Review Article by Brian P Murphy, osb
The Riddle of Father Hackett, A Life in Ireland and Australia, by Brenda Niall, Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2009, pp.320
Brenda Niall has written a fine and fascinating book. Her life of Fr William Hackett SJ (1878-1954) was prompted by his visits to her family home, when she was young. Inspired by these encounters she dreamt of writing a biography of the priest whose character and kindness had made a deep impression upon her. Her dreams turned to reality, when, much to her surprise, she found that there was a rich treasure of original source material relating to Fr Hackett in the Australian Jesuit Archives. She narrates the search for this, and other, source material in a lively and interesting manner.
Her own conclusion to her quest cannot be improved upon: 'against all probability,' she writes, 'I can see that a full scale biography is feasible. It is historically important for its Irish background and its Irish-Australian religious and political reverberations.' (p.12) Niall's finished work justifies this conclusion on both counts: a biography of Fr Hackett is merited; and it does make a significant contribution to Irish and Australian history.
While stressing the importance of Fr Hackett's connections with the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Irish War of Independence, the story of his formative years is also extremely revealing. This story embraces life in Kilkenny; schooling at Clongowes Wood College; and his early years in the Jesuit Order. Hackett's father, Dr John Byrne Hackett, remained a dedicated supporter of Charles Stuart Parnell, the leader of the Irish Party, even after he was condemned by the Roman Catholic bishops. So great was Dr Hackett's loyalty to Parnell that he chose to be buried without a Mass, when he died in 1913. The integrity and originality of the man manifested itself in the lives of many of his nine children.
When the Parnell controversy was at its height, in Christmas 1890, William Hackett had just completed his first term in Clongowes Wood College. He was, therefore, shielded from the public attacks, even physical ones, against his father. Unknown to him, however, the rector of Clongowes responded to the straitened financial circumstances of his father, caused, in part, by his politics, and waived the school fees of William and his five brothers. Assistance with fees was, significantly, a feature of some Jesuit schools at that time. James Joyce, who attended Clongowes for a short time with William Hackett, gave the rector, Fr John Conmee, celebrated mentions in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.
William Hackett entered the Jesuits, aged 17, in 1895. The story of his training at Tullamore, France and Holland, before returning to do some teaching at Clongowes in September 1902, makes interesting reading. It reveals not only the cosmopolitan character of a young Jesuit's life, but also the personal thoughts of the young William Hackett. Extracts from his private journal are used to telling effect. The scope of the book does not allow for a deeper study of the young William's mindset, but one gets regular glimpses of his innermost feelings as he moves from Clongowes to Milltown Park (1909); ordination in 1912; the start of his official duties in 1914; and the subsequent appointments on his life's journey.
The appointment of William Hackett to teach at Crescent College, Limerick, in August 1914, proved a seminal step in his personal development. It meant that he faced the outbreak of the World War and its major impact on the Irish constitutional movement towards Home Rule, not from the isolated corridors of Clongowes, but from the context of the inner city streets of Limerick and a College that was more socially inclusive. Hackett rapidly abandoned his support for John Redmond, a past pupil of Clongowes, and adopted a more radical policy. Having witnessed Redmond review the Irish National Volunteers in December 1914 in Limerick, Hackett became convinced that the policy of committing these Volunteers to the British war effort at the Front was futile. He committed himself, therefore, to the aims of the original Irish Volunteer movement that was associated with the names of Patrick Pearse and Eoin MacNeill. Not only did he embrace these more separatist ideals, but also established a Volunteer cadet corps at Crescent College. Three of his brothers, incidentally, followed the same political path, while the other two joined the British Army.
In February 1916 he joined Patrick Pearse on a platform in Limerick, where Pearse expounded his ideals. Hackett was also on friendly terms with John Daly, a senior figure in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, whose house at 15 Barrington Street was under constant surveillance from the detective division of the police force. Through Daly, Hackett would have had some awareness of Tom Clarke, who married Daly's niece, Kathleen, and who played a leading role in planning the 1916 Rising. Following the failure of the Rising and the executions of the leaders, Hackett showed his sympathy for their stand by visiting John Daly, who was dying. The author rightly makes clear that Hackett's open support for the Rising was made possible by the public stance of Bishop O'Dwyer of Limerick who, alone of all the bishops, openly condemned General Maxwell for implementing a policy of military court-martial and execution.
In terms of original source information, the author notes that Hackett's memoir for this period of his life, 'Seven Years in Limerick,' provides much of value, but she comments that names have been omitted for reasons of safety. Sadly this lacuna does make it hard to evaluate the level of the relationship that Hackett enjoyed with some of those mentioned in the narrative, for example: Stephen O'Mara, Michael O'Callaghan, Ned Lysaght and the Daly family. Concerning Michael O'Callaghan, the son of Edward Hackett O'Callaghan, to whom Fr Hackett was distantly related, it should be noted that he was shot dead in cold blood by British forces on 7 March 1921, not on 21 February 1920 as recorded on page 72. On the day, 7 March 1921, that Michael O'Callaghan, the ex-mayor of Limerick, was killed so also was his successor as Mayor, George Clancy, together with another member of the Volunteers in a night that became known as 'The Limerick Curfew Murders.'
Other sources in the Hackett papers enable Brenda Niall to outline diverse aspects of the War of Independence: Hackett's journey to the west of Ireland with English Quakers in the autumn of 1920 to assess the charge of English atrocities; his contacts with George Berkeley of the Peace with Ireland Council that was formed in October 1920; and, above all, his relationship with Erskine Childers, who was involved with Desmond FitzGerald, Robert Brennan and Frank Gallagher in the publicity work of Dail Eireann. Footnote 24 in the chapter on 'Remembering Sion' points to another dimension of Hackett's commitment to the republican cause. Headed 'How they Died,' the document records that Hackett visited a number of condemned men before they were executed in 1920 and 1921. The names of Thomas Whelan, Patrick Doyle, Bernard Ryan, Frank Flood, Tom Ryan, Patrick Moran, Thomas Traynor, Patrick Maher and Edmund Foley are listed. He also visited Kevin Barry, the 18 year old past-pupil of the Jesuit Belvedere College, some days before he was hanged on 1 November 1920. Ironically, and in an action that illustrates the divided nature of Irish society at the time, it was his brother, Dr Bartholomew (Bat) Hackett, recently discharged from the British Army, who acted as medical officer at Barry's execution.
Fr Hackett's brother, Francis, from my own research on the period, visited Ireland from the end of July to the end of September 1920, with his wife, Signe Toksvig. Both he, and his wife, gave a detailed account of their visit to the American Commission on Conditions in Ireland on 18 November 1920. They visited Limerick and many other parts of Ireland. Francis, a free-thinker and the editor of the New Republic, gave a critical account of their time in Ireland which adds colour and content to that provided by the life of his brother, William. Of William, Francis observed that 'I have a brother in the clergy who is now stationed in Limerick, who is a hot Sinn Feiner, but who, during trouble in Limerick, saved the lives of three English officers.'
Both William and Francis were of one mind in embracing the Sinn Fein republican position during the War of Independence. Following the Truce of July 1921 and the Treaty of December 1921, their paths were to separate: Francis accepted the Treaty and the path chosen by Michael Collins; William rejected the Treaty and followed the path chosen by de Valera and his friend Erskine Childers. The path selected by Fr William Hackett was to lead him to Australia. Having tried, in August 1922, to bring Collins and de Valera together, his last effort was made on the day before Collins died (22 August); Hackett was removed from the political arena by his superiors. He left Ireland ten days after the death of Collins. Brenda Niall has found no specific reason for this decision, but the Catholic bishops, in a statement of 26 April 1922, had recommended that the Treaty be accepted and, in a pastoral letter of 10 October 1922, formally excommunicated all those who supported the anti-Treaty side. In this context, life for all anti-Treaty Catholics was extremely difficult and for priests was almost impossible. A new life in Australia, while a shock to the system, offered an opportunity for a new beginning. Fr Hackett accepted the challenge and lived out the rest of his days in Australia, until his death in 1954.
After an initial appointment to a Jesuit parish in Sydney, Hackett began teaching at Xavier College, Kew, Melbourne in 1923. This prestigious Jesuit college was to play a large part in Hackett's subsequent career, as was his association with Archbishop Mannix of Melbourne who lived near the school. Niall uses Hackett's private papers to telling effect to convey his feelings at this time. He wrote towards the end of 1923, ‘.. for one thing you are very much of a foreigner here. There is not merely no love for Ireland - but there is no interest in anything Irish ... I can't help feeling that I am regarded as some sort of convict - doing time’. These sentiments reveal the initial difficulties that Hackett experienced in settling in to life in Australia - difficulties that were caused, in part, by the tragic news emanating from Ireland, especially during the Civil War, which did not end until April 1923.
The execution of his friend Erskine Childers, on 24 November 1922, by firing squad, after a form of military court-martial, affected Hackett deeply. Again Niall, has used original material to convey his feelings: 'no words can express what I feel,' Hackett wrote to Molly Childers, 'you know how I love Erskine. You can guess how I feel for you ... it is hard to be away now. Very hard. All the harder because it looks cowardly ... my suffering is as great as I anticipated. In a sense greater for the uncertainty is terrible.' He concluded by signing himself 'yours broken and crushed yet unbeaten and unshaken' W. P. Hackett, SJ.
Personal reflections such as these illumine the various stages of Hackett's career in Australia: the founding of a Catholic Library in 1924, in accord with the wishes of Archbishop Mannix; the establishment of the Campion Society for Catholic intellectuals in 1932 and their journal, the Catholic Worker; the creation of a Catholic Action programme of social justice; and his time as Rector of Xavier College (1935-1940). The abrupt termination of his appointment as Rector is frankly recorded by Niall, who chronicles, among other failings, his lack of financial awareness. In the midst of the account of Hackett's life, the evolving, and important, role of Bob Santamaria, for whom Niall worked as a research assistant, in both Catholic social movements and in Australian politics is told in great detail.
Observations by those with whom Hackett worked reveal a multi-faceted and kindly character; his own reflections indicate that he never forgot the religious dimension to his life.'I am lost and dumfounded at the thought of God's love,' he wrote in the 1930's, '... He wants me to be happy. He can't do enough for me, and then I fail. I crash. I don't respond.' (p.195) Shortly before he was killed in a car accident in July 1954, aged 76, he said, in words of encouragement to others, that 'what we have to do is that we should exercise the virtue of Hope'. (p.266) Hope and good humour remained with him to the last. Having been struck by a taxi on the way to an evening service of Benediction, Hackett remarked in hospital that 'I never thought that I'd have a taxi to take me to heaven'. (p. 269) Brenda Niall is to be complimented upon providing these wonderful vignettes of an interesting man in the context of a valuable historical narrative. Her book is finely illustrated and is recommended reading.
Brian Murphy, OSB is an historian and a monk of Glenstal