Plenty that Otago can relate to

Ed by Peter Kuch & Lisa Marr
Cork University Press


In 2016, the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Otago and Toitu Settlers Museum convened a conference to discuss New Zealand’s responses to the 1916 Irish Rising. This book, based on papers presented, is a scholarly work providing insights into an ignored corner of our history and the publishers are to be commended for bringing such material, academic but written with the general reader in mind, before a wider audience.

There is much for the Otago reader to relate to, especially through the contributions of local scholars. Peter Kuch explores with skilful imagination the unlikely topic of a regional response to the Rising as seen through the Otago Daily Times and the Irish plays being staged in Dunedin at the time.

Substantial space is given to an important ODT article by “Constant Reader” whose identity “is not known” and not knowing if the writer was Irish-born or a member of the Maoriland Irish Society is a minor frustration for the author. In fact, “Constant Reader” was London-born Alfred Grinling, a one-time alcoholic, “saved” by the Salvation Army, who spent almost 30 years with the newspaper and edited the Presbyterian magazine Outlook.

Rory Sweetman, whose recent book Defending Trinity College, introduced many to the fact that New Zealand soldiers actually fought in the streets of Dublin in 1916, examines the calming role of Bishop Henry Cleary in the sectarian skirmishing of the early 20th century and Lisa Marr’s chapter on New Zealand women and the Rising devotes generous space to the writings of poet and journalist Jessie Mackay, for 30 years a columnist for the Otago Witness.

Sean Brosnahan provides an intriguing chapter revealing the attitudes and actions of Irish families in New Zealand. The stories of the men who refused to serve, those who sheltered them on the West Coast (and even in Maniototo) and the role of the Dunedin-based Irish Nationalist review The Green Ray unearth much that is new and cries out for a much longer chapter. But, of course, the chapters are relatively brief - such is the nature of conference paper compilations.

Other writers, from New Zealand and Australian universities, cover their geographically broader topics well, putting New Zealand’s responses into an international setting, always crucial to understanding the attitudes of a small country in global matters and reminding us that Australia and New Zealand do not always share the same view.

The great benefit in publishing such material is that the reader will want more and with the full phalanx of footnotes and an extensive bibliography, exploring the subject in more depth becomes compulsive. New Zealand’s Responses to the 1916 Rising will point you to dozens of books and articles you never knew existed. No history book could ask for more.

Jim Sullivan is a Patearoa writer.

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