Story: Irish

Page 10. Irish Protestant tradition

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In the 19th century some two-fifths of New Zealand’s Irish were Protestants, but it is not easy to trace their impact. Some of the earliest were members of the Anglican élite who had always identified with England.

In the last 30 years of the 19th century greater numbers of working people from Ulster arrived in New Zealand. An increasing proportion of these were Presbyterians, descended from Scots who had been ‘planted’ in Ulster in the 17th century. Ulster migrants, both Presbyterians and members of the Church of Ireland, formed the majority of Irish immigrants in the 20th century.

The Orange Lodge

The Ulster migrants had a long tradition of defensive hostility to the Catholic majority in their homeland, and some of this was carried to New Zealand. Their Protestant perspective became more organised with the establishment of Orange Lodges in New Zealand.

The lodge was named after William of Orange, the Protestant King ‘Billy’. His triumph over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, on 12 July 1690, was a day of particular celebration. The Orange movement worked to promote the continued Protestant ascendancy over Catholicism.

The first lodge was set up in Auckland in 1858, and the movement spread in the 1870s. By the next decade there were 47 lodges under the North Island Grand Lodge, with several thousand members.

The Protestant Political Association

From 1877 the Orange Lodge defended free, secular, compulsory education, and then joined in the movement for Bible in Schools. It also consistently opposed home rule for Ireland. During the First World War, the Irish Easter Rising and local concerns about the exclusion of Catholic seminarians from conscription and the alleged dominance of the civil service by Catholics led to the formation in 1917 of the Protestant Political Association (PPA), in which Orangemen and Irish Protestants were moving forces.

Irish or English?

The Mulgan family history illustrates how Irish Protestants became less ‘Irish’ in New Zealand. They came to Katikati in 1875. W. E. Mulgan was a Church of Ireland clergyman; his grandson Alan Mulgan was born in Katikati. Alan’s mother was the daughter of another Ulster cleric. Yet when Alan was growing up, ‘Ulster was a shadowy place. England and English things were always before my eyes’; and when he went ‘home’ in the 1920s it was to England, not northern Ireland that he journeyed.


Both the Protestant Political Association and the Orange Order faded during the 1920s, the former more quickly than the latter. It would be a mistake to see these two institutions as commanding the loyalty of most Irish Protestants in New Zealand. Because they were part of New Zealand’s Protestant majority, Irish Protestants integrated easily into the wider society. Members of the Church of Ireland disappeared into the Church of England; Presbyterian Ulster Scots were quickly indistinguishable from Scottish Presbyterians.

Political leadership

The Irish Protestants’ political loyalty to the British Empire rather than to Ireland quickly melded into New Zealand attitudes. Some Irish Protestants became leaders in the expression of New Zealand’s identity within the empire. John Ballance, who had migrated from County Antrim, became premier in 1890. William Ferguson Massey, who had migrated from Ulster as a teenager and who had been Orange Lodge Grand Master in 1892, led New Zealand through the First World War and helped define its role within the empire.

Massey’s huge memorial at Point Halswell overlooking Wellington Harbour does not even bother to note his place of birth at Limavady, in County Londonderry.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Irish - Irish Protestant tradition', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 26 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015