New book uncovers controversial Irish–NZ story from WWII
New book uncovers controversial Irish–New Zealand story from World War II
On the eve of St Patrick’s Day, Michael D. Higgins, Uachtarán na hÉireann President of Ireland, has endorsed a new book written by Horowhenua journalist Peter Burke about the controversial treatment of Irish immigrants to New Zealand during World War II.
Burke reveals that as Ireland was neutral during the war, Irishmen in this country refused to betray their homeland and fight for New Zealand and, by default, Britain. This refusal was also based on the atrocities they had seen committed by British forces in Ireland during the War of Independence 1919–1921, known as the Troubles.
True to Ireland: Éire’s ‘conscientious objectors’ in New Zealand in World War II, published by The Cuba Press in Wellington, documents the struggles the Irishmen faced here with officials and politicians and an unsympathetic public. It also describes how 155 of them faced deportation back to Ireland, and focuses in particular on six men, including Peter Burke’s own father, who went before the No.4 Armed Forces Appeal Board as a test case and were dubbed the ‘Sons of Éire’.
Peter Burke says he had been vaguely aware for much of his life that his father would not fight for the British and New Zealand in WWII, but it was not until he was going through his late mother’s papers in early 2009 that he discovered an affidavit with his father’s name on it, and what appeared to be a transcript of his father speaking at some sort of trial. Research revealed that his father appeared before the appeal board on Wednesday 30 July 1940 with the five other Irishmen. ‘I was fired up to discover more about this case and about the father I didn’t really know,’ says Burke. ‘It took ten years.’
President Michael D. Higgins praises Peter Burke for uncovering a fascinating piece of Irish–New Zealand history. ‘This volume, meticulously and lovingly researched and chronicled by Peter Burke, tells the story of six men – including his father, Matt Burke – who lived through those years and later emigrated to New Zealand in search of a better life.’
‘It is a tale of extraordinary moral courage,’ Higgins says, ‘demonstrated by Matt Burke and his comrades in following their principles during the Second World War. The very public stance that those Irishmen took was not popular, nor was it easy. Yet it was deeply admirable, and, as this wonderful book shows, understandable in light of the lives and ideals of those six Irishmen.’
Peter Burke says that what started off as a small family history project morphed into a social history book that crosses and re-crosses the globe. Genealogist Geraldene O’Reilly worked as the main researcher on the project, uncovering hundreds of government documents, while Burke travelled to Ireland three times to research the context for the story. This included an interview with Eamon O’Cuiv, the grandson of Irish Prime Minister Éamon de Valera, whose friendship with New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser is one of the many threads in the book.
Burke says some of the men destined for deportation included the fathers of boys who attended St Patrick’s College, Wellington, with him in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and so time was spent tracking them down too.
Mr Higgins says True to Ireland deepens our understanding of the shared history of Ireland and New Zealand, two countries that took a diplomatic step forward last year when the first resident Irish Ambassador was appointed to this country.
‘Though we are separated by a vast distance,’ says Higgins, ‘we are countries with a shared destiny, one founded on our common past and upon our commitment to the United Nations, to peace-keeping and to the great cause of world disarmament. The publication of True to Ireland will further our understanding of one another, and through that, expand our already deep and abiding friendship.’
True to Ireland will be launched by His Excellency Peter Ryan, Ambassador of Ireland, and Minister of Agriculture Damien O’Connor, at the Thistle Inn, Mulgrave St, Wellington, 5.30pm, 13 March 2019.