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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




Minister of the Crown.

A new biography of Sheehan, John appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

John Sheehan was born on 5 July 1844 at Auckland, the son of David Sheehan a carpenter who settled in Auckland during the early 1840s and later had a successful career in provincial politics. His mother, Ellen née Byrne, took an active part in charitable works, which made her name a household word among the citizens of Auckland. Sheehan was educated in Auckland and in 1862 was articled to the law with F. W. Merriman, the Crown Prosecutor. In the following year he served briefly as a sergeant in the Auckland Cavalry Volunteers. About this time he organised the Debating Society of the Auckland Catholic Institute and arranged for non-Catholics to take part in the society's activities. He was admitted to the Bar in 1867 and began practising on his own account, soon specialising in native lands cases. Sheehan spoke Maori fluently and gained a thorough understanding of the Maori character and customs. His first important brief was the famous Orakei Land Claim, and his handling of this earned him immense mana among the Maoris.

In 1869 Sheehan was elected to the Auckland Provincial Council. In December 1870, after helping to defeat Gillies' Executive, he took office as Secretary for the Goldfields. He remained on the Provincial Executive until May 1875, when parliamentary duties began to claim more of his time, for on 16 March 1872 he had been elected member for Rodney in the House of Representatives. This gave him the honour of being the first New Zealand born member to enter Parliament. As a confirmed provincialist he soon showed that the qualities which had carried him to prominence in provincial politics gave him even greater scope in Parliament. These, together with his expert knowledge of procedure, his skill as a tactician, and his ability as an organiser, proved invaluable to his party during the uncertain sessions following the abolition of the provinces, and he was principally responsible for engineering the majority which confirmed Grey in power in 1877. Sheehan was assigned the Justice and Native Affairs portfolios in the new Ministry and his subsequent successes with the “King” tribes at Hikurangi and Waitara, together with his diplomatic handling of the disaffected Maoris on the West Coast, showed that Grey's choice was a wise one. At the 1879 elections Grey and Sheehan were returned unopposed for Thames. After the defeat of the Ministry, Sheehan attended Parliament intermittently and, for several years, concentrated on his Native Lands Court practice. About 1875 he secured several important briefs from the Hawke's Bay tribes, which necessitated his moving to Petane. His great influence among the Maoris was revealed several years later when the famous Hawke's Bay chief, Karaitiana Tokomoana, appointed Sheehan chief executor of his estate and guardian of his son. In July 1884 he contested the Napier seat unsuccessfully, his opponent being J. D. Ormond; in May 1885, however, he was returned at the Tauranga by-election, but died before he could take his seat.

On 14 January 1882, at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Auckland, Sheehan married Lucy Caroline, daughter of George Young, of Mahurangi. There were no children. Sheehan died at Petane on 12 June 1885 and was buried at Auckland.

From the outset of his political career Sheehan favoured free, secular, and compulsory education and in this matter did not hesitate to speak against the policy of his own church. Sheehan was an accomplished man culturally, played a number of musical instruments and spoke several languages fluently. Concurrently with his parliamentary career, he made his mark as a political journalist, and his pungent leading articles were published in many of the colony's newspapers. In Parliament he was an able debater and was considered one of the best speakers of his day, while his gift for repartee came to be appreciated by friend and foe alike. In the days when members of Parliament were expected to draw up their own Bills, Sheehan proved to be a quick and accurate draftsman; irrespective of party, he never hesitated to help members who had good ideas but lacked the power of expressing them clearly on paper. After he died the Waikato Times wrote: “In the House he commanded the attention of Members to an extent that few young men have done…. He has gone now. Let men be careful how they criticise him. Whatever faults may have been his they were never of the heart. Many a man can say with truthfulness that John Sheehan gave him a helping hand when none other was near to help”.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • N.Z.P.D., Vol. 51, 16 Jun 1885 (Obit)
  • Thames Advertiser, 13 Jun 1885 (Obit)
  • Waikato Times, 16 Jun 1885 (Obit)
  • Evening Post, 13 Jun 1885 (Obit)
  • Sir George Grey, K.C.B., Rutherford, J. (1961)
  • Settlers in Depression, Norris, H. C. M. (1964).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.