every German in the country looks . . . if you follow him you range yourself under the banner of the deadly enemies of Australia”.

He told journalist Keith Murdoch (Rupert Murdoch’s father) that “the bulk of Irish people led by Archbishop Mannix . . . are attacking me with a venomous personal campaign”.

Hughes would later bemoan the Irish in Australia to British prime minister David Lloyd George: “[The church’s] influence killed conscription. One of their archbishops – Mannix – is a Sinn Féiner. And I am trying to make up my mind whether I should prosecute him for statements hindering recruiting or deport him.”

Mannix was more measured in returning fire. He used enlistment statistics to show that Catholics were signing up in proportion to their share of the population, but did concede that: “I understand that not enough nuns are volunteering”.

The archbishop addressed mass rallies where he said the working class would pay the highest price in the war and that their sacrifice would be forgotten when it was over. Though based in Melbourne, newspapers throughout Australia reported his words.

The second referendum was lost by a greater margin than the first, with almost 54 per cent voting against conscription.

To say there was no love lost between Hughes and Mannix would be a vast understatement, but it was love that eventually made them friends.

On August 9th, 1937, just days before her 22nd birthday, Hughes’s beloved daughter Helen died in a London nursing home. The cause of death was described as “complications after abdominal surgery”, and there were rumours that she had had an abortion.

Until her death certificate was found in 2004, the true cause of Helen Hughes’s death was known to very few. She had been pregnant when she left Australia and, in London, endured a 24-hour labour before giving birth to a son by caesarean section. She died from septicaemia.

Vincent Duffy, a Catholic who was acting secretary to the Australian High Commission in London, took charge of the baby. After his daughter’s death, Hughes changed his will. He left the then huge sum of £5,000 to the baby, called David, and another £5,000 to Duffy, who appears to have fostered the child.

In her book, Niall suggests that Mannix knew the truth about Helen’s death, and perhaps played some part in its aftermath. The then prime minister, Joseph Lyons, was a Catholic and knew Mannix well. He could have directed Duffy, through the High Commission, to help Hughes with the birth and death certificates and the care of the newborn child. And baby David, on Mannix’s instigation, may have been kept in a London convent until his future was decided.

All that is known for certain is that Hughes, to the astonishment of his secretary, called to the archbishop’s house in 1937, and they continued to meet and exchange letters after that.

Both men lived to a great age. Hughes died, aged 90, in October 1952, and Mannix died, aged 99 in November 1963. He was Archbishop of Melbourne, and still compos mentis, until the day he died.