Shane MacGowan and a Martin headstone

November 21, 2021

It’s over eight years since I’ve posted anything on this site and it took Shane MacGowan to get the words flowing. I’ve just watched a brilliant film festival documentary, ‘Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan 2020’, in which the former Pogues frontman and songwriter opens up about his life and Ireland’s tumultuous history.

Shane MacGowan was born on Christmas Day, 1957.

‘Opens up’ probably overstates it because after a lifetime thrashing himself with drugs and alcohol, MacGowan is bloated and barely audible. His words are sub-titled. But the spark still glows inside the man Clash leader Joe Strummer described as ‘Ireland’s greatest songwriter of the 20th century’.

Under the influence of punk, MacGowan sought to ‘kick Irish music up the arse’, as he put it, and drag it into the twentieth century. But Crock of Gold’s most striking section is MacGowan talking about childhood holidays running wild at his extended family’s Tipperary farm, not far from where my Martin forebears come from. I wrote about this in an earlier blog after reading his biography but the doco with its animated graphics, old video and film clips, photos and music brings it alive.

At age five, his Aunty Nora showed him how to place a bet and introduced him to cigarettes, Guinness and stout. All of which were fine so long as he went to Mass. From his big clan MacGowan gained a love of music and a mystical sense of his Irish heritage. He loved the old people, the ritual of the Mass and tales of faeries and Irish folk heroes. Family stories included his great-grandparents in the Land League in the late 1800s and sheltering IRA men from the Black and Tans in the 1920s.

In the Pogues’ song, ‘Broad Majestic Shannon’, MacGowan writes about Glenaviegh and Finnoe and hearing ‘the men coming home from the fair at Shinrone, their hearts in Tipperary wherever they go’. It could be an anthem for the Martin diaspora. These places are down the road from the village of Terryglass where our Irish great-great grandparents, Michael and Mary Martin (nee Boland), once lived. Had they never left, I may have shared an upbringing as poor and riotous as MacGowan’s.

At the time Michael and Mary sailed for New Zealand, Catholics—that is, most of the Irish—were forbidden to own the land they had inhabited for centuries. English settlers had begun clearing Tipperary’s woods, filling the bogs and building farms after Cromwell’s conquest. Catholics had to rent. Michael was a tenant on George Cornwall’s farm. Mary’s father, Gabriel Boland, was a tenant on the Saurin brothers’ four-acre farm.

Ireland’s population had exploded to over eight million in 1853 from 2.5 million a century before. Landholdings were tiny and tenancies short with Tipperary known for the ruinous system of conacre, the renting of farmland for just one season or less than a year. Farmers who resisted and tried to consolidate scraps of land into viable plots were tossed out of their homes.

Landless labourers and small tenant farmers banded in secret societies to fight evictions, tithe gathering and excessive rents: the Whiteboys, Rockites, Oakboys, Houghers, Rightboys, Defenders, Threshers, Caravat Whiteboys, Ribbonmen. The Rockites were named after ‘Captain Rock’ and his skill at hurling rocks at bailiffs; the Whiteboys wore ghostly white smocks on night time raids to attack homes and beat or kill the occupiers. Catholic farmers were sometimes targets, usually for taking land from an occupying tenant at the end of a lease.

In 1822, a farmer named Boland in Terryglass, most likely a relation, had his cattle driven out under an eviction decree: ‘The constables were attacked by the peasantry, the cattle rescued, and one of the men named Larkin was killed!’ reported the London Times. In 1844, 254 cases of rural violence were reported across Tipperary. Michael and Mary lived amid this chaos for 50 years, through the Famine and beyond.

Their eldest son, Anthony, was the first to go, making his way to Yorkshire and working as a farm labourer. In March 1863, aged 21, he boarded the Metropolis in London, along with his sister, Ellen, 19, and his aunty, also Ellen, 31. They arrived in Lyttelton on 16 June 1863, the first of the Martin clan to step ashore in New Zealand.

From the passenger list of the Metropolis, 1863.

They saved, sent money home and wrote urging the rest of the family to join them. A year later, Michael and Mary and their five other children, John, Julia, James—my great-grandfather, then 10-years-old—Michael junior and Mary, arrived in Lyttelton and walked the steep Bridle Path over the Port Hills to their new home in Christchurch.

On the ancestral trail in 2004, I easily found Michael and Mary’s plot at Linwood Cemetery from cemetery records. But there was no marker, just a patch of dry grass and weeds. I later heard that a headstone had been placed on the site and, sure enough, when I visited again early in 2021, a simple plaque sat on a fresh concrete base among crumbling old gravesites. I don’t know who put the plaque there but, on behalf of Martin descendants around the country, thanks.

Michael and Mary gave the clan a flying start—when Mary died in 1890, she had 23 grandchildren. One was my grandfather, Bill Martin. He helped pass on the name of the trailblazer, Anthony[1]. Dad was John Anthony, Bill having named him in classic Irish fashion after two of his own father’s brothers, including the eldest. ‘Anthony’ was handed on to me and is also my middle name.

According to a Press obituary on 3 May 1890, Mary was ‘an old identity of a kind and amiable disposition’. She lived in Caledonian Road on the corner of Keoghs Lane in St Albans for over 26 years. The Caledonian Hotel was two minutes’ walk away and Michael nicknamed their home ‘The Cal’. After the cemetery visit I decided to look at the old street. Apart from a few renovated cottages, houses from that era are gone. Post-quake apartments and townhouses, all grey and black boxes, are crammed everywhere. New builds sit on the corner of Keoghs Lane and townhouses occupy the site of the old pub which was pulled down in 2010.

The Martin name lives in Canterbury electoral rolls, records and newspaper snippets but except for the new cemetery plaque, no physical markers of the family remain. It’s the same in northern Tipperary where the landscape reveals little trace of the Martins ever living there. Twelve years ago in fields around Terryglass I peered into old abandoned cottages wondering if the Martins or Bolands lived in this one or that. There’s a paddock known as ‘Jimmy Martin’s field’ but otherwise, of the Martins and thousands of other families who fled after the Famine, only old Irish records tell the story.

Except for mystics and poets like Shane MacGowan. They tell stories too. Something in that doco made me think again of the Martin family, their Irish origins and what they’d lived through, and their new memorial in Linwood Cemetery. MacGowan’s gift as a story teller is to rekindle deep memories that get passed on, and on.


[1] Anthony also put in a sterling effort to build clan numbers. He moved to Wellington, married 16-year-old Margaret (Harrington) and produced 18 children. He was a bootmaker and his shop, Martins shoe store, operated in Courtenay Place then Mercer Street for many years.


The darkness of an Irish morning

March 17, 2013

John Patrick Shanley’s superb column in the New York Times about meeting his Irish relations (see below) reminded me of my grandfather, Bill Martin. A tradesman painter at Moera’s railway workshops, Bill was the son of a piano-playing Irishman from Co Tipperary, and an Irishwoman from Co Armagh.

He practised his storytelling skills in Lower Hutt’s Bellevue Hotel, a handy bike ride from the workshops. Today the pub is a smart establishment but back in the 1930s and 40s, its public bar had a sawdust floor and Bill would spin his yarns to the men standing about with their beer perched on wooden barrels.

Today is March 17 and people of Irish descent all over the world are celebrating their heritage. Shanley brilliantly captures a sense of that heritage and why we remember stories about our grandparents.

The Darkness of an Irish Morning

By JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY

MY father came from Ireland and he had the gift of the gab. Part of the reason the Irish developed the gift of the gab was simple. They lived on an island. They had to get along. Not that they did get along. But they had to try. So a style of speaking developed that allowed them to say awful things. With charm. Read more >


Dave Gallaher: an outstanding Irishman and a great Kiwi

January 24, 2013

Dave Gallaher the-original-all-blacks-captainBook Review

by Emmett Devlin 

Dave Gallaher: The Original All Black Captain. Matt Elliott. HarperCollins 2012. 259pp.

Any Kiwi with an interest in rugby and connections with Ireland will enjoy this biography of one of New Zealand’s most famous sportsmen and one of the great – if not the all-time greatest – All Blacks.

The book begins with Gallaher’s birth in 1873 into a shop-owning middle class family in a tiny seaside village in Donegal called Ramelton. His father James was 62 and his mother Anna Maria Hardy McCloskie, James’ second wife, was just 29. Dave was James and Anna Maria’s seventh child, born seven years after they married. Three of their children had died in infancy. Three more were born in Ramelton after Dave. Read the rest of this entry »


Gathering of the clans

November 21, 2012

Throughout 2013, Ireland will call home hundreds of thousands of friends and family from all over the world to gatherings in villages, towns and cities.

Anyone with an Irish connection is being urged to visit and rediscover their history. ‘There will be clan gatherings, festivals, special sporting events, music and concerts taking place all across the country, all year long,’ says the official Gathering Ireland website.

Over 70 million people worldwide claim Irish ancestry and, for anyone who went to a Catholic school in New Zealand, reading through the list of Irish clans who are planning reunions (below) is like looking through the names on old school photos. Read the rest of this entry »


In search of a living wage

September 24, 2012

Record levels of inequality in New Zealand would shock Irish immigrants who came to this country to make a better life.

‘This is a good country for working men as some men have from ten to twelve shillings per day,’ wrote Manawatu farmer’s wife Catherine Sullivan in 1905. ‘It is not like home. The worst men here won’t come to work for less than 7/- per day, and only work from 8 to 5pm.’

Catherine, an Irish immigrant, was writing to her brother-in-law in Ballingarry, Co Limerick, describing what he might find should he decide to follow her(1).

Many Irish, Scots and English came here to create a better life and to escape the poverty of their homelands. In recent decades, Pacific migrants have been doing the same. Read the rest of this entry »


On the Martin trail

February 15, 2012

Six generations of Martins had worked in his Galway pub, he said, adding that his grandfather’s name was John, his father was Billy, and he had a son named Liam. ‘Well, Billy,’ I replied, ‘I don’t know if we’re related, but my grandfather was Billy, my father’s name was John, and I too have a son named Liam.’

‘Be prepared for setbacks’ is one of the first pieces of advice you’ll get from experienced family researchers. How true, I discovered, as I started to delve into my Martin family history.

In 2004, I went to Christchurch’s Linwood Cemetery where my Irish great-great-grandparents, Michael and Mary Martin (nee Boland), are buried. Thanks to the council’s excellent records, the plot was easy to find in the Catholic section where Michael had been buried in 1895 and Mary five years earlier.

A welcoming sign, but I was looking in the wrong place

I approached the grave site expecting at least a national monument in honour of my forebears. Instead, all I found was an unmarked patch of dry grass and weeds. It seems that on the voyage to New Zealand in 1864, Michael had carved himself a big wooden Celtic cross. His pride and joy had been placed as his headstone. The weather, or vandals, had long since destroyed it. [Happy to say that on a return visit in 2021, I discovered someone has placed a new headstone]. Read the rest of this entry »


Irish fighting for New Zealand

November 10, 2011

Paul Kelly writes about his Irish great uncle, Robert Edward Kelly, an Irish immigrant who fought in World War 1. Family members back in Ireland couldn’t understand why their New Zealand kin were so keen to fight for the British in the Great War.

A recent O’Kiwi blog had some notes about my Kelly family from Boyle in Co. Roscommon. The story of my great-uncle, Robert Edward Kelly, provides some more insights into the fortunes of New Zealand’s Irish migrants.

Robert Edward Kelly

Robert Edward Kelly fought at Gallipoli

Robert was the third son of my great-grandparents, John Kelly and Elizabeth Catherine Kelly (nee McCann) from Boyle. They had their children in quick succession – my grandfather John William Kelly was born in January 1886 and Robert was born in December the same year.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Kelly clan from Boyle in Roscommon

October 18, 2011

The Kelly home in Boyle

The Kelly home in Green Street, Boyle

Researching family history can be a frustrating business, but Tawa resident Paul Kelly was delighted to come across a heritage site which is a goldmine for descendants of families from the town of Boyle in Co Roscommon.

Paul’s grandfather, John, grew up at No. 7 Green Street in Boyle. The site allowed people to click on a house number and add photographs of family members who had lived there. Paul added family photos which can be viewed under ‘People’ on the homepage. Read the rest of this entry »


On the O’Neill ancestral trail

September 9, 2011

There’s an echo, generations on, that leads us back to Ireland. It called around 19,000 New Zealanders in 2002. I was among them and, like many, I was on the ancestral trail.

On a sunny June afternoon, I found myself standing among the weathered Celtic crosses in the graveyard at St Mary’s Church in Ballymacpeake, Co Derry, not far from the River Bann. Mum’s grandfather grew up there.

I had her O’Neill family tree with me, but I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for, or even what had drawn me.

A few yards away, a woman was putting fresh flowers on a grave. I asked if she knew any O’Neills in the district. ‘Well, I’m an O’Neill. I’m Mary,’ she said in a precise Irish lilt. She sized me up while I talked, then said unexpectedly, ‘Follow me.’

Great grandfather's cottage

Me with long-lost relation Mary McErlean in my great-grandfather’s old cottage, now used to store turf

Off she went in a little red car down lanes and byways, stopping to walk across a field to a farmer on a tractor harvesting hay. Soon she beckoned me over. Read the rest of this entry »


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