The enduring Irish influence

WelCom November 2021 Michael Fitzsimons talks with Ireland’s first resident Ambassador about the strong ties which still bind Ireland and New Zealand. I am standing at the window with Irish…

WelCom November 2021

Michael Fitzsimons talks with Ireland’s first resident Ambassador about the strong ties which still bind Ireland and New Zealand.

Irish Ambassador to New Zealand, Peter Ryan, The Embassy of Ireland, Te Aka Aorere o Airangi. Photo: Michael Fitzsimons.

I am standing at the window with Irish Ambassador Peter Ryan on the 10th floor of a high-rise in the heart of Wellington. The Embassy of Ireland, Te Aka Aorere o Airangi, has a glorious view of the harbour, St Gerard’s monastery to the right, shining in the morning’s lone shaft of sunlight. On the other side of the building is St Mary of the Angels where Peter and his family – wife Teresa and three daughters – are parishioners. 

He loves St Mary’s traditional gothic style and appreciates its history, reflecting that ‘St Mary’s has been a place of refuge for generations of Catholics since Bishop Liston first laid the foundation stone.’ Bishop Liston was famously tried for sedition because of a St Patrick’s Day address in which he questioned the Anglo-Irish treaty and described the Irish rebels of 1916 as having been ‘murdered’ by ‘foreign’ troops.

Irish connections in New Zealand are everywhere. ‘When I first arrived,’ he tells me, ‘I stayed in a place in O’Reilly Avenue right beside St Mary of the Angels.’ You don’t expect such immediate familiarity 18,000 miles from home. 

I promise him our chat will only take 30 minutes but, the Irish being who they are, we are still going 90 minutes later. Peter and family came to New Zealand three years ago following stints in Japan, Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong and New York.

‘We’ve got around a bit,’ he says. ‘It needs to be a family effort to sustain that period of time overseas, you can’t do it on your own. Teresa and the kids have been really committed to it as well but we love it, it is an immense privilege.’

The figures tell the story. There are 20,000 Irish-born people in New Zealand but a far greater number of New Zealanders have Irish heritage, one in six of us in fact. 

‘It’s really important to us to connect with the Irish community here in a way that reflects modern Ireland and helps them find their point of connection, whether that be people or history or culture or sports. New Zealand Irish people have a different perspective than the Irish-born or the Australian Irish – the mission for this Embassy is to find new ways to celebrate the connection of New Zealand Irish with Ireland.’ 

The Irish community today

Recent research from the University of Otago’s Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies gives the first comprehensive view of the Irish in contemporary Aotearoa New Zealand.

‘We have mapped our community in New Zealand for the first time and we know who they are, where they are, and what they are doing,’ says Peter. ‘We asked people to tell us their Irish story and over 3,000 people responded. That tells me that those connections are very deep in New Zealand. Many of the stories we received have been passed down from generation to generation. In some cases the New Zealand-born Irish might not have yet been to visit Ireland in person but they still have a very deep connection to the place.’ 

Working in foreign affairs, Peter has direct experience of the vast Irish diaspora and its rich influence around the globe.

‘We talk about “Friends of Ireland”. We are extremely fortunate that we have the historical legacy of this extraordinary reach around the world. Being in New Zealand has been an eye-opener for me. I have been struck by how proud our community is of the contribution Irish people have made to New Zealand – in education, caring for others, health and welfare, social care. It’s really remarkable, an outstanding track record. I think it comes from our history, the empathy and deep faith that generations of Irish people have brought with them.’

Catholic upbringing

Peter comes from a devout Catholic family with Mum and Dad very involved in the life of the Church. ‘Of course we [kids] were irreverent about the whole thing’, he quips. He was educated by the Christian brothers at Synge Street College in Dublin, named after playwright John Millington Synge. George Bernard Shaw once lived in the same street. He finished his secondary schooling with the Jesuits at Belvedere College, the Irish writer James Joyce’s old school. 

‘Both schools were founded at a time when people like me would not have had access to education without the brothers and the priests.’

Growing up, Peter had a Christian brother and Jesuit in the extended family, which has a strong missionary and teaching tradition. ‘Education has been one of the routes for Irish people to begin to achieve at least some of our potential in a very oppressive environment that didn’t offer a lot of opportunities.

‘One of the interesting facets of the Irish church was its global outlook, because of the diaspora and the missionary tradition. It brought a very different dimension. We had an empathy with countries where our missionaries were, we needed to stand with people to help them on their journey the way people had stood with us. That global outlook probably gave me an interest in foreign affairs.’ 

‘The influence of the Jesuits shaped my life. If you were lucky enough to get some benefits in life, you didn’t sail off into the sunset with those benefits. You stayed in your community and shared those benefits as best you could. That was a strong motivation for me to join the public service.’ 

Optimism for the future

Peter is impressed with the New Zealand church and its leadership, and optimistic for its future. It has a rich diversity which the Irish church has not traditionally had and he admires the army of volunteers who turn up to places like the Home of Compassion’s Soup Kitchen and are ready to take the lead in many areas of church life. That is the future of the Church, he says.

There are some fundamental attitudes that come with being Irish, says Peter. Irish pioneers brought a love of education, ‘maybe they didn’t always welcome authority’, and they had compassion for the underdog. He has seen for himself the tremendous legacy which Irish educators have left around the world.

‘The Catholic schools in Hong Kong, for example – I could fill Sky Stadium with the past pupils from the schools founded and managed by the Irish missionaries there, and they did it without seeking any recognition. There are no plinths or flags or buildings named after them. They inspired so many people by their service. Now there are only four Irish-born missionaries left there.’

“When I look at the Church and the people they are working with, you have to give gratitude for it because who else is going to go marching in like that?”

‘They walked the talk and they just got on with it. You don’t go and tell everybody what you’ve done, but other people benefit from your work. That’s very Irish and very New Zealand too I think’.

‘So somebody walks in and they’ve got a hundred caps for the All Blacks and they’re sitting there in the corner and in Ireland somebody walks in and he’s won an all-Ireland medal for County Meath and he sits there quietly, and there’s no big sign over his head, nothing like that. That’s where your mana comes from and that’s how people live their lives, committed to their family and community.

‘When I look at the Church and the people they are working with, you have to give gratitude for it because who else is going to go marching in like that to work with people on the margins of our society, the most needy? I’ve seen it in Ireland and I’ve seen it all over this country when I meet New Zealanders of Irish heritage and hear of the issues that concern them.’