Poet, politician, journalist.
A new biography of Bracken, Thomas appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Thomas Bracken was born, of Protestant parents, at Clones, County Monaghan, Ireland, on 21 December 1843. His mother died a few days later; on his father's death, when Bracken was nine, he was cared for by an aunt for three years before being sent out to Australia at the age of 13 to join an uncle, John Kernan, who farmed near Geelong in Victoria. A year later Bracken was apprenticed to a Bendigo chemist but after 18 months preferred to seek his fortune as a farm hand and prospector. He engaged in these occupations for approximately 10 years, making a hobby of writing verse. Early in 1869, at the age of 26, he landed at Dunedin.
In New Zealand Bracken devoted himself to journalism, joining the staff of the Otago Guardian. From July 1875 he was associated with John Bathgate in publishing in Dunedin the Saturday Advertiser, which under his vigorous editorship soon became popular and achieved a circulation of 7,000 copies. This journal was always sympathetic to the work of local writers. Some of Bracken's many contributions (which included in 1878 the New Zealand hymn, as he called it, God Defend New Zealand, and 1879 Not Understood) were written under the nom de plume “Paddy Murphy”. In 1879 the Saturday Advertiser became the weekly edition of the Morning Herald; Bracken was associated with it, even after a further change of name, for several years more. In 1883 Bracken visited Samoa with J. Lundon who campaigned for New Zealand to take over the islands. Bracken was later associated with the Evening Herald in Dunedin, resigning the editorship when it attacked his political ally, Robert Stout, and then made a brief excursion to Wellington. Next year, however, Bracken in association with Bathgate and others became the owner of this journal, which was continued until 1890 when it was sold.
When Musings in Maoriland (1890) did not attract the attention hoped for in Australia, the publisher persuaded Bracken to engage in a personal canvass and by this means he sold approaching 1,000 copies. He also lectured in Australia and contributed to Australian journals. In his last years Bracken suffered from failing health. In May 1894 he was appointed a Bill reader in the House of Representatives but had to give up the work some 18 months later. In increasing difficulties financially he died in the Dunedin hospital on 16 February 1898; he was survived by his wife and son.
Bracken's political career was largely the product of his sympathy for the underdog. He first stood for Dunedin City in 1879 as a supporter of Sir George Grey but polled the lowest of the six candidates. However, in 1881 the same electorate, now a single-member constituency, returned him; he defeated two other candidates and obtained substantial backing from railwaymen and other working men. In 1884 he had the bad luck to be beaten by three votes by J. B. Bradshaw who was even better entrenched in working-class affections. In September 1886 in the by-election after Bradshaw's death he recovered the seat, but did not stand again after the dissolution of July 1887. In politics Bracken was a constant supporter of the liberal platform without, however, ever being a good, that is a subservient, party man. He supported the eight-hour day and showed some sympathy with the Roman Catholic desire to obtain public support for church schools. In Parliament on one occasion (August 1883) he quoted a quatrain of Thomas Moore's verse and successfully took up a satirical challenge that he should sing it, without apparently ruffling the dignity of the assembly.
All his life Bracken remembered his Irish birth and, although born and brought up a Protestant, felt drawn to the religion of the majority of Irishmen. He had helped canvass for shares when The Tablet was founded in 1874; in 1896 he formally joined the Roman Catholic Church.
Bracken constantly published books of poems and prose between 1870 and 1897. The poems are difficult to collate owing to his habit of republishing, without bibliographical explanation, work already printed earlier. The massive volume Musings in Maoriland (1890) is the best introduction to his work, being in effect his collected poems. This illustrated and rather sumptuous volume was printed in Leipzig. It contains such work as The March of Te Rauparaha, a long poem in diverse metres on the career of the Ngati Toa chief, stories in verse about incidents in the Maori Wars (for instance, McGilliviray's Drum, a long poem much encumbered with Highland memories), and a reminiscence of his youth, Old Bendigo, when “the digger's shirt was freedom's badge”. It also, of course, includes his best-known piece Not Understood and the hymn God Defend New Zealand, sometimes, mistakenly, called the New Zealand national anthem.
In his own time Bracken's verse was highly popular, and the men who were his political partners, such as Sir George Grey and Robert Stout, even though of far greater intellectual pretensions, genuinely admired his work, much of which is suffused with a rather crude nationalism. Bracken's work is received less patiently today. Where his contemporaries saw him in much the same respected light as a Victorian academician punctually painting pathos-ridden “story” pictures, the modern reader sees chiefly the sentimentality of a poet who tried to make the banal acceptable by making it ornate. The present view of his work is indeed a sad warning of the cyclical nature of literary reputations caught in the “whirligig of taste”. However, we may accept McCormick's generous estimate: “At his best he has some of Longfellow's knack of expressing the plain man's thoughts about life and death and love in simple measures and apt phrases.”
Thomas Bracken was a tall bearded man of good physique who surprised one Governor (the Marquis of Normanby by his likeness to Charles Dickens. He was fond of long walks and convivial rencontres and was known to his contemporaries as much as a “character” as a writer or public man.
by David Oswald William Hall, M.A., Director, Adult Education, University of Otago (retired).
- Memories of Thomas Bracken, Otterson, G. W. (1929)
- Contributions to the Early History of New Zealand, Hocken, T. M. (1898)
- New Zealand Literature, McCormick, E. H. (1959).