Review: The Riddle of Father Hackett by Brenda Niall

The Riddle of Father Hackett: A Life in Ireland and Australia by Brenda Niall (NLA Publishing: 2009)

The Riddle of Father Hackett: A Life in Ireland and Australia by Brenda Niall (NLA Publishing: 2009)

Brenda Niall’s biography of Irish-Australian Jesuit priest, Father Hackett, is absorbing from the start. Niall starts by sharing her musings as she walks through Kew cemetery in Melbourne where Father Hackett is buried. She shares some memories of the cleric who often visited her home when she was a child and her thoughts as she sifts through that third cemetery in which the lives of a chosen few are interred – the archive. Father Hackett springs out from the pages as a vibrant, warm person but with deep sorrows in his heart. The Riddle of Father Hackett lies in Ireland in the sad and violent early twentieth century.

Like Melbourne’s Archbishop Mannix, Father Hackett lived a significant part of his life in Ireland, arriving in Australia when he was in his early forties, but he was far more enmeshed in the dangerous politics of Ireland than the senior cleric. The first third of The Riddle of Father Hackett is an engrossing introduction to early twentieth-century Irish politics. As a priest Father Hackett was close to men of the Easter Uprising and the civil war of the early 1920s such as Robert Barton, Eamon de Valera, Padraig Pearse, Robert Barton and Erskine Childers. He used his influence to shine light on Ireland’s plight by inviting English Quakers and Americans to tour the scenes of atrocities. His clerical garb protected him from unwanted British attention. Then in the midst of this dark turmoil Father Hackett was sent by the Jesuits to Australia.

“Hackett’s Ireland came with him, in thoughts, memories and written records”, remarks Niall. This is the story of many migrants to this country. The antipodes are a repository for so much modern world history. Niall’s book demonstrates how families and institutions in Australia are the custodians of history from societies in violent conflict elsewhere in the world.

Niall sensitively bridges the two parts of Hackett’s life, drawing attention to Hackett’s mourning for the people and place he left when he was yanked to Australia. In the chapter, ‘Remembering Sion’, she depicts someone whose body is in a new place while their heart has not managed to complete the journey yet.

As Hackett’s life was dangerous in Ireland, it was physically safe in Melbourne. Yet Hackett did manage to get himself into trouble as the Rector of Xavier College in the 1930s. His lack of attention to finances and idiosyncratic ways led him to be summarily removed from the position.

By this time Father Hackett had become a close confidant of Melbourne’s Archbishop Mannix who appointed him to found and lead Melbourne’s Catholic Library. Like Mannix, Hackett wanted a greater role for the Catholic laity in the church and wider Australian society. They wanted Catholics to be leaders and influencers in Australia. To do this, they needed to encourage Catholics to gain higher education and read widely. For thirty years the Central Catholic Library in Melbourne’s Collins Street was Hackett’s passion.

Most books were on open access in ‘Heaven’. ‘Hell’ was the collection reserved for serious scholars who needed Hackett’s permission to take out Mein Kampf, Das Kapital or books on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Books. ‘Purgatory’, a little removed but easily accessible through a doorway, held the contemporary and (in the 1930s and 1940s) controversial novels of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Léon Bloy and François Mauriac, for which there was always a long waiting list.

Opinion and cultural perspective are embedded in the acquisition of books by libraries and in the way they are catalogued. Unlike the austere Dewey system, Hackett’s approach to cataloguing was explicit about his church’s opinion of each book.

“Hackett wanted to connect two quite different groups of readers”, says Niall. “Some were fervent but inward-looking, unable to take an informed part at the intersection of belief and everyday affairs. Others observed the formalities of their religion but never connected it with daily life.” Niall notes that the Catholic Library was used by such well-known literary figures as Morris West, Max Charlesworth and Vincent Buckley.

Father Hackett’s personality springs from the pages. Unlike his senior prelate, Hackett made friends easily and enjoyed the company of others irrespective of their religious background. Both in Ireland and Australia he also befriended people of influence. Hackett went bush walking with the Governor of Victoria, Lord Somers and was friends with the Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies who lived close to Archbishop Mannix’ residence in Kew.

Bob Santamaria, the ‘Movement’ and the Labor Party split of the 1950s are given their necessary weight. Father Hackett was the Ecclesiastical Assistant to the Catholic organisations controlled by Santamaria.

… if anything can be called Hackett’s own creation, it was the Central Catholic Library. Far more than a collection of books it was an opening into the international Catholic world as well as a place to meet and make friends… Hackett’s unique role was to help the Movement come into being and at the same time to contribute to the shaping of its most articulate opposition… Tension was inevitable.

Niall argues that Father Hackett’s experience from the civil war in Ireland led him to regard secrecy in political matters as normal. “Yet… the policy of secret infiltration and outside control was disastrous”, writes Niall.

The trouble with the Movement was that it was unstoppable: at least, it would be hard to stop something that officially had never started… So much power from a secret organisation ran the risk of exposure, counterattack, heightened sectarian feeling, and most likely self-destruction.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 logo

This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

In many ways The Riddle of Father Hackett can be seen as the first part of a two-part project that ends with Niall’s publication of her award-winning biography, Mannix which I reviewed recently for the Newtown Review of Books. These two books are connected to Niall’s memoirs, Life Class: the education of a biographer. In Life Class Niall shares her childhood growing up in the Catholic world of Kew and her early working life as Bob Santamaria’s assistant. These three books offer insights into twentieth-century Irish-Catholic life in Melbourne which those from Protestant and other religious backgrounds would not be familiar with.

The Riddle of Father Hackett is less refined than Niall’s later biography, Mannix. Niall’s over-use of the present tense impinges on the reader at times. The dark and destructive nature of civil war could have been depicted more strongly. Yet anyone who wants to have a deeper insight into Irish-Catholic Australia, Archbishop Mannix or Bob Santamaria should read this book.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Riddle of Father Hackett by Brenda Niall

  1. Hi Yvonne, I’ve got this on my TBR so I won’t read your review now, but I’ll mark it on my book to come back here and read it when I’ve read the book.


  2. I’m intrigued. What is the riddle of the title? Did the Jesuits send Hackett out to save him from retribution from the British occupiers, or from fellow republicans after (southern) Ireland achieved independence? Or was he, like Mannix, already here before WWI? Also, there doesn’t seem to have been any movement in Australia in support of the IRA as there was in the US.


    • You’ll just have to read the book! I don’t want to reveal too much in reviews. But one thing I will say – Father Hackett arrived after World War I.

      I am not sure about support for IRA in Australia.

      Liked by 1 person

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