The Irish in New Zealand: Historical Contexts and Perspectives

Brad Patterson (ed). An unpublished review written in June 2003.

Keywords: Political Economy & History;

There are probably as many New Zealanders of Irish descent as there are of Maori descent – around 600,000 or 15 percent of each. But historian Edmund Bohan reminds us in this stimulating set of essays from a seminar in 2000, of a question posed by Patrick O’Farrell (who contributes a personal reflection on being New Zealand Irish). ‘How was it that New Zealand’s history came to be hijacked by English?.’

Even so, as the book demonstrates, there is a vigorous group of New Zealand historians working on Irish-New Zealand history: on migration (Terry Hearn, Angela McCarthy); on politics (Bohan, Séan Brosnahan, Rory Sweetman, Hugh Laracy), on settlements (Alasdair Galbraith and Cathy O’Shea-Miles), and on literature (Kevin Molloy, Vince O’Sullivan). The concluding essay by Don Akenson, the international doyen of Irish diaspora studies, provocatively points out that New Zealand impacted on Irish (and Scottish) development via their loss of people and the interactions that continued after migration. (The world has 80 million of Irish descent, 90 percent of whom live outside Ireland, so Irish Studies are diaspora studies.)

As so often, systematic history undermines many of the popular assumptions. It is true the majority of the New Zealand Irish were Roman Catholic, but about forty percent of the Irish assisted immigrants were Protestants. Many were illiterate, but others wrote sophisticated letters home, and subsequent generations produced many fine New Zealand writers including Dan Davin, Maurice Duggan and John Mulgan. We think of the West Coast as being the local Irish heartland, but there were also vigorous settlements at Pukekohe and Hamilton East, for instance.

The Irish were not isolated from the rest of New Zealand and the way they influenced Pakeha culture is still being explored. The 2002 followup seminar (which also covered Scottish studies) had a paper by a Celtic-Maori. So successful has been this research program that the Victoria University of Wellington has just established a nation-wide New Zealand Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies under the directorship of the book’s editor, Brad Patterson.

The Centre, like all good scholarship, is essentially subversive. In this case the attack is on the established notions of the origins of New Zealand and the foundations of contemporary New Zealand culture – summarised as the bicultural vision of Maori and English. There has been anxiety that biculturalism ignores the Pacific Island and Asian components of our heritage. The book and the Centre remind us that the European influence is not homogeneously English, but has strong Celtic elements – as well as from Dalmatia, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, and Scandinavia and Central European Jews. As Bohan concludes:

“Unless we all recognise and celebrate our cultural diversity we will remain a culturally impoverished nation. Until all our mainstream historians accept and research the rich diversity and realities of the nineteenth century origins of our modern New Zealand state, they will be merely perpetuating the simplistic errors of our first, seriously flawed, Anglo-Centric historians.”

Brian Easton is the economic columnist for The Listener. His ancestry includes English and Irish, with a dash of Polish.