‘True to Ireland’ reveals untold history – by Peter Burke
‘True to Ireland’ is a remarkable, and until now untold story about a group of Irishmen who came to New Zealand in the 1930’s in the hope of making a new life. They had seen and experienced the 1916 Rising and the Troubles of 1919 – 22. When WWII broke out, New Zealand introduced conscription and because the Irishmen were classed as ‘British subjects’ they were liable to be called up for national service. A group of them in Wellington formed the Eire National Association (ENA) to lobby the New Zealand government to not conscript them and allow them to stay in the country of their adoption and undertake non-combatant work. The main pathway to oppose conscription was to claim to be conscientious objectors, which the Irishmen did. However, conscientious objectors were usually people opposed to fighting in any war mainly on religious or moral grounds, and by their own admission the Irishmen were prepared to fight, but for Ireland and not for Britain.
The ENA selected six men as a ‘test case’ for an appeal, the outcome of which would affect all Irishmen living in New Zealand and who did not want to be conscripted. These men were called the ‘Sons of Eire’ in newspapers at the time. Their appeal to the Armed Forces Appeal Board in Wellington (designed to hear appeals from conscientious objectors) was based on the fact that the men were citizens of Eire, not British subjects; they were citizens of a neutral country, and that regardless of this they could not in all conscience wear the uniform of the ‘British’ army given the terror inflicted on their family and friends during the ‘troubles’ in Ireland.
The story is a deeply personal one because my father Matthias Burke was one of the six men chosen to be a part of the ‘test case’. He was also a member of the executive of the Eire National Association.
In his testament to the Appeal Board my father had this to say:
I can even see the mortal remains of John Geoghegan who had been tortured and shot by the Black and Tans. I also viewed the bog hole where the Reverend Father Griffin’s body was disposed of after he was tortured and shot. My home was actually broken up by the Black and Tan soldiers in the name of British law and order.
And he went on to say:
“There is one memory I hate to recall and that is the thought of the brutal and inhuman torturing of Margaret Burke, my cousin. Her hair was shorn with a sharp knife, her body bruised from kicks and rough handling and added to that, she was imprisoned for nine months with hard labour because she would not tell the whereabouts of her brother and his companions.
I have actually witnessed the funerals of victims of the Black and Tan devilry in Eire
Now could any sane man ask me to put on the British uniform and go fight for that same country which has been quietly persecuting, shooting, publicly flogging and hanging without trial hundreds of our people down the ages. I will not put on a British uniform, nor will I fight for Britain, even to the point of revolver or the machine gun and I am prepared to stand by those sentiments until death.”
Despite his and the other appellants powerful and emotional testaments, their appeal was rejected As a result, government officials drew up a list of 155 Irishmen and advised them that they had the choice of fighting, being deported back to Ireland or being imprisoned. My father was on that list.
The ENA continued to lobby the New Zealand government and protest about their unique situation to the Prime Minister Peter Fraser who was also the Member of Parliament for Wellington Central where many of the Irishmen lived. Finally in July 1942 Fraser cabled the British government asking if they had any objection to the men remaining and working in NZ. Within weeks the British government responded that they had no objection, and the Irishmen were allowed to stay in New Zealand and work, but at ‘soldiers rates’ – the same money earned by a private in the army – £4 per week.
As well as telling the story about the ‘Sons of Eire’, the book also highlights the close relationship that developed between Eamon de Valera and Peter Fraser. It documents their four meetings in 1935, 1941 and twice in 1948. The decision to allow the Irishmen to stay in New Zealand was largely due to Peter Fraser’s relationship with, and support for, the Irish and his strong friendship with Eamon de Valera.
Looking back on how this outcome was achieved, it is clear that it was the luck of the Irish that Peter Fraser was the Prime Minister. In their biography of Fraser, Dr Michael Basset and Michael King noted that Fraser “warmed to the Irish cause and liked his many catholic friends”. These ‘Catholic friends’ included world renowned writer/poet Eileen Duggan. Peter Fraser was often to be seen at St Patrick’s College which was in his electorate.
The most amazing meeting between de Valera and Fraser took place in Ireland on 24 August 1941 after Fraser had just met with Winston Churchill in London. Fraser was flying back to New Zealand after a long visit to the UK and visiting New Zealand troops in the Middle East. He decided to fly home via the USA and at that time all the transatlantic flying boats departed from the small village of Foynes on the estuary of the River Shannon in Ireland. Fraser flew from the UK to Ireland and with him was Sir Carl Berendsen, (born Sydney 1890) head of the Prime Minister’s department. In his papers Berendsen recalled… On the way home (from the UK) we were entertained in Dublin by the remarkable Irish Leader, Eamon de Valera and then to Adare in the west before leaving from Foynes via Gandar for Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore.
Fraser and de Valera were to meet on two more occasions. In May 1948 Fraser gave a state welcome to the great Irish leader including an official reception at the New Zealand parliament where one of the guests was my godfather, Fr Jim McGlynn a Columban Missionary. In December that same year Fraser was accorded a state visit to Ireland where he received an honorary Doctor in law from the National University of Ireland in Dublin where de Valera was the Chancellor at that time.
This book makes the clear link between the turbulent times in Ireland between 1912 and 1923 and how events such as those involving the Sons of Eire unfolded 18,000 kms away in New Zealand. The love and support for Ireland was as strong in distant parts of the world as it was in Ireland. Since the book was published, a significant number of people have contacted me stating that their relatives were members of the Eire National Association or knew people who were members. Others have simply sent me stories about their Irish/New Zealand connections. My hope is that this book will inspire others to discover and write their family histories.
The book contains a foreword by the President of Ireland who says: “I commend Peter Burke for not only recovering the memory of his father and comrades, but for deepening the understanding of the shared history of Ireland and New Zealand.”
Peter Burke was born in Wellington New Zealand and educated at St Francis Xavier’s Primary School and St Patrick’s College Wellington. He has worked for more than fifty years in the media as a journalist in television, radio, print and public relations and is a specialist agricultural writer. Peter regards Ireland as his second home and is a frequent visitor to the emerald isle. His visits there have led him to develop a love of Irish and family history – hence this book. He also has a strong interest in Maori culture and sees a lot of similarities between it and Irish culture.