Celebrating with the “Peg Leg” Brosnahans

Just before Christmas I was thrilled to receive a phone call from Tim Brosnahan in Timaru, inviting me to attend a reunion of the “Peg Leg” Brosnahans at the end of December in my capacity as Ceann Fine.  This is a regular event, held every few years, for the descendants of John “Peg Leg” Brosnahan and Hanorah Driscoll (or O’Driscoll).  It took place at Raincliff, not far from Pleasant Point and the location where I launched my book The Kerrytown Brosnahans at a similar reunion for my family back in 1992.

I have always been fascinated by this particular branch of the South Canterbury Brosnahans for several reasons.  The first is that when I began secondary school at St Pat’s in Timaru in 1976, there were eight boys with the surname Brosnahan among a school roll of just 216.  That made it the most common surname in the school and saw the old Kerrytown joke revived in the school’s satirical magazine The Mickey Doo Press that “if you throw a stone over the fence you would hit either a cow or a Brosnahan”.  Yet of the eight St Pat’s Brosnahans, only one – my first cousin Mark – was clearly related to me.  The other six were all descendants of “Peg Leg” and the relationship between us was quite uncertain.  It was a similar situation among the girls at the complementary Catholic secondary for girls, Mercy College.  There, Brosnahans at six, came in second behind the Scotts (9) as the most common surname, tied with the O’Connors, also six, and just ahead of the Dalys, Gallaghers and Sullivans who all had five girls at Mercy.  The Irish roots of South Canterbury’s Catholic population were obviously still pretty evident among my generation.

“Peg Leg” Brosnahan also fascinated me because there were only two John Brosnahans among the original generation who emigrated to South Canterbury from County Kerry and the other one was my great grandfather, John Hugh Brosnahan (or Sean Hugh as he was known).  I can remember being very excited as a History student in my first year of Masters at Canterbury University when we were being shown a bunch of reference sources for Canterbury history and I came across an entry in the 1905 Cyclopedia of New Zealand: Volume 4 Canterbury for John Brosnahan of Levels.   Since that was where my great grandfather farmed, I felt sure this was a reference to him.  In fact, it was to the “other” John and I was just a little disappointed when I realised this.

When I began my research into the Brosnahans and other pioneer Kerry immigrants to South Canterbury, I quickly discovered that John “Peg Leg” Brosnahan was a key figure in the initial Kerry group who began the link to South Canterbury, and that he had close ties to my Brosnahans who were part of the same group.  John came to South Canterbury in 1862 on a ship called the Echunga.  He was accompanied by his sister Margaret as well as a number of other Kerry folk, including Patrick Brosnahan from my extended family group and the Hoare family.  Given the lack of migrant recruiting for New Zealand in Kerry at this time, the arrival of such a substantial group from that area to South Canterbury is pretty firm evidence of ties to an earlier migrant or migrants who must have passed on details of the place to their people at home in Kerry.  It seems almost certain that this was Richard Hoare who had come out a few years earlier to Otago and then made his way to South Canterbury and work on the Levels estate.  Both Patrick and John Brosnahan must have known the Hoares in Kerry and in each case became tied to them later through marriage in the colony when my John’s sister Mary married Denis Hoare and John “Peg Leg” Brosnahan’s daughter married Denis’s son Patrick.

Quite apart from the close interweaving of the family lines that such a marriage involved (typical of the Kerrytown families), the shared journey as pioneers to South Canterbury suggests pre-existing connections in County Kerry.  That becomes even more certain when you see that the next link in the migration chain also involved members of both families.  This was on the barque Rachel which came to Timaru in 1865 and carried amongst a very small complement of immigrant passengers my Patrick Brosnahan’s siblings Hugh and Mary, and John Peg Leg and Margaret Brosnahan’s parents James and Mary Brosnan (yes, he spelt his surname differently to his son) and their remaining siblings. So a second set of inter-connected migrants. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be possible now to reconstruct exactly what their relationship might have been, whether familial, neighbours or just friends.  Nonetheless, I am sure that we are closely connected. So it was lovely to meet up with some of those Brosnahans from my school days and share a bit of our clan history with them in a very convivial atmosphere.


John “Peg Leg” Brosnahan’s descendants, Raincliff, 27 December 2017

As for the nickname “Peg Leg”, it’s a straightforward reference to John’s losing a leg in a carting accident after which he made do with a wooden replacement.  You can actually see the “peg leg” in the photograph of John and his extended family on his 60th wedding anniversary that is in a new gallery I have added for photos from this branch of the Brosnahans.  Here is a close-up:

The peg leg

Maggie Gaffaney, descended from John’s sister Margaret who was also on the Echunga and who married Michael Gaffaney in South Canterbury, has put together a substantial amount of material about the Peg Leg Brosnahans on her blog Iwikiwi so if this is your family, or you just find the Kerrytown story interesting, check it out:

The Brosnahans of Temuka series

Tim Brosnahan also send me some relevant references from 19th-century newspapers, one of which provides further indications of the mesh of connections between the various Brosnahan families at Kerrytown.  This is an account of the farewell held for John and Hannah when they retired from their Levels farm to Temuka in 1907, published in the Temuka Leader newspaper of 8 August that year.  Here are some excerpts that refer to John’s success in the colony but also the early days in South Canterbury, chain migration and suggest another close link with the Jeremiah Brosnahan family:


On Tuesday evening a very pleasant gathering took place at Mr John Brosnahan’s, Arowhenua, the occasion being a “send off’’ and presentation to Mr and Mrs Brosnahan, who after nearly 50 years’ residence on a farm at Arowhenua, were about to retire and live in Temuka. There was a large attendance, friends from all parts of the district coming to do honour to the guests of the evening. A splendid spread was provided, and the chair was occupied by Mr. W. Barry, on his right being the guests of the evening, Mr and Mrs John Brosnahan, and on his left Mr Jeremiah Brosnahan.

After the toast of “The King” had been loyally honoured, the chairman proposed the toast of “Our Guests, Mr and Mrs Brosnahan,” who were leaving the Arowhenua district, although they were not going far away. Mr Brosnahan had practically finished his life’s work – having provided a farm for each of his five sons, and each of which farms would be good work for an average man to acquire in a lifetime – and was going to live in quiet retirement in Temuka. Mr Brosnahan’s success showed that he was possessed of good business ability; but Mrs Brosnahan had been a very good helpmeet, and unless the family had worked as they had done with their parents they would not be in the position they are in today. It was very creditable to all, and was an object lesson to young persons in the district to work together, and put all their earnings “into one pot”. (Applause). It they did so they would soon have a pot of their own. Residents knew of the hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Brosnahan, and they would be greatly missed at Arowhenua …

Mr John Fitzgerald in responding said it was true he was one of the old identities, and thanked them for coupling his name with the toast. He gave a few of his reminiscences; in the old days when they went to Timaru, they knew everyone there, but now when they went there, there were very few they knew. Large numbers of persons had settled there, and this was what had made the place prosperous.Mr John Fitzgerald said when his ship arrived in Timaru one of those on board exclaimed what fine wheat – alluding to the tussocks. They had not been long there before the Magistrate, Mr Woollcombe, came aboard and advised them to come ashore at Timaru, as it was a much better place than Christchurch. He believed Mr Woollcombe was right, but he unfortunately went on to Christchurch. In those days they did not have wood or brick houses, but sod, and the roof was thatch, not iron, and they sewed it with flax. In some places after heavy rain they would see the gable end of their house fall in, but they put it right and battled on (Applause).

Mr Driscoll said he was glad to see so many present to wish Mr and Mrs Brosnahan happiness. It was 40 years since he came to Levels plains, and Mr Brosnahan was there shortly before him. There was no Temuka then, and a man had to go a long way to get work. Mr Brosnahan settled down here and did well. In those days the rivers were unbridged, and it took a man about four days to go to Christchurch. In these days a young man if he wanted to go to the Exhibition or to Temuka jumped on to his bicycle and took the train to Christchurch and was soon there and back. In the old days Mr Brosnahan had to walk to Temuka, but nothing daunted him and other old settlers, and they had succeeded, he wished Mr and Mrs Brosnahan every success. …

Mr John Fitzgerald said he had much pleasure on behalf of many friends in presenting Mr and Mrs Brosnahan with the handsome and valuable sideboard that stood in the adjoining room. He knew them before they came to New Zealand, and was shipmates with them. They were at Arowhenua before him. They were always good neighbours and ever ready with good advice and assistance. Mr Brosnahan and his sister, Mrs Gaffaney, were the first of the settlers, and it was no doubt owing to their letters home that so many came here from the old land, and when they arrived they had his advice and help. He never shut the door on any man. He had much pleasure on behalf of their friends in making the presentation to Mr and Mrs Brosnahan, and wished them all future happiness. (Applause).

Mr Jere. Brosnahan said he had lived close to Mr and Mrs Brosnahan for about 35 or 40 years, and had received much kindness from them. When he was ill they had been particularly kind, and Mrs Brosnahan had gone and lived with his wife for a couple of months while he was in the hospital, and he would never forget it.

Mr John Connell said he met Mr Brosnahan the day he landed, 41 years ago, in Timaru. He had been a friend of himself and his wife and children, and he could never forget it. But of all the praise they had said for Mr Brosnahan, he must say a word for Mrs Brosnahan, and that she was the best of the two. (Applause)…

A great deal of credit is due to Mr and Mrs Jere[miah]. Brosnahan for the trouble they took in making the arrangements for the presentation and send-off.”


One comment on “Celebrating with the “Peg Leg” Brosnahans

  1. Tim Brosnahan says:

    I just love all the toasts that were made…”Other toasts honoured were “Local Bodies” (proposed by Mr. Angland and responded to by the chairman) ; “The Single Ladies” (proposed by Mr. Frank Connell and responded to by Mr. Matt. Brosnahan) ; “The Married Ladies ’ (proposed by Mr. Pat. Hoare and responded to by Mr. P. Mitten) ; “ Mr. and Mrs. Tom Brosnahan, the next occupiers of the Farm” (proposed by Mr. D. Angland, and responded to in the absence of Mr. T. Brosnahan by Messrs Matthew and Michael Brosnahan) ; Mr. Matthew Brosnahan” ; ” The Press ” (proposed by Mr. F. Connell and responded to by Mr. Bambridgc, Temuka Leader) ; “The Misses D. and K. Brosnahan” (proposed by Mr. Jere. Brosnahan, and responded to by Mr. Thomson) ; ‘‘The Chairman” (proposed by Mr. Jere. Brosnahan, and responded to by the chairman). Songs were sung by Mr. Dan. Angland (“Rolling Home to Dear Old Ireland”), Mr. John Spillane (“Trying so hard to Forget”), Mr. Pat. Hoare (“The Green Fields of New Zealand”), Mr. Michael Brosnahan, Mr. Sam Coughlan (“My Irish Molly”), and others. The speeches and songs were good, and a very pleasant time was spent until about 11.30, when “Auld Lang Syne” brought the proceedings to a close.”

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