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.
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.
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 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.