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James George Hill Murtagh (1908–1971)

by Michael Costigan

This article was published:

James George Hill Murtagh (1908-1971), Catholic priest, journalist and historian, was born on 20 July 1908 at Waiwakaihi, Taranaki, New Zealand, eldest of five children of George Stedham Hill Murtagh, a meat exporter from Melbourne, and his New Zealand-born wife Martha Quinn, née Kirkwood. The family moved to Melbourne. James was educated at St Monica's School, Essendon, Assumption College, Kilmore, and the Victorian provincial seminary, Corpus Christi Ecclesiastical College, Werribee.

Ordained priest for the Melbourne archdiocese by Archbishop Daniel Mannix on 17 July 1932, Fr Murtagh served (1933-36) as a curate at North Essendon before being appointed associate-editor of Melbourne's weekly Catholic newspaper, the Advocate. He was a diligent editor who enhanced the paper's reputation as a quality religious journal, aimed at readers interested in literary and cultural matters as well as world affairs. Founding president of the Catholic Press Association of Australia and New Zealand, he was elected to the executive of the International Catholic Union of the Press. He also established (1938) and edited the Australian Catholic Digest. In 1939 he was briefly national director of the Pontifical Mission Aid Societies.

After Mannix granted him leave, Murtagh studied (1941-43) social sciences, journalism and media at the Catholic University of America (M.A., 1943), Washington, D.C. With the encouragement of the expatriate publisher Frank Sheed, he expanded and published his thesis as Australia: The Catholic Chapter (New York, 1946). Revised editions appeared in 1959 and 1969. Critics recognized the book as a significant pioneering work. While its perspective and tone were still somewhat clerical and at times triumphalist, these characteristics were less pronounced than in earlier Catholic histories, notably those of Cardinal Patrick Moran and (Archbishop) Eris O'Brien. Murtagh focused on the Church's social teaching as applied in Australia and gave due emphasis to religion's part in the nation's development. He also highlighted the contributions of such notable clerics as Dr William Ullathorne, Moran and Mannix, and the importance of lay figures like Caroline Chisholm, Peter Lalor and B. A. Santamaria. Murtagh was sympathetic to Santamaria's controversial role in the Catholic Social Studies Movement and in the Australian Labor Party split of the 1950s.

His other writings consisted mainly of articles in the Advocate over twenty-three years, a dozen or so pamphlets (some devotional and some sociological) and two short books, Democracy in Australia (Melbourne, 1946) and Catholics and the Commonwealth (Melbourne, 1951). Murtagh was influenced in his attitude to church-state relationships and the democratic ideal by the thinking of a few international Catholic celebrities, among them Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, whose liberal views on social questions and religious freedom were to prevail over the integralist approach of Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani and his theological school at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Murtagh also took a special interest in rural co-operatives.

Following his retirement from the Advocate, on 3 September 1959 Murtagh was appointed parish priest at Glen Iris where he showed pastoral concern for those in his charge, especially the sick. He continued to write on public affairs and socio-political questions, and championed Caroline Chisholm's beatification cause, without apparent success. In 1968 Archbishop (Cardinal) James Knox of Melbourne commissioned him to write an official life of Mannix. Murtagh researched abroad in 1970, staying for several months at St Patrick's College, Maynooth. He interviewed scores of people with memories of Mannix, both in Ireland and Australia. They included ex-President Eamon De Valera, and a number of his subject's relations and former pupils. His research led him to revise some of his views about his hero, but, given his rather timid character and his devotion to Mannix, he would have found it difficult to disturb what Patrick O'Farrell has called 'the stagnancy of unthinking veneration'.

Murtagh died suddenly of coronary thrombosis on 7 June 1971 in his presbytery at Glen Iris and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His research notes were lodged with the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Ebsworth, Archbishop Mannix (Melb, 1977)
  • Historical Studies, 8, Nov 1958, p 233
  • Compass, Autumn/Winter 1988, p 26, Autumn 1989, p 4
  • Australasian Catholic Record, 68, no 2, Apr 1991, p 131
  • New Norcia Studies, 3, July 1995, p 9
  • Tjurunga, 49, Mar 1996, p 61
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Apr 1959
  • Murtagh papers (Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Michael Costigan, 'Murtagh, James George Hill (1908–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 July, 1908
Waiwakaihi, Taranaki, New Zealand


7 June, 1971 (aged 62)
Glen Iris, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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