Story: Donnelly, Airini

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Donnelly, Airini

1854/1855?–1909

Ngati Kahungunu woman of mana, landowner

This biography, written by S. W. Grant, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Airini Karauria was born at Puketapu in Hawke's Bay, probably in 1854 or 1855. Her mother was Haromi Te Ata, and her father the Ngati Kahungunu chief Karauria, sometimes known as Karauria Pupu. She was closely related to several leading Hawke's Bay chiefs: Tiakitai, her grandfather, whose people occupied the Waimarama lands; Kurupo Te Moananui; Tareha; and Renata Kawepo. She had connections with both Ngati Te Whatu-i-apiti and Ngati Te Upokoiri, who had been bitter enemies for many generations, and thus was an important link between these two tribes.

Airini is said to have attended schools at Pakowhai and Omahu. Her great-uncle, Renata Kawepo, by whom she was brought up, played an influential part in her education. She was not only learned in the traditional forms of Maori lore, history and knowledge of genealogy, but was fluent in both her native tongue and English, an accomplishment which stood her in good stead throughout her life. Her childhood was spent mainly at Waimarama and Omahu, but she moved about from pa to pa. She spent time at Waiohiki and Matahiwi, the former being Tareha's domain, the latter Te Moananui's.

In her late teens Airini rose to prominence as an advocate for her people before the Native Land Court in Rangitikei, where she pleaded a claim to land in the Otamakapua block. Kawepo was ill and unable to appear before the court, and Airini persuaded her uncle to allow her to represent him and other claimants, although it was not customary to allow a woman to appear in such a role. She argued her case successfully and was awarded 1,000 acres in her own right. This early promise shown as a litigant was developed in her later years.

On 6 December 1877, at the Anglican Church of St John the Evangelist in Napier, Airini married George Prior Donnelly, an Irishman who had emigrated to New Zealand from County Tipperary in 1862. This alliance proved to be a formidable combination in the successful acquisition of land in Hawke's Bay and elsewhere. Airini Donnelly (or Tonore) had claims to a share in the Waimarama block through her grandfather, Tiakitai, as well as through her father, who had died in 1868 of wounds sustained in fighting against Te Kooti in Poverty Bay. Through her relationship to Kawepo she also had a claim to lands lying to the north of the Ngaruroro River. George Donnelly was himself an avid land purchaser, supporting his wife in her claims and working with her to influence her relatives.

Although Airini expressed her strong opposition to the sale of Maori land, the Donnellys' methods were not always approved of by the owners and created divisions among them. The purchase of the Mangaohane block, and in particular their activities in Waimarama, involved protracted litigation. The Waimarama block, which included the lands known as Waipuka and Okaihau, comprised some 35,000 acres bounded by the sea on the east coast of Hawke's Bay south of Cape Kidnappers. The Waimarama property had first been leased by the owners to Frederick Meinertzhagen in 1869. The Donnellys consistently opposed Meinertzhagen's right to renew his leases; Airini organised opposition among her own people to contest any renewal and with her husband succeeded in having some leases made over to herself. On the death of Frederick Meinertzhagen in 1895 his daughter, Gertrude, vigorously took up the battle against the Donnellys. The result was a continuing war fought in the Native Land Court, the Native Land Commission, the Native Appellate Court, the Supreme Court and eventually the Court of Appeal. The outcome was a pyrrhic victory for Airini, who died at Otatara on 7 June 1909, unable to enjoy her final triumph over Gertrude Meinertzhagen who subsequently left the country for good. The final result of this renowned legal battle was the breaking up of the Waimarama block into farms: some freehold, some leasehold, the majority owned by Pakeha.

Airini and George Donnelly owned residences at Crissoge (near Omahu), at Waimarama, and finally at Otatara where they lived in style. Airini was a gracious and generous host who lavishly entertained her relatives and Maori friends as well as many Pakeha. The couple had two children: a daughter, Maud Airini Tiakitai, born in 1878, who lived in Waimarama some time after her parents' deaths, and a son, Henry Prior, who died aged three months in 1883. Airini predeceased her husband by eight years and bequeathed to him her Waimarama lands. Despite having so keenly assisted her to acquire the land he refused to accept the bequest, and the land was sold by auction in 1911.

Determined, intelligent and generous, Airini Donnelly has claims to being the most outstanding woman in the history of Hawke's Bay. She was renowned for her extensive knowledge of tribal lore and history, which enabled her to pursue land claims successfully in the Native Land Court, and her influence among Ngati Kahungunu was strong and widespread. Yet there is an ambivalence in her attitude to her people and their land. On the one hand she strenuously opposed lease or sale to the Pakeha; on the other hand she worked relentlessly to obtain land for herself and her husband. In her determination to succeed she was not above using devious means – including bribery and punitive litigation – to gain her ends, thereby antagonising sections of her own people.

A fine portrait of Airini Donnelly painted by Gottfried Lindauer conveys a deep impression of her dignified presence and determined character.

How to cite this page:

S. W. Grant. 'Donnelly, Airini', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2d14/donnelly-airini (accessed 23 October 2019)