Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.


by  Jock Phillips

‘My great-grandfather Mick Scannell came out on a boat from Cork. The story goes that he had never seen a tomato till he arrived in Lyttelton.’

It’s said that to be Irish is to remember. Over half a million New Zealanders have Irish ancestors, whose stories have been passed down the generations. They tell of the early days – of hardship, faith, politics, and humour.

Understanding the Irish conflict

For centuries, conflict set the Irish people against each other, and against the English. Irish migrants who settled in New Zealand brought with them the same issues that divided their countrymen at home.

These issues were interwoven. They represented conflicting ideas of personal and national identity.


Ireland has two main religious groups. The majority of Irish are Roman Catholic, and a smaller number are Protestant (mostly Anglicans and Presbyterians). In the northern province of Ulster, Catholics outnumber Protestants.

More Catholics than Protestants emigrated to New Zealand.


From the 12th century Ireland was ruled by the English. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Irish settlers who came to New Zealand were British citizens. But many Catholic Irish believed Ireland should have its own government, independent of England and the British Crown. They were known as nationalists. In contrast, Irish Protestants generally supported British rule of Ireland. They were known as loyalists.

In 1921, after an uprising against British rule, Ireland was divided into two. Six out nine counties in the northern province of Ulster remained part of Britain (the exceptions being Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan). The rest of Ireland achieved self-government within the British Empire, as the Irish Free State. It became an independent republic outside the empire in 1949.


Irish Catholic peasants resented their land being taken by Anglo-Irish Protestants. These people held power as landlords and supported English rule. By the 1860s half of Ireland was owned by just 750 people, nearly all of them Protestants.

Events and groups mentioned in the Irish story

The Protestant ascendancy

In 1704 Catholics were excluded from political rights. By this time, Catholics owned less than 10% of the land. During the 18th century Protestants, who comprised only about 10% of the population, established political and economic power as landlords.

The Orange Order

The Orange Order was set up in 1795 to defend Protestants against Catholics in Ireland. The name comes from Protestant King William of Orange, who defeated Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne on 12 July 1690. This day is still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

The Fenians

In 1829 Catholics were allowed political representation. Despite this concession, Irish nationalists began to push for political independence and land reform. One group who argued for this in the mid-1800s were the Fenians.

Sinn Fein

By the first decade of the 20th century the British government was prepared to grant ‘home rule’ to Ireland. Those in Ulster, which had a Protestant majority, opposed this and pushed for separation from the rest of the country.

The First World War stalled progress, and in the Easter Rising of April 1916, a group of radical nationalists known as the Sinn Fein (meaning ‘ourselves alone’) seized the General Post Office in Dublin, hoping to spark a revolution.

The Troubles

From the late 1960s a civil rights movement broke out in Ulster to promote the political and social rights of the Irish Catholic minority there. This led to violence with the involvement of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) on the Catholic side and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) on the Protestant side.

Migration 1800–1850

Conditions in Ireland

In the 19th century Ireland’s rural people were landless labourers, or peasants renting a few acres with limited productivity. Their misery was intensified by other factors, including:

  • land division by inheritance
  • the transfer of land used for crops into sheep and cattle farming (which reduced work opportunities)
  • industrialisation (which destroyed the supplementary income from domestic spinning and weaving).

In the late 1840s there was a devastating potato famine, in which over a million people died.

Scale of Irish migration

Throughout the 1800s, and particularly after the famine, the Irish streamed away from their homeland to seek a better life. Often younger sons went first and were followed by other family members in a chain migration.

In the 70 years after 1850 about a million Irish crossed the Irish Sea to England or Scotland. Over four million sailed for the new worlds of America and Australasia. As a result, Ireland’s population almost halved.

Immigration to New Zealand

In 1845 the Dublin University Magazine described New Zealand as ‘the most recent, remotest, and least civilised of our colonies’. It was the most expensive to reach – over four times the cost of crossing the Atlantic to America.

The majority of Irish emigrants went to North America; Australasia took no more than about one in 13. For the first half-century of European settlement in New Zealand the number of migrants from Ireland was small. Almost none came direct from the potato famine. Until 1852 they comprised less than 15% of immigrants from the United Kingdom.

Assisted immigrants

The New Zealand Company offered assisted passages to organised settlements in New Zealand. However, the company did not consider illiterate Irish peasants to be ‘desirable emigrants’. Under 2% of the company’s settlers were born in Ireland, despite the fact that a few of the early New Zealand Company settlement leaders, such as John Robert Godley in Canterbury and Edward Stafford in Nelson, were of Anglo-Irish background. This group were members of the Anglican élite who saw their situation weakened at home by Catholic emancipation and the emergence of Irish nationalism. Few of the Irish joined them. In 1848 the province of New Munster (Wellington and the South Island) had a mere 175 Irish inhabitants.

New Ireland?

Despite the small numbers of Irish in New Zealand in the 1840s, the islands were given Irish names. In a Royal Charter of 1840 the ‘Northern Island’ became New Ulster, the ‘Middle Island’ New Munster, and ‘Stewart’s Island’ New Leinster.

In 1846 two provinces were also named New Ulster and New Munster. New Ulster extended north and east of the Patea River mouth, while New Munster consisted of the rest of the North Island and all of the South Island and Stewart Island.

These provinces were abolished in 1852.

Irish in Auckland

By 1851, in contrast to Wellington and the South Island, a larger proportion of Auckland’s population (2,871 out of 8,840) were of Irish background. Few had come direct from the homeland; many had arrived via Australia. (The convict settlement in New South Wales included large numbers from Ireland, and over a third of the United Kingdom migrants to both Victoria and New South Wales during the 19th century were Irish.)

Men of Irish heritage such as Jacky Marmon and Frederick Maning were to be found among the early gangs of traders, whalers and sealers, and in the 1840s numbers in Auckland slowly grew.

There were also significant numbers of ex-soldiers. Some of these were discharged from British regiments brought to New Zealand in 1845–46. Others came with the largely Irish Royal New Zealand Fencibles. Arriving in 1847 with wives and children, they provided protection for the area south of Auckland town. This military influence helps explain the large representation at that time of Auckland immigrants from County Dublin, a common recruiting ground.

Migration 1850–1870

The numbers of Irish immigrants began to rise sharply during the 1860s, and by 1871 they comprised over one-fifth of New Zealand’s immigrant population.


There were three main reasons why the Irish immigrated during this period:

  • The discovery of gold attracted many who had previously migrated to Australia. They came to Otago from 1861, and then in greater numbers to the West Coast from 1865.
  • Irish were significantly represented among the soldiers who were discharged during the New Zealand wars, and there was continuing migration into Auckland.
  • Although Canterbury’s emigration agent John Marshman was advised that ‘Irish emigrants should be refused altogether’, about a quarter of the immigrants assisted by Canterbury province were Irish, many of them nominated by family members already there. 1

Catholics and Protestants

There were significant differences among these groups. On the West Coast there were twice as many men from Ireland as women, they were commonly from Munster in the south-west of Ireland, and most were Catholic.

Elsewhere, in Auckland or among Canterbury’s assisted migrants, Ulster in the north-east of Ireland was well represented, with a majority of Protestants. There were several significant settlements of Ulster people near Pukekohe and Kawakawa. About 850 of the Pukekohe settlers came from Ulster in 1865 and 1866 as part of the Waikato immigration scheme, which aimed to provide a buffer between Auckland and the King Movement Māori further south. They were joined by about 500 Irish who came after a sojourn in South Africa and were predominantly Catholics from the south-west of Ireland.


Compared with other immigrants in this period (and with Irish migrants to other places), the New Zealand Irish were slightly older and rather more prosperous. This partly reflected the fact that they had often spent time elsewhere, particularly in Australia. There were also on average more Protestant Irish immigrants than in other parts of the world.

    • Quoted in Lyndon Fraser, To Tara via Holyhead: Irish Catholic immigrants in nineteenth-century Christchurch. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997, p. 37. › Back

Migration after 1870

Bias against Irish migrants

During the great immigrations of the 1870s and early 1880s the Irish were well represented. They comprised over one-fifth of New Zealand’s settlers during those years. More than a quarter of those assisted by the New Zealand government were Irish.

This seems surprising, as in the early 1870s there was controversy in New Zealand about alleged bias against Irish immigrants. It was true that many regarded the Irish as less desirable because of their Catholicism and their reputation as drunken and disorderly. Also, in October 1872 only eight (of 116) government recruiting agents were based in Ireland. Of 124 advertisements for immigrants, only 15 had been placed in Irish newspapers and then only around Belfast and Londonderry in Ulster.

Assisted immigrants

Despite the alleged bias, the Irish took advantage of assisted passages in two ways:

  • Catholic families who had migrated to New Zealand in the 1860s used the system of nomination to bring out other members of their families. A high proportion of these came from Munster, especially from counties Kerry and Cork.
  • Others responded to the special efforts made to attract Protestant families and single women (as domestic servants) from the north. Indeed during the 1870s more Irish women than men migrated to New Zealand.

Leaving from Ireland

During the 1870s and early 1880s the vast majority of Irish immigrants boarded their ships at Glasgow or London. There were two exceptions – Caroline Howard’s recruits and the Katikati settlers.

New Zealand’s agent general, Isaac Featherston, had responded to accusations of anti-Irish prejudice by appointing Mrs Caroline Howard as an immigration agent. She proceeded to recruit young women from a workhouse in Cork. When they arrived in Dunedin aboard the Asia in 1874, there was an outcry about this importation of ‘certified scum’. Mrs Howard was able to arrange for two further sailings before being dismissed.

A second group of vessels sailed direct from Ireland carrying a more acceptable class of passenger. Protestant families from Ulster came to Katikati in the Bay of Plenty, aboard the Carisbrooke Castle in 1875 and the Lady Jocelyn in 1878. They were part of George Vesey Stewart’s settlement. Stewart was a gentleman entrepreneur from County Tyrone who hoped to repair his fortune by land speculation in New Zealand. Through political contacts he obtained 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares), and eventually attracted four groups of settlers from Ulster.

Catholics and Protestants

Catholics from the south-west and Protestants from Ulster formed two distinct streams of Irish immigrants to New Zealand in the great migration of the 1870s and early 1880s. But as in the 1860s, only about 60% of the Irish migrants were Catholic, compared with over 80% in the homeland.

Declining numbers

As the century came to an end the number of Irish immigrants fell to under 10% of those coming from the United Kingdom. Also, among the Irish there was a clear dominance of people from Ulster.

In 1921 Ireland’s three predominantly Catholic provinces and three counties of Ulster achieved independence from the United Kingdom. This left only six counties of Ulster in the north, where there was a majority of Protestants. After this, few came from the south, but there was a steady trickle of Protestants from Northern Ireland in the 1920s and again after the Second World War.

During the 1970s the violence of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland induced some to escape to New Zealand, although the numbers were never large.


A visible community

How far did the Irish in New Zealand remain a visible community, clustered together in common activity? While they did initially go to particular places in New Zealand, this was partly because they were attracted to specific occupations such as goldmining, and partly because of the importance of family nomination and chain migration in settling. It is possible, too, that among the Irish Catholic community there was a desire to seek mutual support against the generally held suspicion that the Irish were drunken and disorderly.

Provincial differences

In the early years of settlement there were distinct variations between provinces in the numbers of Irish. The census of 1871 revealed that Auckland, and more notably the South Island’s West Coast, had more Irish-born than the country as a whole. By 1881, after the great migration, Canterbury had joined them.

In Nelson province there was a striking difference between the areas around Nelson city, where the numbers of Irish were low, and the areas north of the Grey River given over to goldmining. Here the numbers of Irish were very high.

Particular centres had strong Irish populations – Onehunga in Auckland, Charleston in Nelson, Greymouth in Westland – and there was a notable Irish Catholic farming community in south Canterbury.

Within the cities it seems that Irish Catholic neighbourhoods arose around the church. In Christchurch, for example, there was a disproportionate number of Catholics in the streets near the Barbadoes Street cathedral and the church in Addington. East Hamilton was known as ‘Irishtown’. But these neighbourhoods were never exclusively Irish Catholic – they were not ghettoes, nor ethnic enclaves as in North America. The geographical segregation of the Irish rapidly declined, and by 1916 their distribution was not significantly different from overall population patterns.


Initially the Irish congregated in certain occupations – single women as domestic servants, single men on the goldfields. But these occupations were unlikely to be long-term pursuits. The Irish slavey quickly became the colonial spouse, and dreams of large gold nuggets were replaced by more realistic hopes.

As in other new worlds, they worked as navvies building railways and roads, and the itinerant character of these jobs was one factor which encouraged dispersal.

The Irish were also attracted to the police force. At the turn of the 20th century over 40% of New Zealand’s police were Catholic. Men of Irish Catholic background were among New Zealand’s most influential police commissioners (St John Branigan, John Cullen and John O’Donovan).

The community in the 1930s

By the 1930s Irish Catholics were still well represented in government service, in transport and in occupations associated with gambling and drink. They were more likely to be in unskilled jobs, and they were spectacularly over-represented among prisoners.

But elsewhere the differences were marginal. By 1936 the proportion of Catholics in the police force was 22%. Marked clustering of place and occupation had lasted little more than one generation.

Culture and politics before 1911

Irish identity

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.

    • R. P. Davis, Irish issues in New Zealand politics 1868–1922, p. 107. › Back

Culture and politics 1911–1922

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.

Sinn Fein

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

Political tensions

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.

  1. New Zealand Tablet, 1 November 1917. › Back

Culture after 1922

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.


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.

The Catholic Church

New Zealand Catholicism becomes Irish

The Catholic Church became the major vehicle for expressing Irish heritage in New Zealand.

Roman Catholicism in New Zealand was not an Irish import. The first approach had come from France under the leadership of Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier and the Society of Mary. But from the early 1860s, the vast majority of Catholics were people of Irish background.

With the appointment in 1869 of Bishop Patrick Moran in Dunedin, and of Bishop Thomas Croke in Auckland the following year, the New Zealand Catholic Church began to join the Catholic empire of Ireland’s Cardinal Paul Cullen. This had also occurred in Australia. For Moran, Catholicism and Irish identity were one and the same. There was a protracted effort in Christchurch and Wellington to move control from the Society of Mary to an Irish model of Catholicism with strong parishes and Irish secular priests. Although New Zealand Irish gradually lost their identification with other Irish institutions, they became stronger in their commitment to the Catholic Church.

Parochial schools

Bishop Moran promoted the idea of the Irish church through the New Zealand Tablet, which he founded in 1873. He also led the fight for government support of parochial schools. The school was seen as a way of guaranteeing Catholic and Irish values into the next generation, and the principle of justice implied that people who paid taxes should have them spent on education of their own choosing.

The battle for state support of Catholic education became intense after the 1877 Education Act established secular state education. It was a long struggle, which did not achieve final success until 1975. But the process helped to define the Irish Catholic community. It led to the spread of parochial schools which taught an increasingly significant proportion of Catholic children. By the mid-20th century about three-quarters of Catholic children were taught in church schools.

Irish Catholic institutions

Church and school became the major ways in which Catholic Irish identity was perpetuated in New Zealand. Out of these grew other institutions – hospitals, orphanages, old boys’ and old girls’ clubs, Catholic scouts, and charities like St Vincent de Paul. There were also Marist sporting teams, but they played rugby, cricket and netball, not the traditional Irish sport of hurling.

New Zealanders who joined these groups had a clear sense of being part of a community, and some have argued that this community had distinctive values and habits with an Irish component. In her book Convent girls, New Zealand writer Jane Tolerton has noted that in the convent schools there was a concern for the individual and a vision of social justice which had their roots in Irish traditions. There was also a strong culture of sexual purity.

Increasingly this community and its values were less ethnic than religious. Being Catholic became infinitely more important than having an Irish background.

Irish Protestant tradition

In the 19th century some two-fifths of New Zealand’s Irish were Protestants, but it is not easy to trace their impact. Some of the earliest were members of the Anglican élite who had always identified with England.

In the last 30 years of the 19th century greater numbers of working people from Ulster arrived in New Zealand. An increasing proportion of these were Presbyterians, descended from Scots who had been ‘planted’ in Ulster in the 17th century. Ulster migrants, both Presbyterians and members of the Church of Ireland, formed the majority of Irish immigrants in the 20th century.

The Orange Lodge

The Ulster migrants had a long tradition of defensive hostility to the Catholic majority in their homeland, and some of this was carried to New Zealand. Their Protestant perspective became more organised with the establishment of Orange Lodges in New Zealand.

The lodge was named after William of Orange, the Protestant King ‘Billy’. His triumph over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne, on 12 July 1690, was a day of particular celebration. The Orange movement worked to promote the continued Protestant ascendancy over Catholicism.

The first lodge was set up in Auckland in 1858, and the movement spread in the 1870s. By the next decade there were 47 lodges under the North Island Grand Lodge, with several thousand members.

The Protestant Political Association

From 1877 the Orange Lodge defended free, secular, compulsory education, and then joined in the movement for Bible in Schools. It also consistently opposed home rule for Ireland. During the First World War, the Irish Easter Rising and local concerns about the exclusion of Catholic seminarians from conscription and the alleged dominance of the civil service by Catholics led to the formation in 1917 of the Protestant Political Association (PPA), in which Orangemen and Irish Protestants were moving forces.

Irish or English?

The Mulgan family history illustrates how Irish Protestants became less ‘Irish’ in New Zealand. They came to Katikati in 1875. W. E. Mulgan was a Church of Ireland clergyman; his grandson Alan Mulgan was born in Katikati. Alan’s mother was the daughter of another Ulster cleric. Yet when Alan was growing up, ‘Ulster was a shadowy place. England and English things were always before my eyes’; and when he went ‘home’ in the 1920s it was to England, not northern Ireland that he journeyed.


Both the Protestant Political Association and the Orange Order faded during the 1920s, the former more quickly than the latter. It would be a mistake to see these two institutions as commanding the loyalty of most Irish Protestants in New Zealand. Because they were part of New Zealand’s Protestant majority, Irish Protestants integrated easily into the wider society. Members of the Church of Ireland disappeared into the Church of England; Presbyterian Ulster Scots were quickly indistinguishable from Scottish Presbyterians.

Political leadership

The Irish Protestants’ political loyalty to the British Empire rather than to Ireland quickly melded into New Zealand attitudes. Some Irish Protestants became leaders in the expression of New Zealand’s identity within the empire. John Ballance, who had migrated from County Antrim, became premier in 1890. William Ferguson Massey, who had migrated from Ulster as a teenager and who had been Orange Lodge Grand Master in 1892, led New Zealand through the First World War and helped define its role within the empire.

Massey’s huge memorial at Point Halswell overlooking Wellington Harbour does not even bother to note his place of birth at Limavady, in County Londonderry.

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Ireland, or after 1921 the two separate parts of Ireland.


  • 1858 census: 4,554
  • 1901 census: 43,524

Northern Ireland

  • 1951 census: 8,817
  • 1976 census: 9,694
  • 2001 census: 4,095
  • 2006 census: 4,776
  • 2013 census: 4,710

Republic of Ireland

  • 1951 census: 6,423
  • 1976 census: 5,622
  • 2001 census: 6,726
  • 2006 census: 6,888
  • 2013 census: 9,042

Ireland (undefined)

  • 1951 census: 1,932
  • 1976 census: 1,877

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Irish: 12,651 (2006); 14,193 (2013)

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Irish', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Jock Phillips, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005, updated 1 o Māehe 2015