Page 1: Biography
Homemaker, farmer, grocer, hotel proprietor
This biography, written by Kathleen C. McDonald, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
Ann McNamara was born sometime between 1857 and 1860, the second youngest of the seven children of Kathy Curry and her husband, Patrick McNamara, a farmer of County Clare, Ireland. When a marriage was arranged for Ann she strongly opposed it. Instead, she persuaded her brothers to buy her a passage ticket from Ellen Moroney, who had changed her mind about emigrating to New Zealand. An old family friend, Mother Mary Clare Moloney, was at St Columbkille's Convent in Hokitika.
Ann McNamara sailed in the Opawa, arriving in Nelson on 28 November 1879. She travelled by coastal ship to Hokitika. Not long after her arrival she met an Irish miner, Edward O'Donnell. They were married on 19 October 1881 at St Mary's Church in Hokitika, and settled on a small farm at Woodstock across the Hokitika River. Edward had a gold claim there. Their happy marriage ended tragically on 15 September 1894 when Edward O'Donnell died suddenly. Ann O'Donnell was left with six children to raise: five daughters and one son, aged from 12 to three. A fiercely independent woman, she remained on her land to raise her family. She fed her children with food she grew herself and nursed them with her own herbal medicines, ointments and poultices.
Ann O'Donnell opened a grocery store at Woodstock, probably in 1899. Around 1908 she was granted the lease of the Rose and Thistle hotel at Blackwater, which she ran ably assisted by her son and daughters. In 1905 the Birthday Reef had been discovered at Waiuta, several miles inland from Blackwater, and Ann O'Donnell was granted a licence to open a hotel there in July 1914. Her first hotel was in the bush on the old Prohibition Road. In 1915 she built new premises on the main road. This second hotel, the Empire, became well known on the West Coast. Many gathered there to play card games, chat or listen to the piano or poetry readings.
Throughout her life Ann O'Donnell exercised a strong influence over her children and grandchildren; they were a close-knit family unit. All her children and several grand-daughters were educated by the Sisters of Mercy. She encouraged her grand-daughters to play the piano and her grandsons to play sport.
Ann O'Donnell was not a tall woman. Curly haired with beautiful deep violet-blue eyes, she always spoke with a soft Irish brogue. Known to many as 'Mother' and respected by all, she gave generously to many organisations and community projects such as the Catholic church, hospital, public tennis court and other sporting clubs. In 1927 she was elected a life honorary member of the Hibernian-Australasian Catholic Benevolent Society and was their first woman member in New Zealand.
At her death at Waiuta on 5 May 1934 she was widely mourned, for this compassionate woman was ever ready to help the needy: the 'homeless and the hungry never appealed to her in vain'.