Despite a separation of almost 12,000 miles, Ireland and New Zealand share a significant number of defining cultural characteristics. Most obvious of these would be a common language, legal system, and parliamentary democracy, all the result of having been part of the British Empire. There is also a shared sporting legacy which recently saw Ireland celebrate its first-ever series win over the All Blacks. Like Ireland, New Zealand has a largely rural economy, famous not least for its lamb and butter. It is also a popular film location, providing a stunning backdrop for the dramatization of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.
New Zealand has a population of just over 5 million, about to same as the Republic of Ireland. Their largest trading partner is Australia, a more populous Commonwealth neighbour that also shares those defining characteristics mentioned above. Under the Trans-Tasman Travel Arrangement, citizens of New Zealand and Australia are free to travel, reside and work in each other’s countries while under the Closer Economic Relations Agreement there is free trade in goods and services. In yet another arrangement reminiscent of those that have tied Britain and Ireland, for much of their history the currencies of the two nations were linked at parity.
The Irish diaspora, particularly the exodus during the Famine era, resulted in approximately 20% of the population of New Zealand being able to claim Irish heritage. This compares with c. 26% of US residents, c. 13% of Canadians and c. 10% of Australians who say they have Irish roots. Although many of these would have formed Emma Lazarus’s ‘huddled masses’ and ‘wretched refuse’, some would go on to attain the highest offices of their new land. Ireland produced only one early British prime minister of note, Arthur Wellesley, while giving three to New Zealand. The first of these, Daniel Pollen (1875–1876), was from Ringsend in Dublin, the second was John Ballance (1891–1893) from Glenavy, Co Down, and the last was William Massey (1912–1925) from Limavady, Co Londonderry.
Ballance was born in 1839, at Ballypitmave near Glenavy, the oldest of 11 children. His father, Samuel, was a Protestant tenant farmer with an interest in local conservative politics and, like his father before him, an Orangeman. His mother, Mary McNiece, was a more liberal leaning Quaker. Following a rudimentary education in Belfast, the young Ballance worked in a local hardware firm before traveling to Birmingham in 1857 where he attended evening classes in politics, biography, and history. However, his wife’s poor health obliged them to seek warmer climes and they migrated to New Zealand in 1866. The couple eventually settling in Wanganui, where Ballance became a successful newspaper publisher. While he remained proud of his Ulster heritage, a report by Ballance in the Wanganui Herald on sectarian rioting in Christchurch in late December 1879 is insightful.
One might have imagined that men coming out to a new country to engage in the heroic work of colonisation would at least leave behind them such out of date antagonisms as those between Orangemen and Roman Catholics, which belong wholly to old world prejudices, and are utterly absurd and unmeaning at the present day and at the other end of the world.
Having entered Parliament in 1875, Ballance would become the first Prime Minister to head a ‘modern’ political group, the Liberal Party, which was formed in 1891. Liberals provided the next four Prime Ministers until displaced in 1912 by Massey of the Reform Party, formed in 1909. This nevertheless proved ample opportunity to imbed several of Ballance’s key policies following his untimely death in 1893 aged only 54. These included the introduction of free and secular state education for all and female suffrage. In Britain and the United States, women did not secure the right to vote until after the First World War while universal secular state education remains as distant as ever in the UK.
There was a degree of irony in William Ferguson Massey being responsible for ousting the Liberals. Massey first became politically active on behalf of rural conservatives, working against the Liberal Party government of John Ballance. Although a fellow Ulsterman, Massey, a Grand Master of the Orange Order and Freemasons, was in many ways the antithesis of Ballance. He was also an advocate of the British Israelism Movement, an organisation that has been described as pseudoreligious, pseudohistorical and pseudoarchaeological. Between 1899 and 1902, the ancient passage tomb of Dumha na nGiall, or Mound of the Hostages, in the Tara-Skryne Valley, Co Meath, was ‘excavated’ by a group of British Israelists in search of the Ark of the Covenant. They, of course, found nothing but left a trail of destruction worthy of Indiana Jones.
Ballance was the third New Zealand Premier to be described as a Freethinker, or Humanist. The first, Alfred Domett (1862–1863), was an English born romantic poet and lawyer who clashed in equal measure with Christians and Māori. The second, Shetlander Robert Stout (1884–1887), a lawyer and educator who, from 1878, along with a small number of other progressive politicians including Ballance, supported Parliamentary bills for women’s suffrage. Indeed, this profusion of secularist Prime Ministers earned New Zealand a reputation as a ‘paradise of unbelief’ and it remains one of the world’s most secular societies, having rejected the idea of an official church.
New Zealand’s image as a trail-blazing ‘social laboratory’ was reinvigorated in 2017 when, in a surprise result, Jacinda Ardern, the great-granddaughter of Irish migrants, was elected the country’s 40th Prime Minister. Ardern, who at age 37 became the world’s youngest female head of government, describes herself as a social democrat and a progressive. She gave birth to a daughter in June 2018, making her the world’s second elected head of state to give birth while in office, after Benazir Bhutto. A supporter of equal rights for LGBT people, Ardern renounced her Mormon faith in her twenties to joins other openly non-religious world leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Sweden’s Olof Palme, Jose Mujica in Uruguay and Israel’s Golda Meir. Her empathetic reaction in the aftermath of the Christchurch Mosque shootings in March 2019, and swift introduction of stringent gun laws, earned her widespread recognition. The following year, Ardern led New Zealand’s successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, winning praise as one of the few Western nations to contain the virus.
In April 1978, a blue plaque commemorating John Ballance was unveiled at the Ballance House in a ceremony attended by surviving members of his family including his niece, Eleanor Kathleen Wilson, and his grandnephew, Robin Wilson. In 1991, the restored house was formally opened as a visitor centre with its 19th century parlour and Tea Barn. There is also a 19th century Farm Machinery display and exhibitions focusing on Ulster-New Zealand connections. Ballance House became the base for the Ulster New Zealand Trust and Honorary Consulate in Northern Ireland. New Zealand did not open its first Irish embassy in Dublin until 2018, in preparation for Brexit.
I am a great grandnephew of John Ballance.
David Bell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is also a member of the Alliance Party and Humanists UK but is writing in an entirely personal capacity.