George Maurice O'Rorke was born on 2 May 1830 at Moylough, County Galway, Ireland, the third son of John O'Rorke, an Anglican clergyman and large landowner, and Elizabeth Dennis, his third wife.
George O'Rorke received his primary education at Dr Smyth's school at Stillorgan, near Dublin, from which he won an exhibition to Trinity College, Dublin. In 1852 he graduated BA with honours in Classics. In the same year he went to Australia and worked as a stockman for another Galway man, C. N. Bagot, who owned stations in the Murrumbidgee and Lachlan districts, overlanding stock to Bendigo and Sydney. After a brief spell at gold-digging he moved to New Zealand with a college friend, Henry Taylor, in 1854.
In partnership with Taylor, O'Rorke farmed at Papakura, south of Auckland, and then at Onehunga. In 1857 he was appointed clerk to the Auckland Provincial Council, a post that he held until 1860. On 31 December 1858, at Auckland, he married Cecilia Mary Shepherd, the daughter of Alexander Shepherd, the first colonial treasurer. The O'Rorkes built a substantial home on Mt Smart, and later a larger house at what is now Bel Air Drive, Hillsborough.
In 1861 O'Rorke was elected member of the House of Representatives for Onehunga (later part of the Manukau electorate). Between 1865 and 1876 he represented Onehunga on the Auckland Provincial Council, and was elected Speaker at the first session. He actively promoted the interests of his district: the land claims of the military pensioners were settled, and the wharf at Onehunga was built during his period of office.
For some years George O'Rorke was an officer in the 1st Battalion of the Auckland Regiment of Militia, and was gazetted captain in 1864. He took part in the Waikato campaign but saw no action. In 1868 he was admitted to the Bar. In the provincial council O'Rorke pressed for the establishment of Auckland Grammar School with the funds from the endowments set up by Sir George Grey between 1850 and 1853. The school was opened in 1869 with O'Rorke as a founding governor. He was later chairman from 1880 until his death.
In 1871 O'Rorke was elected chairman of committees for the House of Representatives (now in Wellington), and two years later was appointed minister for immigration and secretary for Crown lands in the Waterhouse ministry. He retained both those offices in the Fox ministry of 1873 and the Vogel ministry of the same year, also becoming minister of justice and commissioner of stamps. Immigration was a crucial element in the policy of the government and Julius Vogel took over the portfolio when he became dissatisfied with O'Rorke's lack-lustre performance. O'Rorke did not forgive Vogel for the loss of his major portfolio. In 1874, when the latter unexpectedly introduced a bill to abolish the North Island provinces, O'Rorke, the dedicated provincialist, denounced Vogel in a dramatic speech. He declared, 'I should never have occupied this seat had I known that the honourable gentleman at the head of the Government had in his copious armoury this treacherous dagger to stab the provinces, which I thought he and I were sworn to maintain', and crossed the floor of the House to join the opposition.
In 1878 O'Rorke was appointed chairman of a royal commission on the relationship between university and secondary education, which recommended the establishment of university colleges in Auckland and Wellington. A member of the senate of the University of New Zealand from 1879 until his death, he also chaired the Auckland Technical School Association, and acted as a trustee of the Dilworth Ulster Institute.
In 1879 O'Rorke was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was knighted in 1880 and became known as Sir Maurice, having previously used his first Christian name, George. In Parliament, in addition to his duties as Speaker, he was an indefatigable committeeman. The educational measures that he promoted included the creation of university chairs for architecture, music, commerce, divinity and law, and the proposal to establish Auckland University College. This last measure came to fruition in 1883 largely due to his advocacy, with O'Rorke being elected first chairman of the council; he maintained a lifelong intimate involvement with the college. He was also responsible, in 1879, for the act that transferred to the Auckland City Council the site of the Albert Barracks to become Albert Park, and for the Public Libraries Subsidies Act 1877 which subsidised free public libraries throughout New Zealand.
In the election of 1890 O'Rorke lost his Manukau seat, but regained it in 1893, when he was re-elected Speaker. In 1902 he was again defeated, and was out of Parliament until 1904 when he was appointed to a seat in the Legislative Council, which he retained until his death in Auckland on 25 August 1916. Cecilia O'Rorke had died on 18 September 1910. They were survived by one son, Edward ('Eddie') Dennis O'Rorke.
O'Rorke read widely in the classics as well as in English literature, history and astronomy. A natural linguist, he learnt Maori to assist him in his public duties, and was able to converse in classical Greek with the Auckland rabbi at their regular dinners. In addition to his devotion to progress in education he was well known for his espousal of two lost causes: the restoration of the provinces and imperial federation. He was a gifted orator with a sonorous voice and a touch of Irish brogue that thickened in moments of tension. His occasional lapses from grace when he was absent from the House on drinking bouts were usually tolerated by his contemporaries, but caused a bitter exchange with Vogel.
O'Rorke was the outstanding Speaker of the colonial period. He continued the work of his predecessor, Sir David Monro, in establishing parliamentary protocol. Under his aegis the business of the House of Representatives was conducted with the utmost decorum, in marked contrast to certain other colonial legislatures. He had a deep knowledge of parliamentary precedent, and his impartiality was never in question. It is significant that over 50 of the present Speaker's rulings still bear his name.
When he died the New Zealand Herald said of him, 'New Zealand has lost one of the last of the great men amongst its political pioneers'. He was 'a man who lived through the rough period of colonial life of the 50's to become the Father of Parliament and one of the founders of New Zealand education.'