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New Zealand’s Celtic roots explored

07 November 2005

New Zealand’s Celtic roots explored

We’re all familiar with jokes that portray the Irish as dim-witted and the Scots as notoriously canny.

Such representations are now being investigated as part of a new research project being undertaken by Dr Angela McCarthy, Victoria University’s JD Stout Research Fellow in New Zealand Studies.

Dr McCarthy says Irish and Scottish migrants supplied approximately 40 percent of New Zealand’s foreign-born population in the later nineteenth century and 20 to 30 percent throughout much of the twentieth century, yet little research has been undertaken to ascertain how they, and wider society, perceived their national and cultural identities.

“Too frequently scholars seek the existence and continuity of visible signs of ethnic affiliation,” Dr McCarthy says.

“They focus predominantly on formal associations with fellow expatriates and group affiliations in the new homeland. In the Irish context, this includes a concentration on such associations as the Orange Order and Hibernians, while for Scots there is a tendency to narrow in on St Andrews Societies and Burns Clubs.”

While these aspects are important, McCarthy plans to approach the topic through an alternative methodology.

“Approaches based on visible, cultural, and group identities frequently neglect the thoughts and feelings of the individuals participating in the process of migration. I will therefore incorporate analysis of such personal testimonies as letters, shipboard journals, and diaries. This sense of self-identification will then be compared with official and public sources including asylum registers, nominated migration files, and cartoons.”

The research links into the Irish-Scottish Studies Programme’s major project on Scottish migration and its many contributions to New Zealand’s society, which was awarded a $510,000 grant from the Marsden Fund earlier this year. Overall findings will be reported in a substantial multi-authored book. Several conferences and scholarly articles are also planned.

Dr McCarthy plans to explore not only the broad sense of Irishness and Scottishness that existed in New Zealand but also the local and regional affiliations at both origin and destination. The ways in which such identities were constructed along gendered, religious, and class lines is also a major component of her research.

As well as its comparative approach, the project will also represent a major departure in studies of migration for its analysis of the descent group as well as the migrant-born generation.

“Given the high rate of intermarriage in New Zealand, I am concerned with why descendants of a mixed heritage often choose one particular lineage to identify with. Are they doing so for cultural, political, or material purposes?”

Dr McCarthy is appealing to members of the public with Irish and/or Scottish connections who may have personal testimonies from their ancestors to contact her at the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University, P O Box 600, Wellington, phone 04 463 5620 or email


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