Story: Irish

Page 8. Culture after 1922

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Irish identity weakens

From the 1920s on, apart from the Catholic Church and the convent schools, expressions of a distinctive Irish identity began to weaken. With Irish independence, Ireland’s politics ceased to be an issue in New Zealand. When the Irish ‘Troubles’ of the 1970s again made the headlines, there were almost no echoes on the New Zealand political scene. As the numbers of Irish immigrants fell, there were fewer Irish accents or Irish songs to be heard. Traditions like St Patrick’s Day became mere memories.

Literary legacy

The Irish habit of storytelling and a love of language may well have borne fruit in the long tradition of New Zealand writers with an Irish heritage: Thomas Bracken and David McKee Wright in the 19th century; Eileen Duggan, Nelle Scanlan and Pat Lawlor between the wars; Dan Davin and Maurice Duggan in the 1950s, and Vincent O’Sullivan in the last third of the 20th century. But these writers were more concerned with articulating a New Zealand identity.

Politics

People of an Irish heritage such as Pat Hickey or Micky Savage, the first Labour prime minister (1935–40), played a significant role in the unions and the Labour Party. And perhaps the republicanism of Jim Bolger, National Party prime minister from 1990 to 1997, could be attributed to the attitudes inherited from his Irish-born parents.

Irish traits and New Zealand character

Other cultural traits began to merge with New Zealand traditions: a commitment to the extended family and to family occasions, expressed in extravagant funerals and wakes; a love of wit and humour; an enjoyment of drinking in the pub, which may have helped establish the rich atmosphere of the West Coast hotel. In these ways, habits originally Irish became part of the New Zealand fabric.

She’s a sheila

The New Zealand slang term 'sheila' (sometimes spelt 'sheelah' or 'sheeler'), meaning a woman, or more usually a girlfriend, has an Irish origin. The term comes from the common Irish first name Sheila (in Gaelic spelt Síle).

Revived Irish traditions

From the 1970s there was a revival of some distinct forms of Irishness in New Zealand – pubs with Irish names appeared, serving Guinness, and once more St Patrick’s Day was celebrated with processions and green beer.

From 1974 there was an annual Rose of Tralee contest, and Irish music and dance have won new converts. Undoubtedly this has had more to do with international trends and marketing than with any direct inheritance from Irish migrants.

The one place where strong Irish institutions were to be found was the Catholic Church.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Irish - Culture after 1922', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/irish/page-8 (accessed 19 November 2017)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015