O’Connell Coat of ArmsO’Connell Coat of Arms


A history of the O’Connell family of New Zealand


In a churchyard in the small town of Knockanure, near Listowel, north east County Kerry, in the west of Ireland, there is a gravestone with the inscription:

Erected by the Very Rev. James Hennessy O’Connell PP Melbourne Australia to the memory of his grandfather Edward O’Connell and his father James O’Connell, died June 3, 1868, who was also father of Chevalier Michael O’Connell, Knight of Pope Pius IX, died July, 1864 and Sister Mary Brendan O’Connell died Nov 4, 1904, Presentation Convent Listowel. RIP .

The wording does not make it clear exactly who is buried in this grave. It appears to be on an addition to the original stone. What we do know is that Edward is the earliest recorded name of the New Zealand branch of our O’Connell clan. He was possibly born around 1770. This Edward was the grandfather of the Edward who came to New Zealand in 1862. The O’Connell name is commonplace in County Kerry, the southwest of Ireland and, because of our Edward, it is now well known in New Zealand! The Irish played a significant part in the establishment of the new colony, making up 12.8% of New Zealanders by 1867. Edward and Letitia were two of these.

James O’Connell’s (c1800–1868) death certificate appears to be the James who is interred in the Knockanure churchyard. He was possibly born in the Newtownsandes (Moyvane) area. His certificate notes that he died aged sixty-eight (of bronchitis and kidney problems) in Lahardane, that he had been a farmer and that a John O’Connell (his son?) was present at his death. We know that his wife was Anna Hennessy. Is she buried with him? If so why is her name not included on this tombstone? Could there be a Hennessy plot nearby? The date of this stone is nearly forty years after James died.

James had at least one brother, Maurice O’Connell, born c1813. So far there have been no records found to validate this relationship but there is little doubt about its authenticity. Maurice married Ellen McElligott in Abbeydorney in February 1853 and emigrated to Australia in 1864. These two are the forebears of our kin, the Mulcare, Ross and McMahon families in Australia and New Zealand. Many of their descendants live in Victoria, Australia. The gravestone with the wording appears to be added by the Reverend James. There are two more O’Connell names of the time, both cited as baptismal sponsors for James’ and Anna’s children. One was a John O’Connell, sponsor for John and one was Janet O’Connell, sponsor for our Edward. Were these James’ brother and sister? There is also the baptism record in 1802 for Richard O’Connell with father Edmund O’Connell and mother Phanit (Fanny) Wall and sponsors John Connell and Margaret Wall.

Anna Hennessy O’Connell c1806–1881 married James O’Connell (probably around 1835). When Anna died she was about seventy five and living in Market Street, Listowel. Her death certificate names her as Anna O’Connell, a farmer’s widow, that she died of acute bronchitis and that James Horgan was present at her death. The certificate does not give a burial place. Did the house belong to Anna? We know little about her. Family lore often gives Anna the double-barrelled name of ‟Pope-Hennessy”. There also appears to be a connection to the Wall families of the area. From Seán’s recent research it seems that Anna was married twice before her marriage to our James, first to James Casey with a son (also named James baptised 26 August 1822) a couple of weeks after his father was hung for murdering Anna’s mother, Elizabeth Hennessy (nee Stonehouse). Her second husband was William Griffin and they had a son, Patrick Griffin born 10 May 1828 and died in Cork in 1915 (who married Catherine O’Leary and they produced a daughter Mary). Both husbands predeceased Anna and she had the advantage of being left as a widow of some means. On her death certificate, and the certificates of her Australasian sons, her name is written only as Hennessy. She is part of the wide Hennessy family of Cork, and a relative of Sir John Pope Hennessy, governor of various British colonies. This branch added ‟Pope” to their name after what was seen as a daughter’s advantageous marriage into the Pope family of Riverdale and Causeway, near Ballybunion. The Cork Hennessys called themselves the Hennessys of ‟Ballyhennessy", a derelict castle near Ballybunion.

Some of the Hennessy branch left Ireland in the 18th century to join the Hennessys of Cognac, France, and make a fortune from brandy. Along with this link to the liquor company of the same name, inspection of records shows that members of the Hennessy (and O’Connell) families were the lessors of some considerable acreage of land around Larhardane (Townland). It would appear that they both farmed, and leased out, some of this land.

Anna’s husband James O’Connell, and a Maurice Hennessy, were the immediate lessors of most of Lahardane (413 acres total size) and were representatives for the owner, J L Gun. They, in turn, sublet some of the land. Maurice Hennessy had personal use of by far the larger area. The rest of the land was sublet to family connections. By 1876, only Hennessys owned land in the area which suggests that Lahardane was a Hennessy stronghold rather than an O’Connell property. All the O’Connell sons were gone by 1876.

James O’Connell and Anna Hennessy of Ballybunion

Ballybunion (Bally means ‟unit of land”) is the name of the Civil Paris and lies in the County of Kerry in the Barony of Iraghticonnor and the Poor Law registration place is Listowel.

Most of Anna and James’ children were born in the 1840s. The family does not appear to have suffered the same hardships as many of Ireland’s people at that time. Like many other families in comfortable economic circumstances, the children were educated and followed careers typical of the times. The story goes that they lived in a ‟house with many chimneys” in the Lahardane area. Little did James and Anna know that Edward would do his bit to make sure the family name lived on, far away from Irish soil, as possibly the only line of the family to survive.

The baptisms of most of James and Anna’s children are recorded in the parish church at Ballybunion, Kerry.

Frances O’Connell. In the first edition of this history we named a child we were unsure of. Further research by Seán suggests that Frances was James and Anna’s first child with the mother’s name given as Hanna. There was a son, baptised as Morgan on 19th July 1847, whose birth date fits with John of Melbourne’s age at his death in 1930. We believe that Morgan and John are one and the same, perhaps Morgan taking the name of his sponsor.

Michael Augustine O’Connell c1839–1864 the professional soldier

Michael, like many young men of the time, joined the army. In earlier years Irish soldiers gave service to many European states including France, Spain and Russia. In 1859 Pope Pius ix asked for young men from Ireland to defend the Papal States from Garibaldi. Michael answered the call and was favoured by Pope Pius with a citation called Pro Petri Sede. It seems a common military tribute because Michael’s name has simply been added on the appropriate line. The Papal Brigade was defeated and Michael was honoured again by the Pope in 1861 by conferring on him the title of Chevalier.

By this time the northern states of America needed replacements in their war against the South. In 1862 the northern army called for recruits to replenish huge numbers of men lost in the previous two years. Michael went to New York where he joined Corcoran’s Irish Brigade. Irish recruits enlisted in the American war in the hope of gaining some military training. Many believed that their fighting experience could be used in the future to help remove English rule from Ireland.

Records of the American Civil War show that in September 1862 Michael joined the 155 New York, Company F, (the Second Regiment of Corcoran’s Irish Brigade), as 2nd lieutenant. In May 1863 he was promoted to 1st lieutenant. The 155th NYVI was formed in Buffalo in mid 1862 and made up of two thirds Irish immigrants. The Irish Legion was one of only two all-Irish Brigades in the Union army and marched under a green silk battle flag decorated with a harp and shamrocks. Dates imply Michael must have been among the first recruits.

Lieutenant Michael Augustine O’Connell’s 155th NY Regiment took part in the Peninsula Campaign around Richmond in Virginia. They suffered heavy casualty rates in assaults on Petersburg in June 1864. Michael was wounded first in June 1863 and spent some time in a hospital in Fort Munroe at the tip of the Peninsula. He returned to battle and was wounded again in June 1864.

After promotion to 1st Lieutenant in Company K, he returned to action in the Peninsula Campaign. The regiment attempted to destroy the Weldon Railroad to stall the Federal Army from moving supplies. In the battle of the railroad just south of Petersburg, both armies suffered massive loss of life. This campaign lasted one week before the Union army, exhausted from fighting, was defeated. Michael was killed in one of the first assaults on Petersburg on the 16th of June, 1864. He was twenty five. He is possibly buried in Poplar Grove, National cemetery, in a communal grave, along with soldiers of both armies killed in that battle. In three years of conflict, the 155th NY Company suffered a total casualty rate of about sixty percent.

In his book The Irish Brigade and it’s Campaigns, Conyngham says ‟Lieutenant Michael O’Connell of the One Hundred and Fifty Fifth New York (Corcoran Legion) was a native of Kerry; chevalier of the Papal Army; who ‟fell bravely leading his company at the battle of Spotsylvania". Other dates given are on his casualty sheet are June 22nd (Weldon Railroad), August 25th (Reams Station) and the date that Father James O’Connell, Michael’s brother, inscribed on their father’s grave as June 1864. Conyngham includes this:

Corcoran Legion: Lieutenant O’Connell 155th and Michael Egan 170th N.Y.V.I.
We extract the following passage relative to the deaths of the above officers who both commenced their military careers in the Pope’s Irish Brigade from a letter by Captain Michael Doheny to his father…near Petersburg Va. June 17th 1864. We had a very heavy engagement last evening which lasted until about 11 o’clock. Our regiment suffered severely. I got out of it all right thank God. I now have only six men in my company. Tell Colonel O’Mahoney that Lieutenants O’Connell and Egan were both killed. We buried Egan on the field. There were several more of the Fenians killed or wounded but these are all I am aware of. I haven’t seen my brother Morgan (serving with the New York N. Y. V.I.) for two weeks. This is written quite close to the enemy and within range of their guns. I must close now as we are about to be relieved. Yours affectionately (Captain 155th) Michael Doheny.

In his novel of the Civil War, Bruchac tells the story from two people’s points of view. The Bugle boy, modelled on the writer’s great grandfather and the soldier, Lieutenant Michael O’Connell (our Michael) portrayed as a good leader. In Civil War stories there is often some mention of Michael but no reliable information of where he was buried. Michael’s effects eventually found their way first, to his brother Father James Hennessy O’Connell of Melbourne (presumably on their mother, Anna’s death). When Father James died he left these, and his own material, to ‟my brother Edward’s oldest son John”. Father James must have been a little indisposed when he wrote his will because Edward’s eldest son was James. (John was the second son). But everything went eventually into the possession of Edward’s eldest son James. They include Michael’s portrait, his medals and the orders conferred on him by Pope Pius IX. With these came illuminated citations presented to Father James Hennessy O’Connell by his Victorian parishioners. This material has since passed to the eldest son of each line; from James to Kieran to John. Currently they are in the care of John’s son, Timothy O’Connell of Christchurch whose son, Benjamin Hennessy O’Connell, is the future recipient of these treasures. One family story suggests that material, including Michael’s war diary, swords and other ‟rubbish”, was destroyed at Macraes!

Michael’s story has a connection with his brother Reverend James O’Connell of Melbourne. For some time the Irish Brigade was lead by a General Thomas Meagher. In his earlier life in Ireland Meagher had been an original member of ‟Young Ireland” a group that challenged what they saw as Daniel O’Connell’s too slow, too Catholic, attempt to win repeal. They assumed O’Connell was moving towards Home Rule (a self governing state of Britain) rather than total repeal. Their hope was to unite all Irish people to the cause, no matter what their religious persuasion. ‟Young Ireland” began about 1842 when three young men, Gavan Duffy, Thomas Davis and John Dillon began a newspaper called the Nation. These writers, speakers and activists were soon joined by others, including Thomas Meagher, the group became known as ‟Young Ireland” and the Nation was used to air their views.

In an article of the time Duffy had suggested that the Irish rail system might be used for British troop movements and implied that the railroad be materials used as weapons. He may have had his tongue firmly in his cheek, but the authorities were not amused. Meagher continued to agitate for Repeal. He was arrested, found guilty of treason and condemned to death. This sentence was later commuted to transportation for life to Van Denman’s land. But he was one of the few convicts to escape from Port Arthur in Tasmania. He made his way to America and became a prominent citizen and, for a time, in charge of the Irish Brigade. His friend, Gavan Duffy, the editor of the newspaper, later immigrated to Melbourne. Research in Melbourne suggests that Duffy became friends with Father James O’Connell and travelled with him to Europe.

Edward O’Connell c1840–1920 gold miner and farmer

Edward came to New Zealand. In the middle of the 19th century a relative of Anna Hennessy (John Pope Hennessy) was in the diplomatic service in one of the British dependencies. Family stories implied that Edward was originally destined to work as assistant to this relative. But research into the times and places where John Pope Hennessy served do not match the sailing dates we have for Edward. John Pope Hennessy was not in the area in 1862.

Shipping records show that Edward left London on 17th June 1862 and travelled, steerage class, on the Bombay with 144 other passengers. He was twenty one. The Bombay arrived in Port Chalmers, Dunedin, on 11th September 1862. The price of a steerage passage was around £40. McGill suggests that Irish miners who could afford this cost were often the sons of successful farmers.

The Bombay was a full rigged ship of 937 tons, sailing under Captain Sellars and flying the Shaw Savill flag. It made four voyages to New Zealand. Edward was on the first voyage. The ship’s surgeon was a Dr Richardson whose report shows that the voyage was relatively plain sailing. It is interesting to note that Brett suggests Bombay Hills was named after this ship because most of the early settlers of that district sailed on her to New Zealand.

Ned probably came to New Zealand for gold. The gold rush was in full swing in the early 1860s, but there had to be enough in one place to make a living. In ‟the grey-brown hills and harsh river beds of Otago…Westland and the Coromandel, fortunes were made and lost” (Lawson). At first Ned moved around the diggings. He spent time in the Charleston mine on the West Coast where he damaged his leg and was admitted to the Nelson hospital. He worked in the desolate Dunstan fields of Cromwell, Alexandra and Clyde where the population grew in a few weeks from the two diggers, who found the first shine, to over 3,000 hopefuls. Living in tents was cold and miserable in winter with little fuel for cooking. Boots would freeze over night, making them difficult to pull on and miners were known to settle disagreements over claims with a boxing match. Ned observed this custom and showed a fighting spirit. On one occasion he and his opponent did battle for 45 minutes with odds that the winner take all. He won.

Ned was one of the first miners to settle in Hyde, sometime in 1864. The area was covered with matagouri and tussock and beset with norwesterly gales in the heat of summer and snow and frost in the winter months. Various records note that Ned and two others spent three years digging and searching a huge tunnel, known as the ‟Star of Otago”, before they found the site had been ‟salted” with Naseby gold. This is one of the few acts of dishonesty reported on the goldfields.

James Hennessy O’Connell PP (c1844–1920) of Melbourne

St Patrick’s Cathedral archives in Melbourne have records of the Reverend James. These note that, as a boy, James attended Mr Collins’ school, Ballydonohoe, and later All Hallows College in Dublin. (We have been unable to place Ballydonohoe. It seems to be lost in the mists of time). He was ordained by Bishop Whelan on 24 June 1868 and sailed to Victoria on the Donald McKay arriving on 19th November that same year. He became a respected parish priest in Victoria and served in the parishes of Kyneton, Emerald Hill, Geelong, Bendigo, Mansfield and St Patrick’s Cathedral. In 1881 he was appointed the first parish priest of St George’s, Carlton, Melbourne. He was a proficient fund raiser and built the parish church, school and presbytery. His obituary in the Melbourne Advocate on 10 January 1920 notes that he was still parish priest when he died.

Father James was known as a snappy dresser, a keen and accomplished rider and travelled by horseback to minister to his widespread flock. The Australia and New Zealand brothers (Edward, James and John) exchanged visits. James travelled to Europe at least twice and had two papal audiences. He celebrated his Golden Jubilee in Melbourne in June 1918. On that occasion he was honoured by his fellow priests with an illuminated tribute which included photographs of his church buildings in the Carlton parish in Melbourne.

On his death on 4th January 1920 aged 75 (of kidney and heart disease), he was buried in the Lady Chapel of Saint George’s, Carlton, Melbourne. His Advocate obituary implies that the Reverend James ‟belonged to the Daniel O’Connell family". As noted earlier, this affiliation does not appear to be very close. It is also interesting to note that the same source records that Father James and (later Sir) Gavan Duffy were close friends and travelled overseas together. Duffy was a member of the ‟Young Ireland” group who opposed Daniel O’Connell’s slow walk to repeal. Duffy later also immigrated to Australia. At his funeral, Archbishop Mannix paid tribute to Father James saying he ‟will be missed as a man, as a citizen and as a priest” and applauded his life and work. Even given the time and the tendency towards more elaborate language, it seems that Father James Hennessy O’Connell was a popular person.

Anna O’Connell c1846–1904 Presentation Sister

Anna joined the Presentation Order and took the name of Sister Mary Brendan. She died 1904, aged about sixty, in Listowel and was originally buried in the order’s cemetery there. As the convent is currently under threat of demolition, the graves have since been moved to a communal spot in the Listowel cemetery. Sister Maria O’Connell of Christchurch has been in written contact with the Sisters in Listowel. She was informed of the cemetery changes because the Sisters saw the O’Connells in New Zealand as ‟next of kin”. We are the only known descendants with the family name. All of us!

John O’Connell c1847–1930

John is reputed to have inherited ‟the house with many chimneys”. Where was this house? If John inherited the estate, (and the story seems to bear some measure of truth) he did not manage to keep it. He is alleged to have lost much to gambling and that he left Ireland because the bailiffs wanted a word with him. Somehow he had enough resources to get a passage to Melbourne. Griffiths Valuation records show that by 1876 neither John nor any other O’Connell leased land at Lahardane.

John’s death certificate notes that he married twice. The first marriage was to Bridget Harrington in Ireland and they had two sons, James and John. The certificate states that, of this first family, James was dead and John’s whereabouts were unknown. It also records that John (senior) had been ‟a colonist for 55 years” at his death. This means he arrived in Australia about 1875, six years before his mother’s death and when he was around twenty eight years old. Did John leave Bridget behind in Ireland intending to bring her to Australia later? Did she feel she was better off staying in Ireland? Or was Bridget already dead?

In 2018 Seán’s research found a death certificate that appeared in the Melbourne Advocate in February 1920. It was for James Joseph O’Connell of Lahardan who died in Perth, Western Australia aged 41 and was undoubtedly John’s son, James. This narrative needed some amendments. (Family research never ends).

John O’Connell and Bridget Harrington

James J O’Connell and Beatrice McGrath had two daughters:

These dates infer there are no more descendents of James Joseph O’Connell of Perth.

John O’Connell and Sarah Bowden

In Victoria John met Sarah Bowden and with her produced another son, Michael, born 1890, and who died in September 1891. This Michael Bowden was the first person buried in a plot in the Boroondara cemetery (now known as Kew cemetery) Melbourne. John paid for this plot and he was buried there in 1930. His death certificate names Sarah Bowden as John’s second wife and shows that they had a daughter, Mary, who was aged thirty six at John’s death. The Hickman descendants in Melbourne have Sarah’s death certificate. She was born Constance Sarah Bowden c1862, daughter of Charles Bowden (carpenter) and a Ms Murphy. Sarah died aged forty eight, in 1910 from complications suffered after a fire and is buried in the Hamilton cemetery, Melbourne.

Sarah and John had two children:

It is interesting to note that, in an obituary for John printed in the Melbourne Age on 4th June 1930, Michael is not mentioned, but a son Jack is named. Is this the John born to Bridget in Ireland? Was he still there or had he also moved to Australia? Records for Mary note that she was born in 1892 in Collingwood, Melbourne, as Mary Anna, to Sarah Bowden and John O’Connell. The wording on John’s obituary suggests that Mary had married a Joseph Pohlner. This confused us for some time until we found that Mary had married first (in 1910) Claude Stanley Hickman (of Durban) and her children (John’s grandchildren) were named Edward, Francis, Eileen and Stanley Hickman. Mary married Joseph Pohlner in 1928. She died in Caulfield in 1959. Mary Bowden/O’Connell and Claude Hickman.

Stanley Hickman and Teresa Casey’s Family of Melbourne

There are quite a few discrepancies between the various accounts of both John and Sarah’s records. John was the last of his generation. There were few left who knew his earlier family history, so inconsistencies are understandable. John’s nephews and nieces remembered his visits to New Zealand and that he often needed a helping hand. John died of arteriosclerosis in Melbourne in 1930, aged 83 and is buried with his youngest son Michael in Boroondara/Kew cemetery, Melbourne.

The Gildeas of Boyle, Roscommon

Honora Gildea was born about 1811 and died on 23 October 1883 in Boyle. Her death certificate indicates that she died of senile decay, aged 72, the widow of a carpenter and that her daughter Mary/Marie was present at her death. Her death was registered in the district of Boyle in the Counties of Roscommon and Sligo. Naming patterns indicate that her mother’s name was probably Marie/Maria/Mary.

Patrick Gildea was born about 1802 and died on 1 April 1883, a few months before his wife Honora. His occupation is given as carpenter, he was 81, and cause of death is given as natural decay. His daughter Mary was present at his death and her ‟mark” is included instead of her signature. She was also present at her mother’s death but there is no ‟mark” for her on Honora’s certificate. It seems unlikely that Mary had to make her ‟mark” because her sister Kate ran a school in Hyde in the mid 1860s. We know little about Honora and Patrick but following Irish naming patterns (where the oldest son is named after his paternal grandfather) Patrick’s father was probably called Edward. Patrick and Honora of Boyle, County Roscommon had six daughters and two sons. (Were Honora and Patrick related?). Patrick was a carpenter and coach builder. Their death certificates show that they died in Boyle, within a few months of one another. Five of their daughters and one son, came to New Zealand. There are many stories about the dressmaking and millinery skills of the Gildea sisters, all comely, capable and competent, qualities at a premium in a new country.

The Voyage Out

For young women in Ireland in the middle of the 19th century, life offered an existence much like that of their mothers. Those who were prepared to take a risk believed that a new land had more to offer but first there was a voyage to the ends of the earth by sailing ship. The Otago Provincial authorities had identified the need for young women and, during the 1850s and 1860s, offered a sponsored passage that required repayment. The amount was noted on the shipping list alongside the woman’s name. Some years after this, the Vogel government of the 1870s and 1880s offered eligible young women (between twelve and thirty five years of age) help to emigrate so long as they were hard-working, of sober habits and good moral character.

Immigrant ships on the New Zealand route varied from 469 tons to 2079 tons. The Chile, on which Letitia and her sister Catherine sailed, was in the middle of this range. It was an iron barque of 768 tons built in 1856 with accommodation for approximately 250 people. Letitia’s voyage left London on 3 September 1867 and arrived in Dunedin on 2 December. The sailing took 90 days under the Shaw Savill flag and the command of Captain Petherbridge. Each family or individual occupied their prescribed place on board. The comfort of the journey depended, to a large extent, on the price paid for the passage. Women travelling steerage were allowed a space of 5 feet 9 inches by 18 inches! Single women were segregated for their own protection and allowed on deck only on certain days. There were separate compartments for married couples with children, and another for single men. Many of the compartment fittings could be removed for the return journey to allow cargo, such as wool, to be exported to Britain.

Travellers supplied their own bedding, cooking and washing needs. Most people brought what fresh food they could afford. The voyage began with seasickness and edible food and as they became used to the rolling, the sickness became bearable but the food deteriorated. Women were advised to bring with them ‟6 shifts, 2 flannel petticoats, 6 pairs stockings, 2 pair shoes, 2 strong gowns (one of which should be warm).” (McDonald). Only one bag each was allowed in the cabins. Any other luggage was stowed in holds. These could be opened in good weather to allow for warmer/cooler/clean clothing, food, mending needs or reading matter. Sometimes cockroaches or sea water got there first. For weeks, passengers had to keep themselves clean, amuse and care for sick children and try to retain some semblance of normality. In these conditions the travellers accepted calms and storms, heat and cold, births and deaths, friendship and fights during a voyage of up to 14 weeks. ‟In the dark, cramped, unhygienic conditions below deck and with a monotonous diet and often stale water, sickness and disease were all too common on immigrant ships”…while the journey was a ‟physical experience that many tried to forget as soon as possible”. (Rogers). Three O’Connell sons and four Gildea daughters took this perilous voyage in the 1860s.

Before the gold rushes of the 1860s ‟Dunedin was a small settlement of about 2,000 people but by 1870 it was a prosperous, busy metropolis of 14,000 inhabitants…the largest and most commercially successful town in the colony”. (Rogers). Dunedin flourished and grew wealthy on gold. By 1864 11.8% of the New Zealand population was Irish born and this percentage grew rapidly as gold fever increased. The history of Irish immigrants can be readily traced in early records. Shipping lists recorded the age and nationality of the newcomers and each ‟immigrant left his or her mark on New Zealand’s census records, modest historical markings to be sure, but these define the parameters of the Irish as an ethnic group”.(Akensen). The Irish found New Zealand to their liking and as a group, stayed on in greater numbers than other immigrants.

The Canvas Town

Hyde is in the Maniototo area of Otago between the Rock and Pillar Range and the Taieri River and about 70kms from Palmerston. The area is known as Strath Taieri, and was named after John Hyde Harris, a prominent politician and civic dignitary of early Otago. Like many of the neighbouring towns, Hyde owes its origins to gold and the business that gold generated. The town developed quickly after gold discovery in the Hyde gully in 1863. By 1864 there were around 1000 inhabitants in the ‟calico” town. Shops, houses and hotels were constructed of this material.

As the small community developed, social needs were provided by anyone who could assist. One such was Kate (Catherine) Gildea, who conducted a small private school before 1869, but gave up teaching when she married John Laverty. Spiritual needs of the settlers were met by visiting clergy and services were held in Laverty’s hotel. Before the Catholic Church was built in 1894, many marriages took place in private homes. In 1875 Ned and Letitia’s home was used for the nuptials of Catherine Murphy and Edward Dowling.

While digging for gold could be cold wet work for the men, caring for families was demanding for the women of the developing town. Open fires supplied warmth, cooking facilities and water heating as long as there was enough wood. All water had to be carried. Clothes were rubbed clean by hand on a washboard, usually to the detriment of both. A few women acted as midwives, one of whom was Letitia. She was considered ‟a highly esteemed, kindly Irish woman but with her own ideas regarding the nursing care of her maternity patients” (Ramsey).

After the school opened in 1869 with a roll of sixteen pupils, many social activities centred round the school holidays and the yearly picnic and concert. Another community gathering not to be missed was the annual race meeting. Any outing usually involved catching a horse, harnessing it to a cart then loading everyone on board. No seat belts required. Another past-time for the locals was suing the neighbours. The Resident Magistrate for the Hyde Court on Friday Dec 23 1870 was H.W. Robinson Esq. The Mt Ida Chronicle Court report (30 November 1870) reads:

Quinlan v. Dowling – Claim for £12 for damage done by goats and pigs. Settled out of court.
Quinlan v. Laverty – Claim for £12 for similar damages. Settled out of court.
Quinlan v. O’Connell – Claim for similar damage. Settled out of court.
Quinlan v. Annett – Claim for £12 for damages. Settled out of court.
Quinlan v. O’Connell – this was on information for an assault.

The evidence went to show that one complainant had gone to serve a summons upon the defendant; that when delivering the summons he had expressed his regret at being forced to take such a measure, and that the defendant had said the whole thing was a bit of roguery, and that he would strike the plaintiff if he did not clear out. Complainant answered that he had better do it, which he immediately did – striking him on the forehead and drawing blood. The court imposed a penalty of 40s and costs.

Cobb and Co. ran a service from Dunedin, via Hyde (fording the Taieri River) to Naseby three times a week. In the mid 1870s a coach did the circuit from Palmerston to Hyde, alternating via the Pigroot. Wagons pulled by either horse or bullock teams carried wool, grain and people to Dunedin then back, loaded with provisions for the town. The 90 mile journey could take up to four days. The most dangerous part was crossing the Taieri River and many died in the attempt.

Most of the villages which sprang up during the 1860s in the Strath Taieri district are now ghost towns. Today the vestiges of Nenthorn and Moonlight are hard to find but Hyde, Naseby, Middlemarch and Macraes remain, though bear little resemblance to the early settlements. During mining years these villages had close social and commercial ties. Many of the settlers worked, mined or had interests, and relatives, in more than one village.

As the gold take began to wane, some of the miners elected to settle in the district rather than move to other fields. Families were growing and some saw farming as a more profitable way to earn a living. A group of enterprising locals, including Ned O’Connell, formed the Hyde Progress Committee in 1873 and set about lobbying the government for improved access to farm land and better services in the district. The Committee requested that Deepdell and Taieri Lake stations be divided into smaller farms and grazing runs. This allowed the purchase of land by the ‟deferred payment system". The committee lobbied for a block of land to build a township, a boat to prevent drownings at the Taieri River ford, a traffic bridge across the that river, a rail connection from Dunedin and a court house (in order to prevent the indignity of holding court hearings in a public house). Gradually these needs were met. The bridge was opened in December 1879 and the railway in 1894 offering opportunities for employment and business.

Building a Community

The Gildea sisters of Hyde married men who played significant parts in developing the small Hyde community. Catherine married John Laverty the local entrepreneur. He owned mines, hotels, stores, a bakery, a butchery and livery stables and served time as the local Postmaster. He was chairman of the first Hyde School Committee (1896), chairman of the Maniototo County Council (1882–8). Anne married Barney (Bernard) O’Neill. He also served some time as Postmaster, was one of three bakers in the village and delivered his goods on horseback, singing as he went. He owned a store at Three Mile Gully and the first hotel in Hyde (the Royal Mail). This pub served as courthouse when necessary and as a church on Sunday. The younger Gildea sisters were sponsored by Barney O’Neil and Thomas Lynch, but assisted by the New Zealand government. Susan married Tim Miscall. They lived at Waitahuna then moved to Dunedin.

Ned O’Connell married Letitia Gildea and was one of the earliest miners in Hyde. He and John Laverty were two of the first to take up land after the district was opened up for settlement. Ned drew, by ballot, approximately 500 acres at Tiroiti, north of Hyde which sons Jim and Jack worked, while they lived in a stone hut on the property. He included his own and the names of his sons in the ballot. Did young Jim’s name come out of the hat first? Ned also owned what was then known as the Wandle run. Ned and his sons worked on the farms, on the roads and on construction of the railway and for some time held other small runs around Rock and Pillar. Dick owned Fillyburn (before he moved to Bankside in Canterbury). John bought a farm at Frankton, Queenstown. Daniel was ordained a priest. After Ned gave up farming, Mick took over the land at Ngapuna before later moving to Dunedin.

Ned was the first chairman of the Hyde Progress Committee, a group dedicated to improving life for those in the growing community. He was also one of the early wagoners and so gleaned an appreciation of the need for good quality roads. He later obtained the ‟formation surfacing” contract (1877–80) for the first Hyde County Council. This involved quarrying stone to build culverts and bridges for road improvements and for the Hyde stretch of the central railway line.

The New Zealand O’Connells

Letitia met Ned in Hyde, probably soon after she arrived. They were married on 17 January 1869 in St Joseph’s church Dunedin by Reverend D. Moran. Ned was twenty eight and Letitia, twenty four. The residence of each is noted as ‟Dunedin” and their witnesses were Daniel Curtain of Hyde and Maria Barrett of Dunedin. They made their home in Hyde and begat the first New Zealand branch of the family. Later they built a house at Ngapuna and called the property ‟Lahardane” after the Townland in Kerry. (That house is still used as a family home though the size is now greatly increased). Their children attended the Hyde school. Edward gradually moved from mining to road construction and farming. He exchanged visits with his brother, Father James O’Connell in Melbourne. After Letitia died, Edward lived for some time with his daughter Mary and her husband Len Casey in Dunedin. Edward was known to his grandchildren as ‟Graf". Letitia died of chronic enteritis on 14 April 1911 aged sixty six. Ned died of the influenza epidemic at his son John’s farm at Queenstown, 1920, aged seventy nine. Both are buried in the Hyde cemetery. Their children were:

The children grew and moved on to start families of their own. The oldest son, James, visited Macraes where a young woman had caught his eye. He decided she was the one for him and he vowed to pursue this interest.

Macraes Flat

Macraes lies inland from Palmerston, Otago. The name became part of the New Zealand’s financial news during the late 1980s when an Australian firm began large scale mining in the area. The appearance of the village and its surrounds is now very different from the days when the Callerys and Phelans worked the battery at Golden Point and Kieran Claffy ran the Post Office. Many cousins have spent happy hours at Erindale during school holidays. The O’Connell family, with their in-laws, associates, friends and colleagues, has played a significant part in the history of this small town. The first O’Connell to settle in there was James, son of Edward and Letitia.

Macraes Flat was one of the early villages in the Strath Taieri plain and seems most likely named after John Macrae, a local shepherd. The climate can be harsh. In the winter snow lies on the Rock and Pillar Range and the lower country gets regular coatings. Strath Taieri district is roughly 14 miles (35kms) long, 2.5 miles (8kms) wide and 720ft (200m) above sea level. Originally it was tussock covered, with creeks and bogs, but farming practices soon changed its appearance. Early native bird life included moa, so moa hunters were probably the first people in the area. Records show a later, much used, route through Strath Taieri from the east coast to the southern lakes, evidence along with implements and greenstone tools that Maori knew the location long before the settlers arrived. Squatters and settlers began to move in about the middle of the 1850s, then miners, glad to take advantage of the few services offered by settler entrepreneurs. Gold was first found in the Highway Hill vicinity in 1862. The gold bearing rock was hewn with picks and shovels then carried in wheelbarrows to the sluice boxes. By the early 1930s a gold mining company was driving hydrants and pumps with battery powered electricity. This scheme was later extended to Hyde and the Maniototo.

In the mid 1860s there was a population of around 300 in the village. There were five stores, a bakery, a Post Office and a Bank of New Zealand, plus fourteen hotels, dancing saloons and boarding houses. Macraes reached its heyday around 1868–69. Gold drew Chinese miners too who stayed at the diggings long after other miners had left. Swaggers tramped the area. Some, like the Shiner, lived by their wits.

Moonlight had a dairy factory and its farm produce supplied Macraes and Nenthorn. The name of Butter and Egg Road seems to date from this time when women walked its length carrying food in covered baskets. Nenthorn too, was a thriving town of commercial enterprises. One was John Laverty’s hotel where the barman sometimes used a stockwhip to control the drunken brawling. And it should be noted here that the hotels run by the Lavertys and the O’Neils were seen as a ‟better class of establishment"! Early Post Master/Storekeepers were the Claffy brothers, Kieran and Jack who were over generous in giving food on ‟tick” and were later bankrupted. Jack left New Zealand and Kieran retained responsibility for the Post Office until his daughter took over that role.

In the1870s James Hartstonge was one of the locally-elected settlers known as wardens. Members of the Phelan family were family were also in Macraes by 1864, working as dairymen and miners. They mined the Bonanza claim for some years. Andrew Phelan managed the cream factory at Moonlight. The original house on Erindale, later the seat of the O’Connells, was built by the Phelans. (These two families were later united by a marriage). Macraes School opened in 1862 reaching its highest roll of 53 pupils in 1878. Hyde began in 1869 and Moonlight followed in 1880 with its highest roll of forty five in 1896. Nenthorn School began in 1890 only to close in 1901 when gold ran low. An examination of the jubilee publications of these schools reads like the roll call of our family’s ancestors.

James Hartstonge and Mary Murphy

James Hartstonge was one of the earliest farmers in Macraes. The Hartstonge family arrived as assisted passengers on the Tweed in 1873. They brought their five children with them. Another son, Callaghan, died before the family left Ireland. Mary’s brother, Doctor Michael Murphy, arrived later. The family comprised:

The younger James took a prominent part in local body politics for some years.

Ellen Hartstonge (Little Nell) was born in Cork c1856 and immigrated with her parents and other family members to New Zealand. She died 18 October 1879 in Macraes and is buried in the old Macraes cemetery. Ellen is remembered in the verses of Cecilia (Callaghan) O’Connell of Macraes.

Kieran Claffy

Kieran (c1828–1910) was born in Lemanaghan parish (Rashinagh Townland) Kings County (now known as County Offaly). He and his older brother Jack immigrated first to Victoria, Australia. There they worked as Postmasters before moving to New Zealand and to Macraes about 1870. In the 1890s Kieran and Jack were dairymen and ran the general store and Post Office in Macraes as well as 400 acres of cattle farm. Jack was appointed Postmaster in Macraes in 1872 followed by Kieran until his death on 5th March 1910. Kieran was known for his skills with a bullock wagon in that he could control both the animals, and himself, without swearing. Ellen Hartstonge married Kieran Claffy in 1875. Her family arranged the marriage and the couple did not meet until the church ceremony on 1st April 1875 in St Joseph’s church, officiated by Reverend P Moran. At that time Ellen was nineteen and Kieran about fifty. On their marriage certificate his age is cited as ‟full”. He signed his name as ‟Kerin” and gave his profession as storekeeper and his rank as bachelor. M.D. Murphy (MD) of Dunedin was one witness and Kate Hartstonge the other. Two daughters were born before Ellen’s untimely death.

The post office was part of the Claffy family home in the township. Both daughters spent time managing the Post Office. Nell and Jim lived with Kieran Claffy when they were first married. When they bought their farm, Nell’s sister Molly and her family moved back to be with Kieran. In later years, Molly’s daughter Ellie Phelan continued the family administration. Later Molly’s daughter-in-law, Mary (McKenzie) Phelan, carried the responsibility until her retirement in 1947 thus ending the long family association with the Macraes Post Office.

Molly Claffy and Andrew Phelan’s family

The Macraes O’Connells

James (Jim) O’Connell (1872–1941) was the oldest son of Edward and Letitia. He attended Hyde school then worked on the family’s various runs and in the family contracting business. Jim met Ellen Claffy of Macraes in 1894 when she was seventeen. He decided she was the girl he wanted to marry but had to prove to Kieran, her father, that he could support her. This needed more resources than Jim had at hand so he and his brother John set out by sailing ship for Opunaki in Taranaki, where they worked at milking cows, bush cutting and on roadworks. They bought land there and cleared it for resale.

During this time Jim wrote regularly to Nell assuring her, and her father, that he would soon have enough money to set a marriage date. Six years later, with the money made in the North Island and the sale (to his father) of a block he owned in Hyde, Jim and Nell arranged a wedding in Macraes on April 25th 1900. Nell was twenty three and Jim twenty eight. Their marriage certificate notes that the ceremony took place in Dunedin. This is because when the officiating priest returned to Dunedin from his rounds to outlying districts, he recorded everything as taking place in Dunedin.

Jim O’Connell and Ellen Claffy: When Nell married Jim, her father Kieran Claffy was well into his seventies. By 1910 she and Jim had seven children and space was a premium in the Post Office. About this time Jim bought Erindale, a small holding with a small house. As finance became available he extended his holdings, first to the Golden Point run, currently the original site of the Macraes gold mine.

Nell supported the home front and continued the family, having five more children by 1922. All but James lived to adulthood but none produced the multitude of their parents, though some came close. The children were born at home and at least one (Kieran) was registered only as a ‟male child". This could have been because the birth was in early July and a horse ride to Hyde or Palmerston to register the child might have entailed a long ride in stirrup-high snow. Or perhaps there was some indecision about the baby’s name. When Kieran became eligible for National Super he had some difficulty proving that he was that male child.

Jim took a prominent part in community affairs, serving for 36 years on the Waihemo County Council including time as chairman. A large part of his county service centred around transport and roading. Both Jim and his father, Ned are cited in J. C. Angus as having applied for miners’ rights in the area.

James O’Connell and Ellen Claffy’s Family


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