In culture as in settlement a separate Irish identity was most evident in New Zealand during and immediately after the major Irish migration of the 1860s and 1870s. (One aspect, however, remained distinct for many years – the culture of the Irish Catholic Church.)
St Patrick’s Day
From the 1860s, St Patrick’s Day was celebrated with sports, horse races, dances and drink on the West Coast. In the main centres this continued until after the First World War.
After parading in the streets, schoolchildren gathered at Newtown Park in Wellington or the Domain in Auckland for gymnastics and athletics. If the figures for Irish convictions for being drunk and disorderly are accepted as evidence, there was a clear propensity for them to carry to the new land their enjoyment of the pub.
Hibernian (the Latin word for Irish) societies were first established in Greymouth in 1869. They were dedicated to cherishing the memory of Ireland, promoting Catholicism and providing mutual aid to members. By 1921 there were 84 branches throughout the country. But the membership was always small (only 3,499 in that year) and the society hardly represented widespread Irish interests.
More significant expressions of Irish culture came in politics. The long struggles in Ireland for land reform, home rule rather than English rule, and eventually independence were a major concern of British politics throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Many in New Zealand followed these debates and crises, and expressed their sympathies in a number of ways. Occasionally it came in the form of civil disorder. There were ‘shindies’ between Irish Catholics and Orangemen (a Protestant group) at Ōkārito in 1865. In Christchurch on Boxing Day 1879, 30 Irishmen attacked an Orange procession with pick-handles, and in Timaru 150 men from Thomas O’Driscoll’s Hibernian Hotel surrounded Orangemen and prevented their procession.
Free speech on trial
Three times, Irish Catholic New Zealanders have been brought before the court on charges of sedition.
In 1868 John Manning and Father W. J. Larkin spent a month in jail for expressing ‘Fenian’ sympathies in their Hokitika newspaper.
In July 1918 Thomas Cummins and Bert Ryan were sentenced to 11 months with hard labour for a ‘seditious’ article, commemorating the Easter Rising, in the Green Ray.
In 1922 Bishop James Liston went on trial in Auckland for alleged sedition in his St Patrick’s Day speech. Helped by the brilliant Irish nationalist lawyer P. J. O’Regan, Liston was found not guilty.
New Zealand Fenians
The most infamous disturbance occurred in Hokitika in 1868. The previous year John Manning had set up the New Zealand Celt newspaper. With Father W. J. Larkin he expressed support for a group of nationalists in Ireland known as Fenians. When news reached the West Coast that three Fenians had been hanged in Manchester, there were funeral processions in Charleston and in Hokitika, where 1,000 people broke into the cemetery and planted a wooden Celtic cross.
Soon after, the attempted assassination in Australia of Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred, by a suspected Fenian, triggered a minor panic on the West Coast. Eight hundred special constables were sworn in, the 18th Regiment was sent south, and Larkin, Manning and five others were arrested. Both men received one month in jail and a fine of ₤20 for seditious libel.
Visiting Irish politicians
These forms of civil disorder did not last beyond 1880. Thereafter Irish migrants’ sympathy for the nationalist cause was more commonly expressed through receptions and lectures for visiting Irish politicians.
One such event was the visit of John and William Redmond in 1883. This drew particular support from working-class Irish who had set up Land Leagues (later Irish National Leagues) in New Zealand.
British Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone’s conversion to the support of home rule for Ireland won over New Zealand’s middle-class Irish. The visit by nationalist politician John Dillon in 1889 became ‘little less than a great Irish carnival’. 1 There were successful visits by other nationalists: ex-land-leaguer Michael Davitt in 1895, Joseph Dillon and John Donovan in 1906, and William Redmond again in 1911, when 1,700 attended his Wellington meeting.