After 1911 there was a decade of rising tensions between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland. This forced Irish New Zealanders into a stronger sense of their identity.
Loyalty to the British Empire
In opposition to a Protestant proposal to introduce Bible teaching in schools, which he feared would be a way for the state to impose Protestant values, Bishop Henry Cleary established a Catholic Federation. But the vast majority of New Zealand Irish remained loyal to the New Zealand government, and the British Empire.
When the First World War broke out, Catholics volunteered in lower proportions than others in the community, but not by a large margin. By now most New Zealanders of Irish descent were a second generation who looked forward to home rule for Ireland within the British Empire.
In 1916 a small group of radical Irish nationalists called Sinn Fein seized the Post Office building in the Irish city of Dublin. This was known as the Easter Rising. Initially there was a cautious response in New Zealand, but before long some Sinn Feiners had begun to make a noise. Irish clubs appeared, and in Dunedin a nationalist monthly, Green Ray, was published. The fiery Dr James Kelly became editor of the New Zealand Tablet (a Catholic newspaper) in 1917 and started to trumpet against the British Empire, even calling Queen Victoria ‘a certain fat old German woman’. 1
Moderate Irish Catholics began to get involved. They were highly aggrieved that under law, priests and seminarians could be called up for service in the First World War. Instead of being rewarded for their loyalty to empire, from mid-1917 Irish Catholics found themselves under attack from the Protestant Political Association (PPA) who accused them of extracting privileges, supporting enemies of the empire and influencing the public service.
The conflict became stronger with the declaration of Irish independence in 1919. Two years later Irish Self-determination Leagues were set up. But even then the numbers of New Zealand Irish who were really active on behalf of their ancestral homeland was never great.
But at the same time, the political influence of the PPA grew, and led in 1920 to legislation which banned Catholic teaching on marriage.
Two years later Catholic Bishop James Liston found himself in the dock on a charge of sedition. At a St Patrick’s Day gathering he had allegedly described the ‘martyrs’ of the Easter Rising as ‘murdered by foreign troops’. Many New Zealand Irish rose in support of Liston, although this was as much out of loyalty to the church as it was from a desire to identify with the Irish nationalist tradition.