Story: Irish

Page 5. Settlement

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A visible community

How far did the Irish in New Zealand remain a visible community, clustered together in common activity? While they did initially go to particular places in New Zealand, this was partly because they were attracted to specific occupations such as goldmining, and partly because of the importance of family nomination and chain migration in settling. It is possible, too, that among the Irish Catholic community there was a desire to seek mutual support against the generally held suspicion that the Irish were drunken and disorderly.

Provincial differences

In the early years of settlement there were distinct variations between provinces in the numbers of Irish. The census of 1871 revealed that Auckland, and more notably the South Island’s West Coast, had more Irish-born than the country as a whole. By 1881, after the great migration, Canterbury had joined them.

In Nelson province there was a striking difference between the areas around Nelson city, where the numbers of Irish were low, and the areas north of the Grey River given over to goldmining. Here the numbers of Irish were very high.

Particular centres had strong Irish populations – Onehunga in Auckland, Charleston in Nelson, Greymouth in Westland – and there was a notable Irish Catholic farming community in south Canterbury.

Within the cities it seems that Irish Catholic neighbourhoods arose around the church. In Christchurch, for example, there was a disproportionate number of Catholics in the streets near the Barbadoes Street cathedral and the church in Addington. East Hamilton was known as ‘Irishtown’. But these neighbourhoods were never exclusively Irish Catholic – they were not ghettoes, nor ethnic enclaves as in North America. The geographical segregation of the Irish rapidly declined, and by 1916 their distribution was not significantly different from overall population patterns.


Initially the Irish congregated in certain occupations – single women as domestic servants, single men on the goldfields. But these occupations were unlikely to be long-term pursuits. The Irish slavey quickly became the colonial spouse, and dreams of large gold nuggets were replaced by more realistic hopes.

As in other new worlds, they worked as navvies building railways and roads, and the itinerant character of these jobs was one factor which encouraged dispersal.

The Irish were also attracted to the police force. At the turn of the 20th century over 40% of New Zealand’s police were Catholic. Men of Irish Catholic background were among New Zealand’s most influential police commissioners (St John Branigan, John Cullen and John O’Donovan).

The community in the 1930s

By the 1930s Irish Catholics were still well represented in government service, in transport and in occupations associated with gambling and drink. They were more likely to be in unskilled jobs, and they were spectacularly over-represented among prisoners.

But elsewhere the differences were marginal. By 1936 the proportion of Catholics in the police force was 22%. Marked clustering of place and occupation had lasted little more than one generation.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Irish - Settlement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

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