The early years of New Zealand settlement were times of strife and hunger in Ireland and many of her people were forced to emigrate. A number of Irish convicts were shipped to Australia and from that place some found their way to New Zealand and other Pacific islands. Thomas Poynton settled on the Hokianga in 1829, where he traded in timber. His wife took their first child to Sydney to be baptised by a priest. Lieutenant Thomas McDonnell, a naval officer from County Antrim, purchased in 1831 the brig Sir George Murray, built at Horeke, and used it to transport his family to the shipyard, which he had also bought. Bishop Pompallier was welcomed to New Zealand by the Irish Catholics, who by this time were to be found all round the coasts. Of the first 3,500 settlers at Port Nicholson (Wellington), 250 were Roman Catholics, not all of whom were Irish, with Father O'Reilly as their priest. Auckland was, during the forties, a very cosmopolitan community and, of the 3,000 settled there, 400 were Irish Catholics from Australia.
During the hungry forties the distress in Ireland was great and several commissions considered remedies, including the possibility of emigration to New Zealand. Nothing came of this and, almost in panic, Irish emigrated in thousands to the United States. Some, however, came to New South Wales and thence to New Zealand; only a few came direct. The gold discoveries of the sixties brought Irish miners who had followed the metal through California and Victoria to the end of the road in New Zealand, where they settled. Kingston and Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu, are Irish landmarks.
Prior to 1870 little attempt was made by the provinces to obtain Irish immigrants, and even during the seventies, in the early years of Vogel's search for population, few came to the colony. In all, however, 19,300 of the 84,000 who came to New Zealand under the scheme were Irish, second only to the English. Many were labourers brought to work as navvies by Brogdens, while others came in the largest Irish organised migration, the settlement of Katikati by George Vesey Stewart and his fellow Orangemen. Irish have continued to come to New Zealand in considerable numbers, but in a smaller proportion. The Irish influence on New Zealand has been great, but it has usually been exercised through personalities rather than collectively. Here the Roman Catholic Church, supported chiefly by the Irish, must be excluded, for as a body it has had considerable influence on New Zealand life.
Irish, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have been attracted to politics. John Ballance, who led the first Liberal Government, was an Ulsterman from County Antrim, and William Ferguson Massey, the Reform Prime Minister, also came from County Derry in the north. Several born in England or Scotland of Irish parents were educated in Ireland and made their name in politics, particularly in the early years. FitzGerald Stafford, and Bowen are amongst them.
It is difficult to distinguish the numbers of the two groups of Irish who came to New Zealand. Probably the Southern Irish were in a majority. In New Zealand the Southern Irish are in a few small ways less assimilated than, for example, the Scandinavians. They have retained their identity through their church and its schools much more than some other groups. They have their own friendly society, the Hibernian, which today has happier relations with its Ulster rival, the Loyal Orange Lodge, than was once the case. The Irishman is, however, basically a New Zealander and partakes in every activity, adding his Celtic language, thought, and customs to those less colourful but of English origin.