Story: Irish

‘My great-grandfather Mick Scannell came out on a boat from Cork. The story goes that he had never seen a tomato till he arrived in Lyttelton.’

It’s said that to be Irish is to remember. Over half a million New Zealanders have Irish ancestors, whose stories have been passed down the generations. They tell of the early days – of hardship, faith, politics, and humour.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: County Down, Ireland

Story summary

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Leaving Ireland

With overdue rent and many mouths to feed, life was miserable for 19th-century Irish peasants. English landlords owned their farms, and factories took over their traditional handicrafts. Then in the 1840s their staple food, the potato, was wiped out by a deadly blight. Over a million people died of starvation. To escape death or the poorhouse, millions sailed to England, America and Australasia.


Traders, whalers and sealers came before 1840. But boat tickets were expensive, and companies selecting immigrants saw the Irish as ‘drunk and disorderly’. Some later arrivals were ex-soldiers, others had tried their luck in Australia. Numbers swelled with the 1860s gold rush, and by the 1870s Irish men and women were flooding in. During the 20th century, this dropped to a steady flow.

Life in New Zealand

Seeking jobs or joining relatives, many Irish settled in Auckland, Canterbury and the West Coast. Typically, they started as labourers, miners, domestic servants and police. Some families established neighbourhoods, but their children moved away. Many took up farming, and a few became politicians. Today you’ll find Irish surnames – Kennedy, Sullivan, O’Connor – in any local phone book.

Religion and politics

More settlers were Roman Catholic than Protestant, and they built their own churches and schools. Some Catholics also supported Ireland’s fight for independence from England. But the Protestants backed British control, claiming ‘home rule means Rome rule’. In New Zealand as in Ireland, sparks would fly when the two groups clashed.

Irish traditions

The Irish love of story-telling and family occasions soon became part of the culture, and Catholic children continue to learn their parents’ values at convent schools. As a nation New Zealanders celebrate St Patrick’s Day by dyeing food and beer green, and drinking more Guinness than on any other day.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Irish', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 8 February 2005, updated 1 March 2015