New Fiction Book Series Delves into Early NZ Irish Māori History
A largely forgotten story of Irish convicts and their interaction with Māori forms the basis for a series of history novels being released in Christchurch.
Titled Irish Convict, the five books cover the period from 1839 through to the eve of the New Zealand Land Wars in 1860.
Author and journalist Tom O’Connor, 79, grew up in Kāwhia on the west coast of the North Island near Hamilton, the son of the local postmaster, speaking te reo Māori. He did not speak English property until he was aged seven.
O’Connor said, “it has given me an insight into the differences in culture. When I was 15, I had over 60 cousins, most of them Māori. When I played marbles at school, you spoke Māori; it was the language of the playground.”
Later, O’Connor worked as Māori affairs reporter in Marlborough and talked with many elders from eight different iwi, gaining their side of history. It is this background, he says, and the collating of a small library of information that has helped him with the task of writing the series, saying, “I’ve taken accurate pieces of history and stitched it together with a little bit of fiction, like C S Forester with Horatio Hornblower.”
O’Connor can trace his own family history back to Irish convicts, saying, “I’ve tried to make the books interesting because it’s important. People try not to make mistakes, but we all do. It’s also a tribute to people who made a huge contribution, not just in New Zealand, but the United States, Canada and Australia. We don’t know much about the Irish convicts; they wanted to hide their identity. We don’t know their names or where they are buried.”
He says Irish convicts escaping from Australia into New Zealand in the pre-Treaty of Waitangi era by and large fitted easily into Māori society because of the clannish cultural similarities. The Māori had also gained an understanding of how most of the Irish population suffered under brutal British Crown rule for 700 years.
O’Connor says the central character of the series, Maurice O’Brien, from County Clare, is an amalgam of five convicts.
After fleeing Australia, O’Brien jumps ship at Hokianga and is taken in by Ngāpuhi, where he woos a Māori woman slave.
O’Connor explained, “that put him in 1839 and gave me the opportunity to walk through the Treaty (of Waitangi) negotiations, what both sides wanted. They’re writing things into it (the Treaty) now which were not intended. That’s another story for another day.”
“The Irish didn’t want the British or the missionaries. There was serious conflict between the Wesleyan and Roman Catholics who were fiercely competitive and arrogant, determined to convert the ‘savages’ to Christianity regardless of what they wanted.”
From Hokianga, O’Brien heads south to Taranaki and on to Kāpiti Island, where he encounters Te Rauparaha.
The famous warrior chief, O’Connor says, was a man of his time, “he was a very accomplished military strategist and led a diverse range of people.”
On a suggestion that Te Rauparaha was ruthless, O’Connor says what he did was no more than what happened at the Battle of Culloden in Scotland and the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland.
O’Brien’s story takes him to Wairau north of Blenheim and the infamous “affray” in which 22 British settlers and four Māori were killed after an attempt was made to arrest Te Rauparaha and use fraudulent documents to get land from him.
After making his way back to Ireland, and seeing the devastating effects of the Great Famine, O’Brien returns to New Zealand on the eve of the New Zealand Wars.
O’Connor does not intend to end the O’Brien saga there, saying, “I will tell the story of the Land Wars from the Māori side; the reasons why Māori decided to fight, how hard they tried to avoid fighting. The villain of the piece was Governor George Grey. I have probably got another three (books) left to write, how his son ends up in the war in South Africa and grandson in World War One.”