New beginning in ethnic history, Rory Sweetman

Half the World from Home: Perspectives on the Irish in New Zealand 1860-1950,
Donald Harman Akenson,
Victoria University Press, Wellington, 1990, $39.95

Since the pioneering efforts of Richard Davis in the late 1960s the New Zealand Irish have been largely ignored by historians in this country. This stands in sharp contrast to developments across the Tasman, where a veritable industry has grown up around the subject. Unfortunately, it has left the treasury of Irish historical experience to be ransacked by those with present political purposes in mind. The romantic and colourful tale of Irish diggers, police, priests and publicans has also been a journalistic goldmine. It is to be hoped that Half the World from Home will mark a new beginning for the serious study of our ethnic history, an exploration which goes beyond the current obsession with the Maori-Pakeha relationship.

Author of a distinguished body of writing on Ireland’s religious and educational history, Akenson employs a wide variety of techniques in his pursuit of the New Zealand Irish: demographic and literary analysis, institutional history, community studies, and biographical sketches. The reader emerges with a deeper appreciation of the complexity of both Irish and New Zealand societies. Akenson complains of ‘the lumping of all white settlers into a spurious unity’. He traces the Irish immigrants back to smallholdings in Munster and to troubled settlements on the Ulster border, and explores the linkage with their New Zealand experiences. Their stereotype as ‘a colourful and troublesome lot’ is explained in terms of Irish history and the demographic profile of the Vogel-era arrivals.

The Irish arrived here early enough and in sufficient strength to prevent their effective exclusion. Colonial opportunities were eagerly grasped – ‘the Irish, immigrant and colonial, were in just about everything, just about everywhere’. Once the difficult first years were over, the immigrants and their descendants soon reverted to dead-centre normality. Far from being ghettoised they were widely dispersed geographically and in all occupational categories. Akenson dissects Dan Davin’s writings for their historical content, as ‘one of the very few windows we have on the attitudes, beliefs and customs of a significant ethnic group’. He balances Davin with John Mulgan, the inheritor of a rival Irish tradition. The Protestant Irish share much with their Catholic counterparts; subject to mild discrimination and equally ignored in New Zealand history. Akenson estimates persons of Irish ethnicity as some 20-25 % of New Zealand’s population, with the Protestants making up more than one quarter of this figure. As his study of the Katikati settlement shows, the latter were the perfect colonists, settling comfortably into a New Zealand identity and leaving few traces on the historic record.

Church, school and Irish nationalism enabled the Catholic Irish to remain ‘a people just slightly apart’, the Catholic religion acting as a ‘boundary maintenance system’ between the latter and the rest of society. Akenson argues persuasively that the Irish takeover of New Zealand Catholicism meant the inevitable adoption of a separate education system. He offers the provocative interpretation of the 1875 Education Act as a complete capitulation to the century-old Catholic demand for state aid. The uncomfortable fact remains that when the Irish Catholics were least distinctive in terms of census profile (1916-21), ethnic division and sectarian conflict was at an unprecedented level. The contagion of Irish politics, and war and post-war weariness, partly explains this seeming paradox. Also, there is what Patrick O’Farrell calls an ‘affronted consciousness of full belonging’ on the part of New Zealand-born Irish who resented the questioning of their patriotism. They stood by their right to maintain a dual allegiance (to Ireland and New Zealand), just as their critics cheered first for Britain. Historians need to devote more attention to what might be termed the ‘Ward-Massey’ era. It is surely significant that biographies have yet to be written of either of these political leaders, equally’ Irish’ in their way.

Akenson is modest about his achievements; his book is ‘not the end of a search, but the beginning’. However, future historians will have no excuses for ignoring the Irish, or any other ethnic groups. He makes the point that during most of its national history the majority of New Zealand’s population has been first, second or third generation ethnics. What were the implications of the majority of New Zealand’s 19th-century immigrants arriving here via Australia? How far should New Zealand history be written solely in terms of events in these islands? Akenson pleads for a closer study of our ethnic self-definitions, ‘the subordinate clauses in the grammar of New Zealand’s national identity’. This book raises almost as many questions as it answers, but they are questions that needed asking.


Rory Sweetman was the first National Library Research Fellow in 1988.


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