NZ’s Irish Resisters Recognised At Last

Peter Burke

Irish resisters 

They were loyal new Zealanders…and proud Irishmen, says Peter Burke (left). Their untold battle with World War 2 conscription laws has come to light after research by the Horowhenua journalist.

In an interview with KIN  reporter Jeremy Smith, Peter Burke recounts how he was going through family documents when he was astonished to find his Irish-born father was involved in a court case in 1941 which could have seen him deported.

Burke’ s research has also revealed unexpected links between NZ war prime minister Peter Fraser and his Irish equivalent Eamon de Valera.

Peter Fraser with NZ soldiers in WWII

Peter’s father Mathias Burke, from Galway, came to NZ in 1930, less than ten years after the Irish nationalist movement won its bloody battle for an Irish free state.

But the arrival of conscription in 1940 left Burke and his mates, who could often be found at the Thistle Inn in Thorndon, in a difficult position.

What to do in the war

As his son notes they were not pacifists and they had no illusions about Germany.

But as Irish nationalists, including Paddy Feeney who had been part of the 1916 Easter Uprising against the British, they would not fight for the British.

Irish leader Eamon de Valera — who had unlikely links with  Peter Fraser

The Irish Free State was neutral in WW2 but its inhabitants were British subjects: the Irish Citizenship Act did not pass until 1949.  

The 151 members of the Eire National Association kin NZ were asking for exemption from conscription, calling themselves Sons of Europe

They did not get it, but because of the shortage of workers they ended up being ‘manpowered’, often to other parts of New Zealand.

The case faded from history. Peter Burke says like some of his schoolmates at his Catholic college he knew nothing of his father’s connection with the Irish resisters.

Helped by Peter Frazer?

Peter Frazer

Peter thinks his father and friends were helped by their local MP- the war-time prime minister Peter Fraser, who had been charged with sedition because of his anti-war stance in World War 1 and sentenced to 12 months jail.

Burke’s research has uncovered the surprising relationship between Fraser in New Zealand and the Irish leader. In 1941 Fraser was in London for discussions with the British war prime minister Winston Churchill.

Immediately after the meeting Fraser flew to Ireland where he stayed with de Valera.

Churchill a British imperialist had little time for the Irishman but it seems Fraser found him a congenial spirit.

The on-going friendship between de Valera and Frazer

The two kept contact and de Valera was welcomed to New Zealand after 1945. The friendship between the Scottish-born Presbyterian prime minister and the New York-born Irish Catholic republican and father of his country’s independence seems unlikely.

Peter Burke says both were workaholics and rather dour men. Both had problems with their vision and were nearly blind. Both liked rugby although de Valera became a convert to Irish football. Both steered their countries into a more independent foreign policy.

Burke speculates that Fraser’s origins in the north of Scotland made him aware of the infamous Highland clearances, where thousands of clansmen were forced from ancestral land to other countries including New Zealand.

The success of the Irish Republican movement came after many years of agitation to give land to Irish landowners at the expense of absentee English landowners.

Burke’s book “The Deportees-The Untold Story” is expected to be published early next year.

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