Remembering New Zealand’s ‘fenians’

Here in New Zealand, the Irish dimension of our history does not get too much attention, except on the odd occasion. One of those was a conference back in 2016 organised by Professor Peter Kuch, at that time the Professor of Irish Studies (the Eamonn Cleary Chair) at the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago. It was to mark the centennial of the Easter Rising, that watershed event leading to Irish independence. Unlike most such conferences at that time, this one was focussed on the New Zealand angle – how did reactions to the Rising play out in New Zealand that was then mid-way through a devastating war. Professor Kuch ensured that the conference catered to a wide public audience by making attendance free and we had a full house on both of its two days. I was privileged to work with Peter in a modest way on the conference, which was held at Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, my place of work.

Peter also attracted a very high calibre of presenters, with contributors traveling from England, Ireland and Australia to deliver papers. This made for a fascinating couple of days for those of us lucky enough to attend. Then, in reflecting on what had been on offer, Peter decided to draw some of the papers from the conference together and publish them as an academic book. This would ensure that the valuable new insights delivered at the conference weren’t lost to time but would be available to scholars and interested readers around the world ever after. But, what a job to take on! Organising a bunch of academics – getting them to deliver their finished chapters on time for instance – is apparently worse than herding cats. And finding an academic publisher to take on the project was also a real challenge. But Peter persevered, and now (four years later!), the book from the Cork University Press is out and available.*

One of the chapters is by me, a reworking of my work on New Zealand’s ‘fenian’ families and how they reacted to the Rising and especially their resistance to war service on behalf of the British Crown as a reflection of their Irish, and usually Republican, identities. I undertook the research for this over many years and was lucky to have the opportunity to speak to many elderly people who have since passed on, who were the children of some of those WWI New Zealand Irish resisters. Some of those men went to jail for their principles, others fled overseas by clandestine means, or hid out in isolated spots around New Zealand. It’s pretty interesting stuff, even if I say so myself, and I am quite proud to have had the chance to add these stories to the published history of Irishness in New Zealand.

The 1916 Proclamation that began the Easter Rising

One of the individual stories I touch on just briefly in my chapter in the book is that of Tim Brosnan, a very defiant objector to war service because of his Sinn Fein affiliation, who went to jail after being caught on the run in Southland in August 1917. Tim (Timothy Michael) was from Knockeenagowan, Co Kerry, born in 1882 to Timothy and Mary Brosnan, with five older siblings. He came to New Zealand somewhere around 1910 and married Mary Corbett from Co Clare in March 1916. He was thus a relatively recent arrival from Co Kerry compared to most of the Brosnans/Brosnahans then living in New Zealand, and that meant that he had absorbed the political changes that had taken place in Ireland in the intervening years since the immigrants of the 1860s and 1870s had left.

Tim and Mary Brosnan, resolute Sinn Feiners

He had been working as a navvy, a roading contractor at Utiku just south of Taihape, when his name came up in the ballot after conscription was introduced for New Zealand men at the end of 1916. Tim’s political beliefs would not permit him to serve the English King so, like many similarly inclined New Zealand Irishmen, he went underground instead. He was caught five months later, working as a labourer at Limehills in far away Southland. After stints in detention in Dunedin and Wellington, and defiantly refusing to go into uniform, he went on trial at Trentham and had a chance to proclaim his beliefs: “I said I was an Irishman, a Sinn Feiner and refused to fight for a country that had prosecuted and murdered my country and my people for hundreds of years.” 

Found guilty, Tim got the standard punishment for “defiant objectors”; two years in jail with hard labour. But time in jail did nothing to cool his Republican ardour. Supported by his wife, Mary, “also a Sinn Feiner”, his letters to family members in Queensland from prison were subsequently intercepted by military censors in Australia who were shocked by their contents. Because of those letters, Tim gets a whole chapter to himself in another book on New Zealand’s WWI history published last year, Dead Letters: censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920 by Jared Davidson.* Jared is an archivist at National Archives in Wellington and uncovered a series of censored letters from the war that had been preserved there, including those by Tim Brosnan. These form the basis of his excellent book.

Here’s an excerpt from one of them, written to Tim’s sister Maggie in Brisbane, Australia (one of a number of his siblings who were in Queensland):

Dear sister Maggie … you know how long ago I was sentenced to two years hard labor in a New Zealand prison, because I would not shame my good parents name or become a traitor to my country, by donning a uniform and taking an oath of allegiance to fight and die for my greatest enemy and oppressor and tyrant of my native land …”

The Brisbane military censor wrote to his New Zealand counterparts that Tim’s correspondence was of a type that “would inflame the disloyalty rampant in North Queensland”. He pointedly suggested that “there should be some supervision of the writings of men of this type.”

Another jailed Irish resister that I didn’t have room to include in my account is one who turned out to have a very personal connection. His name was Dan Brosnan and once I began doing some research on his Irish origins I discovered that he was one of the Dromulton Brosnans, the very same family that I met on my first trip to Kerry in 1986. Tom Brosnan and his sister Rose McAuliffe were able to tell me his background and supply this photograph.

Dan Brosnan of Dromulton and Rotorua

Dan was a step-brother of their grandfather Tom ‘Peats’ Thade Brosnan.  The family knew that he had left for New Zealand, sometime between the 1901 and 1911 censuses of Ireland, and that he had a farm in Rotorua but that is all the information they had.  Dan maintained correspondence with the family for some time as they have a couple of photos of him, including one of the house he lived in in Dromulton and another of his mother.

Tom and Rose’s grandfather, Tom ‘Peats’ Thade Brosnan was born in 1879 the son of Patrick ‘Peats’ Brosnan and Nora Galvin. Nora died shortly after childbirth and Peats remarried Elly Lawlor of Ballinahalla, Castleisland parish, and they had Dan in 1885.  The family don’t know why Dan left Ireland (some of his sisters had gone to America). It may have been for straightforward economic reasons, or it may have been that he’d gotten into some trouble at home. The Dromulton Brosnans were involved with nationalist activity in this period, including Tom Peats Thade Brosnan drilling the Irish Volunteers in Killeentierna parish in the early 1900s, prior to the 1916 Rising. Likewise Humphrey Murphy of Ballybeg, near Dromulton, who was the leader of the IRA in Kerry in the 1920s, was a connection – his mother was a Brosnan from Ballybeg, the same Brosnans as the Dromulton family – so as Tom reported to me “there was quite a rebellious streak in the family.”

Daniel was working as a farm labourer at Manunui, near Taumaranui, in 1917 when he was called up for war service. He had also worked at Matata, on the coast east of Rotorua. His service record notes that he had a cousin, Michael Lawlor in Gore, so that may be what drew him to New Zealand, as well no doubt as the residual knowledge in Kerry of all those emigrants from the earlier period who had come here. It also records that he had been in New Zealand for six years at the time of his conscription in July 1917. Unlike Tim Brosnan, Dan never went on the run, he simply refused to serve when called upon to do so. He was arrested and the record says “will not fight for England”, as the basis of his objection. The result was the same: two years jail with hard labour after a court martial at Trentham military camp in January 1918. After the war, an additional punishment was added for all those who had stood firm in their resistance to military service, ten years loss of civil rights, such as being able to vote, or to seek employment with the government.

Tim Brosnan had two children with Mary after his release form prison but didn’t have a long life. My information on his wartime experience and what came after owes a lot to his descendant, Veronica O’Grady, who made contact a few years ago. Dan Brosnan, on the other hand, never married and has no descendants. Family in Kerry lost track of him as the years passed and it was good to be able to inform them that Dan in buried in Rotorua, having died there in 1970 aged 84. I don’t think he has a headstone and few people have probably visited his grave. I certainly intend to should I find myself in Rotorua but if anyone reading this blog is from that area here are the details of his plot in the cemetery. It would be nice to hear of a visit to remember this long-forgotten member of the Brosnan clan who was obviously a man of principle with the courage to stand up for what he believed in.

*Unfortunately books by academic publishers seem to be very expensive. New Zealand’s Responses to the Easter Rising is selling for €39.00 in Ireland and NZ$75 on Book Depository with free shipping to New Zealand. Dead Letters can be purchased in New Zealand for NZ$31-$35.

Remembering the last pandemic

Today, Anzac Day in New Zealand, has been a day of commemoration like no other.  Rather than gather together en masse at the cenotaph for the Dawn Service, we had to stand alone in our ‘bubble’ groups at the letterbox at 6am and make what we could of the occasion.  These peculiar circumstances were, of course, caused by the global coronavirus pandemic and the extreme lockdown measures the New Zealand government has taken to wipe out the infection before it can cause even more illness and death than it has.  That situation put me of a mind to remember in a special way this morning my grandfather, Daniel Brosnahan, who in October 1918 returned from his war service in Palestine, recuperating from the bullet wound to his ankle suffered during the second battle of Amman that had put paid to his active service.  Along the way, like many of our soldiers overseas, he had apparently been struck down with the influenza contagion that was to follow the troops home and wreak a deadly toll on New Zealand at the end of 1918.


Three cousins off to war: Daniel Brosnahan, Michael Scannell and Charles Scannell.

That meant that, having recovered, he had immunity from the deadly disease, so when his sister Mary (Molly) and her husband John Joseph Long were infected, the family story is that grandad nursed them.  To be honest, that is a little hard to imagine, but I hope he was able to provide some real comfort to them in what was an even more terrifying situation than the one we face in 2020.  The Spanish ‘flu swept the world over a 36-month cycle, infecting something like a third of the global population or 500 million people.  Estimates of the death toll vary from 17 to 50 million, and could even be higher, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in history.  In New Zealand it claimed over 9,000 lives in just two months – a horrible postscript to the death toll of war that had cost the country 18,000 over the previous four years.  And unlike coronavirus, which seems to be most dangerous for older people and those with pre-existing health conditions, the Spanish flu’ seems to have struck hardest at young and healthy people in 1918.  It must have been absolutely terrifying to live through.

Mary Brosnahan has married John Joseph Long at Pleasant Point Catholic Church just three months earlier.  Jack Kelliher, one of my elderly relations who was a valuable informant in writing The Kerrytown Brosnahans,  and who held my great-aunt Molly in great esteem told me that he had been an altar server for the ceremony.  He remembered  that it had snowed as the bridal couple came out of the church even though it was a Spring wedding.  We can only hope that the newly weds enjoyed some brief spell of marital bliss for, although Molly surveyed the ‘flu, her husband did not.  John Joseph Long, a 33-year-old labourer from Pareora East, died at Timaru hospital on 27 November 1918.  There doesn’t appear to have been a Requiem Mass but there was some sort of public ceremony (unlike for us in 2020’s pandemic) as his friends were invited to join the body on its journey from the hospital to the nearby cemetery next day.

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Poor old Aunty Molly, a widow at 31.  It was to be a long widowhood too – she never remarried and didn’t join John in their plot in Timaru cemetery until 54 years later, in 1972 aged 85.  I was ten at that time and remember Molly with some fondness.  She had spent some of her last months living at our home in Rhodes Street Timaru, looked after by my parents during part of her final illness.  She was a real delight to have in the house and it was a distinct sadness to our family that her elderly sister insisted on taking her into her home just before Molly died.  I can remember an anecdote shared by my school teacher of the time, Mrs McGrath, who happened to live out on the Levels and had been a long-time neighbour to the Brosnahan siblings – Hugh, Molly, Deborah and Hannah – who lived together in the old family property there.  Coming to the countryside as a young woman she had been terrified by herds of huge cows on the road but she remembered how Molly, a tiny woman in physique, had marched blithely among them slapping rumps and driving them on.

17. Hannah and Molly Brosnahan at John Hugh Brosnahan's house at Levels, near Kerrytown.

Hannah and Molly Brosnahan at John Hugh Brosnahan’s house at Levels, near Kerrytown.

I share another link with Jack Kelliher in relation to Molly Long – I was an altar server at her Requiem Mass in 1972.  It was my first time acting in that role too and I remember making a significant error that annoyed my grandfather greatly.  At the end of the ceremony, I had the job of standing at the foot of the coffin holding the cross as the asperges and incense ceremonies were performed.  Unfortunately I stood facing the wrong way – towards the exit rather than the coffin – and grandad Dan hissed at me repeatedly sotto voce “Turn around” with that peculiar slightly Irish-accented voice of his.  Alas, I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about and stood frozen in place and completely confused.  I’m sure Aunty Molly wouldn’t have minded but it was a mistake I never repeated in the hundreds of funerals I served at subsequently.



19th-century assisted immigrants to Canterbury from County Kerry

This post is an experiment.  I have always wanted to use this blog as a forum to share my research, particularly on New Zealand Brosnahans and others who came here from County Kerry.  Unfortunately quite a bit of my old research material has been lost over the years with software upgrades that left old documents unable to be accessed.  In this case, however, I have recently been able to convert an old Clarisworks spreadsheet to Excel and so I thought I would see if the information it contains would be of any use to researchers.  It relates to 19th-century immigrants from County Kerry who took advantage of assisted passages provided by the Canterbury Province in the first instance, and then subsequently by the colonial government.  I had access to microfilms of the original passenger lists for a time in the early 1990s and took the opportunity to extract data on all those listed who had County Kerry as their place of origin.

The passenger lists generally contain names, ages, occupations, county of origin, the part of the ship the immigrant was housed (family quarters, or single men’s and single women’s quarters respectively).  In some cases there are additional notations for “nominated” passengers on who already in Canterbury had put their name forward for assisted passage.  I also indicate in my “Group” column where passengers were grouped together, usually with other family members but also groups of friends.  These bits of information can be useful in making connections between people that have long been forgotten by their descendants.  It also happens reconstitute family groups when the teenage members were moved from the daily quarters to the single men or single women’s areas as was standard practice on immigrant ships.  I hope the details are accurate but no guarantees.  Incorrect data, such as the spelling of names, is as per the lists.  Thus my great great grandparents and their family are listed as “Brosman” rather than Brosnahan.

I did find on checking the lists that the date of arrival column had become corrupted somehow so I re-entered this data against the original entries on the passenger lists and hopefully have got each one correct.  The good thing is that anyone can now access this material online via the Mormon Church’s genealogical site Family Search. You need to sign up to do this but there is no cost and it does not lead to any further harassment by way of emails like most such sites do.  Once registered, there are lots of useful resources you can access, including New Zealand immigration information from National Archives 1839-1973.  This source is searchable by name and takes you to online facsimiles of the original passenger lists (the same source that I used to make up my spreadsheet).  If you find someone on my list therefore, I’d recommend going back to the original source to double-check my data entry.

I have a few other sources like this that I will also share if this works.  So here goes:

Canterbury Assisted Immigrants from Kerry alphabetically

Canterbury Assisted Immigrants from Kerry by arrival date

The PDFs will appear on screen with quite fine print but should still be legible if you blow them up a bit.  Almost all of the ships docked in Lyttelton but the Echunga  also called at Timaru.  The abbreviations should mostly be obvious but just ask if you can’t understand something, and remember you can access the original source to check it for yourself.


Southland’s Little Galway

A couple of weekends ago I travelled to Invercargill for the celebration of the 125th anniversary of St Patrick’s church in nearby Rakauhauka.  My great-great-grandparents William and Annie Scully lived across the road from the church and actually gave the land that it stands on to the Bishop of Dunedin in 1894.  On the church’s centenary in 1994 I was invited to be the guest speaker at a centennial dinner.


Speaking at the centennial in 1994

On that occasion my parents accompanied me to the events, my mother Helen Scully being a proud descendant of William and Annie.  Since then my mother has died but on being invited back to Southland to speak at the church’s 125th celebration I was delighted to have my father still with me at 88 years of age.


With Dad at the 125th dinner, 2019


St Patrick’s Church, Rakauhauka

The Galway-descended people of Southland share a similar story of chain migration to the people of Kerrytown, the main difference being their points of origin in Ireland.  I have written quite a bit about these people who include four of my great-great grandparents.  All of those writings – including my 125th anniversary speech – can be found on the “My Articles” pages of this website.  Their story will also feature in the documentary project  I described in my last post, which will take us to Galway as well as Kerry to chronicle the way in which these two chain migrations got started and the impact they had on Southland and South Canterbury respectively.

One of the big breakthroughs of recent times has been the development of “reverse genealogy” through websites like Ireland Reaching Out through which diasporic Irish descendants all around the world can get in touch with people in their ancestral parishes of origin.  This makes such a huge difference to researching from afar because the “home people” have unique insights and knowledge on the ground to share.  I found this particularly useful in preparing my recent speech and want to thank Irene McGoldrick and Paul Greaney in Annaghdown for their help and advice.  I would exhort anyone wanting to do Irish research to sign up with Ireland Reaching Out and register your interests with the appropriate parishes.

Meanwhile, the weekend’s events in Invercargill and Rakauhauka were tremendous and it was a real privilege to be part of it all.  Having Dad with me was a huge bonus and meeting up with Scully cousins as well as descendants of so many other Annaghdown families was a great pleasure.  It’s going to be a real thrill to travel to Annaghdown next year, meet up with the locals, and walk the ground at Clonboo where William and Annie Scully grew up.  Hopefully we’ll be able to spin that into a story with wider significance to all the other families from Annaghdown and neighbouring parishes who were part of the Galway migration to southern New Zealand.




Back to Kerry in 2020

I know I haven’t written anything on here for 18 months and it has weighed on me. But I finally have some Brosnahan-related news.  In another year’s time – July 2019 –  I hope to be back in Kerry and I’m really looking forward to it.  The reason for the trip is work-related.  I will be travelling with some colleagues from Toitu Otago Settlers Museum as we make a new documentary to be used in museum interpretation.  It is called Journey to New Edinburgh and will focus principally on the pioneer Scots who founded Dunedin and Otago, here in southern New Zealand.  The settlement – originally to be called New Edinburgh – began in 1848 as a Scottish Presbyterian colony and its founders didn’t have much time for Irish Catholics.

In fact they most definitely didn’t want any people from our part (southern Ireland) of the old country joining them in the New World and took care to select new immigrants on national and religious lines to avoid including any Irish papists.  Nonetheless, by the mid-1850s their need for labourers in the colony was so great that the selection criteria was relaxed just a little bit when they send recruiters across to Australia to try and get some more workers.  They were silly enough to include some Irishmen – men from Co Galway as it happens – and no sooner did they reach Otago than they did what so many Irish immigrants seemed to do, they sent home for their friends and relatives to come out to Otago too.  Even better they ‘nominated’ them for assisted passages so that the Otago authorities would pay for their journey.

That set up a migration chain that established a whole interconnected web of families from East Galway in Otago, two sets of my great great grandparents among them.  But the dissemination of news about the Scottish settlement also percolated more widely among Irish people looking to emigrate, such that in 1858 a Kerryman called Richard Hoare boarded one of the Otago-bound ships out of Scotland.  He pretty quickly made his way north across the Waitaki River into the South Canterbury area and secured work on the great Levels Estate working for the Rhodes brothers.  South Canterbury tradition has it that they were so impressed with his capacities as a worker that they encouraged him to invite his friends and relations to come out too.  And so, just like the Galway people in Otago before him, Richard Hoare ‘nominated’ his family in Kerry for assisted passage on one of the earliest immigrant ships to come to Timaru, the Echunga.

When it arrived in 1860 the passengers included  a whole group of Kerry people: Richard’s parents,  Patrick and Catherine Hoare of O’Dorney parish, his brother Dennis, sister Margaret, another sister Mary and her husband John Moore, and an Elizabeth Connor.  Also aboard, though not as assisted passengers, were John (Peg Leg) Brosnahan and his sister Margaret Brosnahan from Aghadoe parish, a little to the south of O’Dorney, and Patrick Brosnahan (the first member of my family to come to New Zealand), from the Ballymacelligott/Currans area in between O’Dorney and Aghadoe. These ten from County Kerry, were the first link in the extensive ‘chain’ of migration from the eastern parishes of Kerry to South Canterbury that saw the establishment of Kerrytown on the fringe of the Levels estate.  These pioneers  were followed by dozens of Kerrymen and women over the next few decades, spreading out across South Canterbury from that original toehold.  By my estimate, something like a third of all the pioneer generation of Irish Catholics in South Canterbury hailed from Co Kerry.

So those are two of the stories we intend to tell in Journey to New Edinburgh, teasing out the longterm implications of that Scottish-Otago connection for the first substantial Irish settlement in both Otago-Southland, and South Canterbury.  We’ll also be doing some stories in the North about some of the Protestant Irish who came to Otago,  and a great tale of a Mayo man who recovered from eviction and poverty on the Erris Peninsula to make his fortune as a roading contractor and publican in Dunedin.  But tracking my family roots in Galway and Kerry is going to be a real highlight for me and I can’t wait to get there, albeit for a flying visit.  Hopefully it will give me a chance to link up with some of the folks who hosted us so hospitably at The Gathering in 2013 and maybe another way to fulfil my ‘office’ as Ceann Fine.

We’re currently doing research, working out itineraries and sourcing funding to make this all happen.  We’ve got lots of support from Scottish groups in Dunedin as well as backing from the Irish and Scottish Studies Centre at the University of Otago and enthusiastic endorsement from the new Irish ambassador to New Zealand, Peter Ryan. With Peter’s appointment as the first ambassador to New Zealand and a new incumbent in the Eamon Cleary Chair of Irish Studies at the university, Professor Sonja Tiernan, things are looking lively for Irish activity in Otago.  Last week we had the launch of an Irish Business Network where both Professor Tiernan and Ambassador Ryan outlined their hopes for promoting Irish culture and history in the south.  The Irish component of Journey to New Edinburgh  will provide some historical context for that as well.  So Kerry, here we come …


Ambassador Peter Ryan calling on Seán Brosnahan at Toitu, Dunedin

Daniel Joseph Brosnahan’s war

One of the unexpected results of my visit to the ‘Peg Leg” Brosnahan family reunion in December 2017 was the gift of a photograph of my grandfather, Daniel Joseph Brosnahan, from his WWI service in the Middle East.  Tim Brosnahan had come across it among his family’s photos and knew it was not “one of ours” and asked me if I knew who it was.  I immediately recognised Grandad and was very grateful when Tim gave me the photograph.  The fact it was in his family’s collection seemed like another indication of the familial links between the Peg Leg Brosnahans and our family.  The photograph shows two members of the 16th (New Zealand) Company of the Imperial Camel Corps to which my grandfather was transferred from the Canterbury Mounted Rifles in October 1916.  His friend was a fellow Lance Corporal in the Company, Robert McSkimming from Patearoa in Otago who was killed in fighting near Jaffa in November 1917.


I wrote a piece for the extended family about my grandfather’s war experience some years ago and I thought I’d add that here – with some edits – to make it more easily accessible to any who were interested.  I will also add a new gallery of a collection of photographs that seem to have been taken by Grandad and that turned up unexpectedly a few years ago.  There are just over 50 images, but quite a few of them are blurry or faded or basically unusable.  I’ve made a selection of the others and put them here as a common resource for the family and as a general indication of the environments in which Grandad and his mates had to operate in Palestine.  It was very tough country and the fighting against the Ottoman Turks was equally tough – as can be seen from the freshly dug graves that feature in some of the photos.

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Grandad’s photos: the freshly dug grave of Lance Corporal John Budge, KIA 13 November 1917.

Freshly dug graves in the desert.


Grandad’s photos: two more freshly dug graves in the desert

Unfortunately we don’t have captions to identify the places or people in the photos and the sequence is a complete guess too.  Nonetheless the photos are a real family treasure, illustrating some of the things Grandad shared with us about his war experiences – like camel racing in the desert – and so worth sharing.

And here is my account of Grandad’s war distributed some years ago at a family reunion of his descendants in 1999:

Grandad’s War

All of us who remember Daniel Brosnahan will recall his pride in his military service during the First World War. Personally, I can remember him telling of his visit to the pyramids in Egypt, of camel racing in the desert and of his gunshot ankle. My Dad recalls a rare anecdote of a midnight rendez-vous in the desert with Arab irregulars led by T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). He was a proud participant in Dawn Parades and the annual Anzac Day commemoration. And of course all of the grandsons were promised Grandad’s gun if they got their haircut to his satisfaction – from which I formed the distinct impression that the .22 rifle in his wardrobe cupboard was THE rifle, as used in the Egyptian desert. So for me at least the war experience was a big part of my mental map of who Grandad Brosnahan was. In researching the Brosnahan family history I used military records to track down a number of the men of the war generations. In doing so I came across a few more details of Grandad’s war which I would like to share with the rest of the family as we gather together in 1999. Reflecting on the reality of his war service underlines how lucky we all are to be here today. Grandad was lucky to survive and might easily have suffered the fate of the two cousins who posed proudly with him in their uniforms in the photograph below. These two brothers, Michael (rear) and Charles Scannell (right), died within days of each other, Michael in action at Messines in June 1917 and Charles soon after from illness in South Africa after an accident on his troopship. So of the three, Daniel alone returned to South Canterbury to live out his natural term of life.


Daniel Joseph Brosnahan enlisted In the New Zealand Army on the 27 March 1916 for the duration of the conflict. He was a 22-year-old farm labourer working for his father John Hugh Brosnahan at Levels. He had some military experience already, under the compulsory military training scheme that saw both he and his older brother Hugh serve as Territorials in the 8th South Canterbury Mounted Rifles in the pre-war years.  His first four months in the army were spent in training in New Zealand. He left as part of the 16th Reinforcements to join the Expeditionary Force in Egypt, disembarking at Suez from the SS Mooltan on 21 September 1916. He was destined to become part of the Imperial Camel Corps, a composite force of soldiers from throughout the British Empire who were to use camels for long range operations in the hostile environment of the desert. Accordingly he spent the next few months at Abbassia on the outskirts of Cairo where he learnt how to handle and care for a camel.

Some of Grandad’s photos – he is circled in red where he appears

In January 1917 he was posted to the 16th (New Zealand) Company of the Imperial Camel Corps at Port Said.   He was in the field from 1 October 1917 and on 1 December was promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal. He then spent a short time at the School of Instruction at the Ferry Post. His military record gives few clues as to what he was involved with until it records his wounding on 30 March 1918. This gives us a fix on where he was and with whom. And as luck would have it, a book With the Cameliers in Palestine was published in Dunedin in 1938 by one of New Zealand officers of the I.C.C., Major John Robertson. This provides some very useful detail of the action in which Grandad took his wound – the raid on Amman by Shea’s Group in late March 1918.

The raid on Amman (now the capital of Jordan) was part of an attack on the Hejaz railway on the high land east of the Jordan River. It aimed at the destruction of a railway tunnel and viaduct at Amman to disrupt Turkish communication lines with their base. The raiding party was under the command of Major-General Shea and known as “Shea’s Group”. It was made up of the Anzac Mounted Division, the 60th Infantry Division and the Imperial Camel Brigade. Amman was just 30 miles east of Jericho which had recently been recaptured by the Anzacs, but it stood on a plateau 3,500 feet above sea level. There were no bridges across the Jordan river and no passable roads beyond it. A pontoon bridge was strung across the Jordan after a small group of soldiers had swum across the river under cover of night on March 22.

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Grandad’s photo: possibly of the Jordan river crossing on 22 March 1918

The river crossing was a bit of a nightmare. The pontoon bridge had been strung across in less than eight hours, in the dark and under heavy fire from the Turks who were well positioned in tamarisk trees along the river bank. The river was swollen and discoloured, tall trees on either side cut off the view while dead Turks and British casualties still littered the river bank. Each Camelier had one unwilling camel in front and a second even more unwilling beast behind him. The sound of artillery and machine gun fire could be heard not far ahead.   The Cameliers pushed on across the river and up into the foothills, halting by the Wadi Kefrein in the afternoon. Worse was to come.

The next evening the Cameliers left their camp at Talat ed Dumm on the Judean hills and marched all night down the steep mountain road, through Jericho and across the Jordan Valley to within half a mile of the northern shore of the Dead Sea.  At 6pm on 23 March the Cameliers mounted and rode up the wadi. As they entered the hills it began to rain and soon the track became a slippery quagmire. The country soon proved too difficult for the force’s artillery support, which was forced to retreat – its absence to be keenly felt in the battle ahead. The party was to climb over 4000 feet (its point of departure by the Dead Sea being almost 1300 feet below sea level) up steep rocky mountain sides. Camels were not designed to follow the steep, and now muddy, goat tracks being used and had to be driven hard by their riders. All night they struggled on through the dark and rain and mud. When dawn broke they found themselves atop a mountain plateau but the mist and cloud prevented any view of their surroundings. On they pushed with frequent stops as animals fell and blocked the track. Through the day and into the next night they struggled on, the rain and mud seemingly without end. At daybreak the next day the rain finally ceased, the countryside opened up and at midday a halt was called. After a quick meal those not on duty turned in and slept until well into the next morning – after 80 hours strenuous travel since their last sleep.

DJB 30

Grandad’s photo: maybe of the climb up through the mountain tracks on 23-24 March 1918

The Fourth Battalion of the Imperial Camel Corps was despatched to demolish part of the Turkish railway, blowing up five miles of track between Libben and Kissir, before rejoining the right flank of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles for its attack on the Turkish position at Amman.

DJB 46

Grandad’s photo: possibly of the Hejaz railway that was the object of the raid

They were subjected to attack after attack on the 28 and 29 March but held these off and gradually advanced toward Hill 3039 overlooking the town of Amman. At 1.30am on the 30th they advanced on the hill over a flat tableland of about half a mile, driving the Turks from their positions at the point of the bayonet. A second advance carried them to the crest of the hill overlooking the town where the only protection was from whatever stones and rocks could be gathered together – the soil was too shallow for the digging of trenches.

DJB 52

Grandad’s photo: I.C.C. cameleers in action

All day long this exposed line was subjected to heavy fire from Turkish artillery and machine-guns and counter-attack after counter-attack from the Turks. The 16th New Zealand Company (including Lance Corporal DJ Brosnahan) was on the extreme right flank and one Turkish advance advanced almost to the muzzles of their rifles. Lieutenant Crawford of the 16th moved out openly to direct his men and was struck down, Lieutenants Thorby and Adolph led charge after charge until mortally wounded. Corporal MacMillan of the Lewis Gun Section was seen advancing and firing from his hip until he too fell. Trooper McConnell, one of the regular packmen, had a supply of bombs and throw them with deadly efefct until he too fell pierced with bullets. “The same spirit animated the whole Company, and the enemy was held off till darkness fell.”   Sometime during this action on 30 March Grandad suffered a gunshot wound to his right ankle.

DJB 26

Grandad’s photo: I.C.C. machine-gunners

With Turkish reinforcements coming from two directions, and no artillery support, the position was deemed not worth the cost of defending any further and a retreat to the Jordan Valley was ordered. But the evacuation of the wounded was the next challenge. The casualties were heavy and the dressing station was a mile and a half behind the line across the flat table-top exposed to artillery and machine-gun fire. Stretcher bearers were frequently hit while crossing it. From this dressing station to the next clearing station was a further ten miles. Those who could not walk or ride had to be carried in camel cacolets or tied to the backs of horses.

“The tracks were so rough and slippery that time after time the animals fell, causing intense agony to the sufferers on their backs … A camel cacolet consisted of an arrangement of two stretchers, hung one on each side of a special saddle, in which the patients lay. Two men had always to be carried, the weight of one balancing that of the other, on the opposite side … This method of evacuating the wounded was an agonizing experience to them, but it was the only available means of saving their lives or preventing them from falling into the hands of the Turks. From the clearing station the wounded were conveyed to the Jordan Valley in limbers, another ten miles, and from there motor ambulances carried them to the railway, some seventy miles from the front line. All cases that could be safely moved were then forwarded in hospital trains to Cairo, a further journey of over two hundred miles, the total journey from the front sometimes occupying a fortnight or more.”

Grandad reached the 45th Stat. Hospital at El Arish on the 4 April, then the 44th at Kautara on 7 April. The next day he was moved to the 27th General Hospital at Abbassia and on the 12 April to the Aotea Convalescent Home at Heliopolis. His condition was improving by early May. Two months later on 19 June he was discharged to the New Zealand Base at Ismalia. On 15 July he boarded a ship for the return to New Zealand but was then detached to a Rest Camp at Port Said on 29 July. H e was admitted to the No 14 Australian General Hospital on 16 August suffering from influenza. Finally on 29 August he embarked on the SS Wiltshire at Suez for his return to New Zealand arriving on 9 October. He was discharged from the New Zealand Army on 6 February 1919.

DJB 55

Grandad’s photo: fellow convalescents and a nurse, 1918.

This was not the end of Grandad’s military career. He was recalled to the army in the Second World War serving as a sergeant at the Burnham Military Camp. The Imperial Camel Corps has a monument to its memory, which Bede and I were lucky enough to visit in December 1998. It is in a park beside the Thames River in the heart of London, just by the Charing Cross Tube station. It features a camelier atop his camel and lists all of the major engagements of the Corps as well as the names of its dead. At first Bede and I were disappointed not to find D J Brosnahan’s name there – until it dawned on us that if his name were there, we would not have been!

The Imperial Camel Corps monument in London.

Photo By PAUL FARMER, CC BY-SA 2.0, []

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.”

Brosnans and the formation of the Australian Federal Police

A couple of years ago on this blog I began looking at Brosnans/Brosnahans who died on active service during WWI.  I never took that further than the Australian Brosnan war dead and maybe I should carry on the work a bit further.  Right now, however, it seems more appropriate to remember Brosnans who made their mark with anti-war activity.  Over the next wee while I’m going to write up something of the Brosnans who opposed conscription in New Zealand and paid the penalty of losing their freedom for their troubles.  But first, I want to mark an important centenary being celebrated in Queensland today.  This commemoration remembers a pair of Australian Brosnan brothers who took their anti-conscription fight direct to the Australian Prime Minister of the day, Billy Hughes.  On 29 November 1917 Pat and Bart Brosnan were involved in throwing eggs at the PM as he got off a train at Warwick in Queensland during Australia’s controversial conscription referendum debate.

One of the eggs hit the prime minister’s hat, setting off a physical stoush on the railway platform as Hughes’s supporters and anti-conscription protestors clashed.  After the latter had been removed from the station, the Prime Minister began his speech promoting conscription.  But Pat Brosnan returned to the platform and began interjecting.  This prompted Hughes to wade into the crowd, calling for Pat to be arrested.  And here’s where this minor incident in the great furore of those months in 1917, when Australian society was riven by the conscription issue, took an unexpected turn, and one that would have long-term consequences.   The policeman at hand, you see, was Senior Sergeant Henry Kenny, a Catholic of Irish descent who refused to make an arrest on the grounds that the egg throwers might have breached Commonwealth law but he was only answerable to the Queensland government.

This led directly to Hughes subsequently setting up the first Commonwealth police force since he was convinced that the Queensland force was “honeycombed with Sinn Feiners”.  The significance of the  “Warwick egg incident” is even noted on the official website of the current Australian Federal Police:

“… federal policing in Australia can trace its origins to the closing stages of World War 1 to an incident when Queensland Police would not follow the directions of Prime Minister William Hughes.  On 29 November 1917 while campaigning to introduce military conscription, Hughes was the target of eggs thrown by protestors when he arrived at Warwick Railway Station in southern Queensland. Prime Minister Hughes was incensed that the attending Queensland Police would not arrest the offenders under federal law, so when he returned to Parliament he set about drafting legislation to create the Commonwealth Police Force (CPF). The ‘Warwick Incident’ was the last straw for the Prime Minister who was engaged in a range of jurisdictional struggles with the Queensland Government at the time.”

I don’t know much about Pat and Bart Brosnan but years later when Billy Hughes died, Pat Brosnan was interviewed by the Melbourne Age, expressing his sympathies for Hughes’s widow and his admiration for his long ago adversary:

Melbourne Age, 30 October 1952:

“Mr. Patrick Brosnan, the man who threw the celebrated Warwick egg at Mr. W. M. Hughes in 1917, is going to send Dame Mary Hughes a telegram of condolence. Mr. Brosnan is 77 and a retired horse trainer, who has been living with his wife at Sandgate for the last two years. ‘Billy was a great old feller,’ he said today. ‘I would have loved to meet him, but never did. I hit him fair and square with the egg as he arrived at Warwick railway station. He just kept on going. ‘The “little digger”‘ was
campaigning for conscription at that time. He may have been right, but I did not want to be conscripted”.
The Southern Downs Regional Council has now named the little park outside the railway station Billy Hughes Park.  It runs along Brosnan Crescent, which seems more than appropriate.  Today a plaque recounting the history of the egg throwing incident was to be unveiled there and the call went out for Brosnans to join the celebrations: Calling all Brosnans  I hope lots of them did.

Polish honour for Toitu curator

Thursday, 19 Nov 2015

Toitu Otago Settlers Museum curator Seán Brosnahan. Photo: Peter McIntosh

Toitu Otago Settlers Museum curator Seán Brosnahan. Photo: Peter McIntosh

Toitu Otago Settlers Museum curator Seán Brosnahan is one four people from Otago to be awarded one of Poland’s highest honours, the Polish Gold Cross of Merit.

The chairperson of the Polish Heritage of Otago and Southland Charitable Trust (POHOS), Cecylia Klobukowska, said he would be acknowledged for his research into the history of Polish heritage in New Zealand, and in Otago and Southland in particular.

“In 2004, Seán curated Poland to Pahiatua: Remembering the Refugee Children of 1944and in 2006 Our Southern Poles: Otago’s Polish heritage 1872-2006.

“Other exhibitions have included Our Southern Poles: our Polish Heritage (2008), which was shown with the international exhibition from Poland Joseph Conrad: Twixt Land and Sea,” she said.

“These exhibitions have explored the history of the first Polish settlers arriving in Otago and Southland in the19th century and those who arrived in New Zealand during and after World War 2.

“The exhibitions have allowed everyone to learn more about Poland’s history and culture.”

Our Southern Poles also went to Poland and was shown in Warsaw, Gdansk, Starogard Gdanski, Krakow and Lublin.

Mr Brosnahan said he admired the Poles, who had “a rich and at times tragic history”.

“It has been a pleasure to discover these stories, work with this community and to see the way the local Polish community have reanimated their traditions in New Zealand and passed them on to their children and our community.”

Other recipients are: Margaret Ann Howard, artist (Dunedin), Carolina Meikle, POHOS Board member (Dunedin) and Czeslawa Panek, POHOS founding member (Oamaru).

They would be awarded their honours by Polish ambassador H.E. Zbigniew Gniatkowski at a function at the museum for invited guests on Saturday evening.


Source: Polish honour for Toitu curator | Otago Daily Times Online News : Otago, South Island, New Zealand & International News

A new Brosnan family gallery: the Thady Micks.

Finally, I have managed to add another gallery of Brosnan/Brosnahan images to this site (it’s taken me ages to work out how to do it).  All of these photos relate to the Timothy Michael (Thady Mick) Brosnans of Kerrytown and  were provided courtesy of Stephanie Brosnan following the family reunion held at Easter 2014.  This is the first of the ‘other’ Brosnan/Brosnahan families from Kerrytown that I have been able to add to this site but I would be happy to add others. It would be especially good to have further photographs of the pioneer generation and what you might call the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Kerrytown settlement, i.e. those Brosnans and Brosnahans who came as immigrants from County Kerry.  I’d love to have more of a ‘rogues gallery’ sort of representation of the founding fathers and mothers of all the Kerrytown Brosnan/Brosnahan families rather than just my own branch.  And indeed, the pioneers of other Brosnan/Brosnahan families from around New Zealand.  Let me know if you have such images to share.