Australian Arts


15 May 2021

9:00 AM

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

If you wanted a college at the University of Melbourne that had no hint of imitation Oxbridge you would turn to Newman. With all that low-roofed sandstone and austere glamour Burley Griffin gave to a design that owes something to Gaudi’s Sagrada Família, Newman is not colonial British. It bespeaks Latin culture, Catholic culture, that element of Irish defiance that made the Jesuits of 60 years ago wear the one sleeved Sorbonne gown that memorialised the time when they were outlawed in the British Isles.

I’m here at Newman as the guest of the Rector, Father Frank Brennan, and of Ronan McDonald, the Gerry Higgins Chair in Irish Studies, who is giving a series of seminars on that greatest work of English language modernism, James Joyce’s Ulysses: the story of Leopold Bloom, that cultured all-round man, and Stephen Dedalus the intimate self-mocking portrait of the great Irish literary master with a great future behind him, who had conjured him into existence.

James Joyce believed that John Henry Newman the man, who wrote The Idea of the University, after whom this college was named, was the greatest of English prose stylists and in the chapter of the Bloomsday book set in a hospital where a child is being born, imitated him like this, ‘Sins, or let us call them as the world calls them, unhappy memories.’

Memories can go haywire, sins can be misattributed. Frank Brennan holds this seminar in his own Rector’s rooms, with plenty of wine and cheese, silently following the proceedings with his own copy of Ulysses and I wonder how many masters of colleges since the days when Davis McCaughey, Master of Ormond and subsequently Governor of Victoria, used to read Yeats by an open fire, would have such openness to culture.

Frank Brennan has just published Observations on the Pell Proceedings and in this collection of his writings about George Cardinal Pell, this Jesuit lawyer provides a damning account of how Victoria police went on a fishing expedition to find charges that could be laid against Pell, how they failed to consider that the complainant might in perfect sincerity have displaced memories of who had in fact abused him, and completely failed to corroborate the accusations with the many people who were at St. Patrick’s Cathedral after High Mass on either of those long ago days when the then Archbishop of Melbourne was imagined to have committed those improbable crimes. They simply didn’t bother to enquire in any adequate way and did the grossest disservice not only to Pell who spent more than a year in prison but to his accuser J.

Brennan’s account reminds us of how the Victorian Court of Appeal reversed the burden of proof and makes you thank God for the dissenting judge Mark Weinberg and the forensic steeliness of Bret Walker’s appeal and the subsequent unanimous decision to acquit Pell by the full bench of the High Court of Australia.

Daniel Mannix, Pell’s predecessor who built Newman, was the President of Maynooth, the Irish seminary, when Ulysses was set on June 16, 1904.

If you want to experience a dramatic account of a trial gone wrong you might care to listen to an audio recording of Shaw’s St Joan with the great Irish actress Siobhan McKenna in the title role. She also happens to be the greatest interpreter of Joyce and her recording of the last part of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses will tell you more than a library of critics.

And that’s not to downplay the contribution of my friend Mick Crennan who suggested I come to this seminar and who, unlike me, completed his thesis on Joyce and went on to a career at the bar.

When George Pell met with such injustice Frank Brennan said, ‘Welcome to Salem’, alluding to the terrible witchcraft trials in 17th century Massachusetts which are immortalised with a comparable sense of drama to Shaw’s in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, an allegory of McCarthyism and hence of justice destoyed by prejudice. In the 1999 film Judge Danforth is played by Paul Scofield, who played another martyr, Thomas More in A Man for all Seasons. Is Scofield’s performance too big or does he just outact everyone else in sight?

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