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  • The Riddle of Father Hackett: A Life in Ireland and Australia by Brenda Niall
  • John Molony
The Riddle of Father Hackett: A Life in Ireland and Australia. By Brenda Niall. ( Canberra: National Library of Australia. 2009. Pp. ix, 320. Aus. $39.95 paperback. ISBN 978-0-642-27/685-8.)

Brenda Niall has written a splendid account in clear and fluid prose of the life of William Hackett. He regularly visited her parents’ home in Kew, Melbourne, during his years in Australia, which encompassed a period at the nearby Xavier College, where he taught and became rector. Many will profit from her deft and delicate narrative, including those who know little of Irish and Australian history in the twentieth century.

Hackett was born at Kilkenny in 1878. His father, a prominent medical doctor, was a committed Parnellite who brought down ignominy on the Hackett family by remaining loyal to the Irish leader, despite the Kitty O’Shea affair in 1890. William was a boarder at the Jesuit school, Clongowes, and there had his first taste of the bitterness involved in loyalty to a lost cause. A nine-year-old child, whom Hackett judged to be “a very strange boy” (p. 4), also boarded at the school. He was James Joyce, already a fervent Parnellite.

Having entered the Jesuit novitiate, Hackett was educated in Ireland, France, and Holland. He returned to Ireland to teach in Jesuit colleges at Clongowes and [End Page 185] in Limerick. Ordained in 1912, he had already come close to many of those who were the principal founders of the nationalist movement, which embraced a love for both the old language and culture of Ireland. They included Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Erskine Childers. Another friend, through his own father, was John Redmond. Hackett, however, had gradually and unreservedly become a deeply committed Irish nationalist, and he rejected Redmond’s unrewarding policies toward England. The failed Easter Rising, followed by the reprisals of the British with the execution of its leaders (including Hackett’s friends Pearse and MacDonagh), deeply grieved him as well as confirmed his determination to help achieve Ireland’s freedom from British rule.

Already known to the authorities, Hackett’s room was raided for incriminating evidence, and he received a death threat. Understandably his Jesuit superiors became alarmed and gave him the “laughable” position of assistant editor of their publication, the Messenger, in Dublin (p. 74). Unrepentant, Hackett strongly opposed the Treaty, but maintained contact with Michael Collins right up until the day before Collins’s murder on August 22, 1922. Hackett’s own fate had already been sealed. Exiled to Australia, he was already there when Childers was executed on November 24, 1922. For years, he maintained loving contact by mail with Childers’s widow, Molly.

His major contributions in Melbourne were to the intellectual life of Catholics by his efforts in founding a Catholic Library and by his chaplaincy of the then-nascent Catholic Action movements. Critical of the Catholic education system and remarking, “I am afraid we are educating devout barbarians” (p. 173), he strove to uplift students from their base in rowing and football. He became a friend and confidant of the English governor of Victoria and of three prime ministers—James Scullin, Joseph Lyons, and Robert Menzies—and decided that the latter, a non-Catholic, was “the most congenial.” Daniel Mannix, archbishop of Melbourne and an Irish patriot, was imprudent and sometimes outrageous in his rejection of Britain. His condemnation of conscription in World War I, nevertheless, won the admiration of millions of Australians. Perhaps because he wore the mark of greatness, Mannix was friendless among bishops and clergy. Hackett was the exception, and Mannix demanded his constant company, especially throughout the interminable and boring period of summer holidays.

In 1954 Hackett was run over by a cab as he walked to a nearby convent to give Benediction on a wet and dismal night in Melbourne. Accustomed to riding a bicycle, he said on his deathbed, “I never thought I’d have a taxi to take me to Heaven.” Niall decided that hope was his greatest virtue. In both Ireland and Australia, Hackett needed a great measure...


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