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. Continue reading


Reading in 2013: some reflections

Logo for Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

I’ve used the 2012 logo throughout 2013, so why not use it one more time?

During 2013 I participated in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. This Challenge encourages people to read and review books written by Australian women. It is a response to the lack of attention women writers receive from major reviewing publications both in Australia and elsewhere in the western world.

I like the fact that instead of whinging about yet another example of how women tend to suffer second-rate treatment, we can do something positive to bring attention to the extent and quality of women’s writing through this Challenge.

This year I challenged myself to the Franklin level – reading ten books by Australian women and reviewing six. These are the books I reviewed in 2013: Continue reading

Books at the Australian Historical Association Conference 2013

DSCN9757 Promos Books CThis week I’m blogging and tweeting from Wollongong. It is the annual festival of history also known as the Australian Historical Association conference or #OzHA2013 on Twitter. Historians from Australia, New Zealand and further afield have gathered here to share and discuss their exciting work.

I came to the conference on the search for new books to share with the participants of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.  For the last six months I have been a volunteer for the Challenge, looking after histories, biographies and memoirs.  I want to raise awareness of all the great books in these genres that are available.

Yesterday the Challenge revealed that over one thousand reviews have been written and over five hundred authors have had their work reviewed online in the first six months of this year. These figures are impressive but how did histories, biographies and memoirs fare? Continue reading

Kitty’s War by Janet Butler

Kitty's War by Janet Butler, (St Lucia, Qld:  University of Queensland Press, 2013).

Kitty’s War by Janet Butler, (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2013).

This is the kind of history I want to read.  Thorough research, deep analysis and compelling writing, Kitty’s War by Janet Butler engaged me from cover to cover.

In Kitty’s War author, Janet Butler, does not merely recount what she has learned from the diary of World War I nurse, Kit McNaughton, she interrogates McNaughton’s diary, draws heavily on a myriad of contemporary historical resources and produces a searching analysis of war, gender and the nature of diary writing while maintaining an engrossing narrative.

Kit McNaughton served with the Australian Army Nursing Service from 1915 for the duration of the war.  Initially stationed in Egypt, she served on the island of Lemnos treating men injured men at Gallipoli.  After the withdrawal from Gallipoli she was transferred to northern France where she served in a number of hospitals in northern France treating enormous numbers of soldiers injured in the horrific battles on the Western Front.

Looking back through my notes in my reading journal I see that I have repeatedly used the word ‘perceptive’.  Butler does not take the diary at face value and the book is all the better for it.  The chapters about Butler’s service on the island of Lemnos treating soldiers injured at Gallipoli would have been bland if Butler had not dug deeper.  Butler is sensitive to the cultural constraints under which the nurses worked.  The ideals of a ‘good nurse’ required nurses to be stoic in the face of difficulty, ministering angels only thinking of the needs of the patient and not of their own.  McNaughton reflects these ideals in her diary hence she makes little mention of the awful conditions under which she is working.   Drawing on other sources Butler allows the reader to understand the context in which McNaughton’s diary is written. Continue reading

New Year: Some reflections

Sydney Baha'i Temple

Baha’i Temple, Ingleside, Sydney.

Today is New Year for millions of people around the world.  21 March marks the equinox and also one of the most ancient festivals still celebrated today – Naw Ruz.  This festival is celebrated throughout central, western and southern Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus.

The reason that I am celebrating it is because it is also a holy day for Baha’is.  It marks the end of the annual nineteen day fast. The Baha’i Fast is a period of spiritual reflection for Baha’is.  It is an opportunity to replenish one’s spiritual batteries.

I really felt that I needed the Fast this year and was looking forward to it so much that I started my reading for the Fast early.  During February I had become bogged down in my reading and probably a bit jaded at life.  I needed the spiritual boost that the Fast gives.

Aside from reading the Holy Writings, I read several books about the Baha’i principle of equality between women and men.

Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God.”


Baha’u’llah is the Founder of the Baha’i Faith.  As you can see from the above quote, the equality between women and men is a foundational principle of the Baha’i Faith.

It had been years since I had read extensively about this Baha’i principle and given that it has animated so much of my views on the subject and my participation in initiatives such as the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, I chose this to be the theme of my reading during the Baha’i Fast. I read three books, one of which I have read before, however it is the end of the Fast and I haven’t finished reading any any of them.  For this reason I hesitate to call this a book review.  Rather this post is a summary of my reading journal for the Fast. Continue reading

Glimpses of an Extraordinary Life

Cover of the book, The Lone Protestor

‘The Lone Protestor: A M Fernando in Australia and Europe’ by Fiona Paisley, (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012).

Warning: This post contains references to Aboriginal people who are now deceased.

The Lone Protestor is the story of a remarkable Aboriginal man who lived in Europe during the interwar years.  Anthony Martin Fernando’s protest about the terrible treatment of Aborigines in Australia was featured on the front page of the highly regarded Der Bund newspaper in Switzerland in 1921.  Fernando handed out hundreds of flyers decrying the behaviour of British towards Aborigines to Catholic pilgrims in the vicinity of St Peter’s in Rome.  He used his court appearances at the Old Bailey to bring attention to the injustice received by Aborigines in Australia.

Creative, intelligent and audacious are some of the words that came to my mind when reading about A M Fernando.  His protests were bold and very public, reaching to institutions that were at the heart of European civilisation. Yet few Australians knew about him at the time. His name has never been mentioned in history books… until now. Continue reading

The Ethics of Family History and Biography

Front cover of book, The Hare with Amber EyesEdmund de Waal’s book, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance is a family history that has become a best-seller.  It is a biography that follows the trail of small Japanese carvings as they were passed from owner to owner within the family while the family were entangled in the broader travails of nineteenth and twentieth century history.

Edmund de Waal received an unusual inheritance – over two hundred small Japanese carvings called netsuke (click here to see some of them).  In this book De Waal retraces the lives of the previous generations of his family who had owned the netsuke.  Thus the book is not a birth to death biography of the owners; rather taking up the story of the owners of the netsuke from the point when they first received them to when they passed them on to the next owner.  I liked this approach. Continue reading