Perhaps no figure stands taller in the history of Australian Catholicism than Archbishop Daniel Mannix, the Irish-born Archbishop of Melbourne from 1917 to 1963. A powerful moral voice within the Church and Australian society—notably for his firm stance against conscription during the First World War—he was also an ally to the Irish people, putting himself in a precarious relationship with the British Empire.

After the Easter Rising of 1916—an attempt by rebels to seize important public buildings in Dublin and declare Ireland a republic—Mannix’s sympathy with the cause of Irish independence hardened to a position of staunch public support. During the British suppression of this uprising, a generation of Irish leaders were summarily executed without due legal process, an event that broke Mannix’s heart and convinced him the Irish people needed a shepherd to stand with them and for them. Other Irish bishops were largely silent on the issue.

In August 1920, Mannix would attempt a voyage to Ireland in order to visit the graves of those Irish rebels, men he believed to be heroes and martyrs. On the journey, he became the only archbishop to ever be arrested by the British Navy on the high seas, after the British Cabinet deemed his presence in Ireland to be too dangerous.

But the Easter Rising spurred him to deliver a series of powerful political addresses to Irish communities across the United States, and in Melbourne it led to one of our nation’s most famous protests: the St Patrick’s Day Parade of 1920, where tens of thousands of Melburnians flocked to the streets, many of them veterans of the Great War.

The event was captured on film at the initiative of Mannix and his friend John Wren. Ireland will be Free featured footage of 14 Victorian Cross winners—recipients of the highest Commonwealth military honour—riding white horses in a marching procession, leading the carriage of Mannix himself down Bourke Street. This parade was heavy with symbolism, a chance to give voice to the Irish desire for self-governance at a time when such demonstrations were not permitted in Ireland, and an expression of hope for those suffering under the brutality of British rule.

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Photos of Archbishop Mannix, John Wren and the 14 Victoria Cross winners, Goold Museum, Melbourne.

The symbolism of the event has been well documented, though much of this commentary has overlooked one important element: the white horses.

On the one hand, the white horses served a practical purpose. Since the event was being filmed in black and white, the inclusion of white horses would have been more aesthetically powerful.

But was there something more to it, something deeper? Something that resonated with Irish feeling, history and even mythology? Rachel Naughton, Archivist for the Archdiocese of Melbourne, thinks so.

On the one hand, white horses had a political significance. For hundreds of years, the Irish people—especially Irish Catholics, for whom being Irish and being Catholic was synonymous—had suffered under the cruel and unjust Penal Laws, a series of laws, conventions and precedents accumulated over time that punitively curtailed and regulated some of the most fundamental aspects of life: there were laws relating to the ‘popery’ of the Irish, and to their ability to play Irish music; there were prohibitions on studying medicine and law, and on Catholics owning a horse worth more than five pounds—probably to prevent them from being able to take part in raids or battles against the English.

These laws were only completely overturned in 1921, after Mannix’s parade. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 was passed by British parliament in November 1920, received royal assent in December and was officially enforced in May 1921.

Though colour was not specified in this prohibition on owning horses, Naughton notes that in his 2004 biography of John Wren, historian James Griffin quotes Wren as saying that most people who owned a really good, smart white horse in Victoria were opposed to Irish nationalism and to Mannix himself.

So Wren told his racing contacts in New South Wales and Queensland ‘to buy the finest white horses they could lay their hands on’ and to get them to Melbourne ‘quick and lively’ for the parade. In this way, the white horses seem to figure as a symbol of defiance—a clear sign of protest that bucked the conventions of the time.

On a deeper level, however, the white horses probably also had a mythological resonance. As Naughton observes, ‘The symbolism of the horse, and particularly the white horse, is woven into Irish mythology. The further the native Irish were pushed from mainstream society, the more they relied on their sense of story and of belonging to story.’

This sense of disconnection is captured quite beautifully in the 1992 film Into the West, written by Jim Sheridan. It follows the journey of two boys, the sons of Irish ‘travellers’ (Romani people or ‘gypsies’). When they are given a mysterious white horse by their grandfather, and it gets stolen from them, they embark on a journey of discovering the true significance of this horse, whose name, Tír na nÓg, means ‘land of eternal youth’. The film explores the theme of being an outsider, and of disconnection from the mainstream, but also of the clashing values of different worlds. Since in Irish mythology, white horses are able to cross between worlds, this symbolism takes on an even deeper significance.

Naughton says:

The decision to have the 14 Victoria Cross winners ride horses, and specifically white horses, was connected to this sense of place without a place—a genuine act of courage and defiance, if only to themselves. And does anything else matter?

It is also worth noting that within Irish mythology, the white horse is a symbol of purity and fertility, and also of sovereignty. The same is true in biblical literature. In the book of Revelation, St John describes one of the Four Horses of the Apocalypse: ‘I looked and saw a white horse appear, and its rider was holding a bow; he was given a victor’s crown and he went away, to go from victory to victory’ (Revelation 6:2).

As well as indicating sovereignty and victory, it functions as a symbol of righteousness:

And I saw heaven open, and a white horse appear; its rider was called Trustworthy and True; in righteousness he judges and makes war (19:11).

Mannix and all those gathered for the St Patrick’s Day parade in March 1920 were convinced of the righteousness of their cause and the cruelty of the British regime. The significance of the white horses seems abundantly clear. Drawing richly upon their own story and sense of self, it was an act of defiance, a declaration of sovereignty and a symbol of the righteousness of their cause.

This event became one of the most memorable political parades in Australian history, spearheaded by an archbishop recognised for his deep courage and faith. It also seems clear that he and his collaborators were deeply sensitive to the power of prophetic symbolism in the face of an unjust regime.