Feature Articles

A forgotten alliance that shaped Ireland

19 Oct 2022
Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne, throwing baseball at Polo Grounds on August 1, 1920 (Library of Congress)

Eamon de Valera and Archbishop Daniel Mannix forged an unlikely bond that helped shape Ireland before and after the Civil War, writes Eoin Hahessy 

On 8 August 1920, in the midst of the Irish War of Independence and just over two years before the outbreak of civil war, the British Government sent two naval destroyers to prevent an Irish-born archbishop from landing at Queenstown, now Cobh, in Cork.

The Archbishop of Melbourne, Dr Daniel Mannix was on board the White Star liner, the Baltic, which had departed from America on 31 July. Mannix was so close to the Irish coast that he could see the flames of huge bonfires welcoming him home. He would not land in Ireland.

A British naval officer and two detectives from Scotland Yard boarded the Baltic to serve the archbishop with two orders. One signed by General Nevil Macready, the General Officer Commander in Chief of the British Forces in Ireland, prohibiting Mannix from landing, in Ireland, and the other signed by Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. This prohibited Mannix from visiting Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow, cities with significant populations of the Irish diaspora. Archbishop Mannix was duly arrested, taken onboard the Wivern and brought to Penzance at the Southwestern tip of England. The arrest made global headlines, and generated much mirth, perhaps best summed up by this contemporary ditty: “For history shows no braver men in war or in romance, than the captors of the gentle priest, the pirates of Penzance.” As the war of independence raged, the British government greatly feared the influence of this Cork born cleric.

Forgotten from Irish history

Born in Charleville in Cork in 1864, Daniel Mannix has been a much-studied figure in Australian history. Visit Melbourne and a bronze statue of the cleric by sculptor Nigel Boonham stands, sentry like, outside St Patrick’s Cathedral. Installed as Archbishop of Melbourne in 1917 and incumbent until his death in 1963, it is no surprise that he occupies significant real estate in Australian history. As historian Val Noone has observed, fifty years of his “religious leadership and controversial intervention on public issues spanned two World Wars, the Irish War of Independence, the Irish Civil War, the Great Depression, The Cold war and post-war immigration.” As leader of the Catholic faith in Melbourne, Mannix deployed his wit, intellect and cunning, in Australian politics. Notably in Australia’s conscription debates during the First World War, and also in the 1955 Australian Labor party split, which left a deep scar on generations of Australians. 

What is surprising is that an influential figure in Irish history, who created such anxiety in British Government circles, that a 1,100 ton naval destroyer was sent to arrest him, has received limited attention in Irish history. In particular, the intriguing friendship between Daniel Mannix and Eamon de Valera has enjoyed little scrutiny. As Colm Kieran has noted on Mannix:

‘He promoted de Valera’s cause in and out of season and worked steadfastly for the day when de Valera would be Taoiseach in Ireland. From 1920 onwards, no one except de Valera himself played a more important role in ensuring that eventuality.’

Mannix and de Valera, were from vastly different backgrounds. The cleric was from a prosperous farming family, while de Valera’s family were labourers. Both had the Cork landscape in their heritage, Mannix was born there, and de Valera was educated there, at Charleville Christian Brothers School in 1896.

Prior to serving as Archbishop of Melbourne, Mannix was the President of Maynooth from 1903 to 1912 and identified by some as a ‘Castle Catholic’ owing in part to acrimony over dismissal of Professor Michael O’Hickey when he challenged the liberal allocation of dispensations from studying Irish.  Patrick Pearse, the martyr of 1916, went as far as to ask if Mannix was an enemy to Irish nationalism? Nobody then could have foreseen that Mannix would become a lifelong friend of the Irish republican leader Eamon de Valera. Their friendship extended some fifty years. Notes, letters, Christmas cards and telegrams, in the ‘Eamon de Valera Papers’ at University College Dublin, illustrate their mutual respect and genuine friendship which began in 1912 when the President of Maynooth, gave a struggling teacher a part-time role teaching mathematics.

Between 1912 and 1920 when the friendship was renewed and deepened, Mannix was steadily converted to the cause of advanced nationalism. “Michael, they’ve shot them” stated a visibly moved Mannix to the handyman of St Mary’s Church in West Melbourne, when he learned of the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Rising. “It was if something had been released in him” states the author Brenda Niall, and from 1916 onwards Mannix was certainly a more bellicose Irish nationalist.

A powerful alliance operating at pivotal moments

When the British navy arrested Daniel Mannix off the coast of Cork in 1920, the archbishop was recently returned from America where he had joined de Valera on a highly successful publicity tour. The trip was planned to garner American and international support for an independent Irish republic outside the British Empire. Mannix stood with De Valera, at series of large public meetings in the United States, most notably in Madison Square Garden, New York. The voices of this revolutionary leader and influential clerical figure echoed across the Atlantic, breathing energy into those fighting for Irish independence, alarming the British government and reinforcing the fusion of Catholicism and Irish nationalism. 

Again, during the Civil War, the fruits of this alliance were evident. As the bitter conflict raged in November 1922 and with his political judgement seriously questioned, Éamon de Valera typed a ‘private’ letter to Archbishop Mannix. Weeks earlier, the cardinal primate of Armagh, together with his fellow bishops in Ireland, had published a pastoral letter condemning those who ‘refuse to acknowledge the government … and attack their own country as if she were a foreign power’. All ‘unrepentant’ Republicans were excluded from the sacraments of the Church and de Valera might have feared that his old friend would waver in his support for the anti-Treatyites. He need not have worried. Mannix would be the sole senior cleric among the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland and Australia to openly reject the Treaty. He supported de Valera’s envoys, Father O Flanagan and J.J. O’Kelly, during their fundraising trip to Australia in 1923 and used his speech in the St Patrick’s Day parade of the same year to attack the Free State Government. Having a clerical figure of Mannix’s profile on the anti-Treaty side would have been most welcome during Ireland’s bitter civil war.

A common misapprehension in studies of the Irish diaspora is, as the American historian Donald Akenson observes, that they ‘were passive flotsam on the fast-running tide of modern history’. Daniel Mannix was an active participant at key moments in modern Irish history. He came to the aid of Éamon de Valera at crucial periods. Notably during in the US trip and the civil war, but also in 1927 when he led his new Fianna Fáil party into the Dáil.

 ‘They no more told a falsehood than I would if I sent down word to an importunate visitor that I was not at home,’ stated Mannix who, as a theologian, provided the moral cover for de Valera’s followers to take the oath of allegiance, a legal prerequisite for parliamentary candidature after the Electoral Amendment Act of 1927. Ten years later, keen for the archbishop’s insights, De Valera sent Mannix a draft copy of Ireland’s deeply conservative 1937 constitution. – do you have any detail about the bishop’s response?

Ireland’s National Civil War Conference at UCC in June 2022 offeed the opportunity to widen the lens and to revisit alliances that shaped our country. The association between the Australian Archbishop and de Valera was one that had a powerful, but largely forgotten impact on the political and social trajectory of Ireland.


Eoin Hahessy is the writer and director of the documentary ‘Michael, they’ve shot them’, which charts the impact of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising in Australia, and was broadcast previously on RTÉ and the Australian broadcaster SBS.


  – This article was first published in the special Irish Examiner Supplement 'Civil War: The conflict that ripped the county apart', published 13 June 2022 – 

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