Philip O’Reilly (c.1847-1947)

The O’Reillys in New Zealand

Teresa O’Reilly, New Zealand

In 1879 a 24-year-old Irish farm worker was given a horse by his father and told to take the animal to the local fair and sell it. Young Philip O’Reilly, then the eldest in a struggling family of 10, did exactly as he was told. He took the horse to the nearby village of Mullagh in County Cavan, sold the animal – and promptly ran off with the money, using it to help buy himself a passage to New Zealand.

This is the oft-told story among the now substantial family of O’Reilly descendants living all over New Zealand. It may or may not be accurate. There is also a suggestion within the family that the O’Reillys, originally of Mullagh, and who were struggling to scratch a living from land they only leased in County Meath, had secretly planned to send the eldest son to New Zealand where he could begin to make a new life for himself and perhaps eventually the whole family. Like most other Irish people of the early and mid-19th century, the O’Reillys had lived – and suffered – through the potato famine that had seen hundreds of thousands starve to death, and there was little prospect of any form of rewarding work for young Philip or any of his nine younger siblings. Instead, they faced only degradation, overcrowding and a life of hopelessness. The only possible way in which he, his parents and the whole family could ever begin to improve their lot was to get out of Ireland. New Zealand was seen as a land of enormous potential.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding his departure, Philip O’Reilly left Ireland on July 12, 1879, sailing aboard the S.S. Rangitiki. He arrived in Lyttelton, in the South Island of New Zealand, after a three-month voyage, and quickly gained employment. There was plenty of work available for young men willing and able to undertake any of a wide range of manual labour on offer, from bush-felling to road-making, and from building bridges, houses, shops or sheds to general farm or city work. Philip thrived in his new home, working initially around the Canterbury region and gaining useful skills building roads, felling and burning bush, clearing and breaking in farm land. They were skills that were to stand him in good stead throughout his later life.

From Canterbury he moved to Palmerston North, in the lower North Island, where he turned his hand to a variety of employment. Within five years he had accumulated sufficient funds to contribute substantially to the cost of helping his parents, Thomas and Mary (nee Smyth) and his four brothers and five sisters to also migrate to New Zealand. The children were Patrick, Bridget, Mary, Catherine, Thomas, Alice, David, Roseanne and John Joseph. As is often the case with early Irish migrant families, specific dates of birth are sometimes inaccurate, but it is thought that at the time of the family’s migration to New Zealand, Thomas was aged 54, his wife Mary 52, and the children ranged in age from about 24 to eight.

The family sailed from Plymouth, in England aboard the Arawa on November 8, 1884, arriving in Dunedin in the south of the South Island on Christmas Eve of that year. They stayed there only briefly, before making their way up to what must surely have been a joyful reunion with Philip in Palmerston North early in 1885. It is likely that Thomas and the older children quickly gained ready employment in and around the growing town.

About a year after his family had arrived, Philip signed up for a land ballot of virgin bush country then being opened up for farm development in the Apiti area, about 40km north of Palmerston North. The land, about 1500ft above sea-level and subject to harsh winter conditions, was rugged but fertile, and was covered in tall, dense bush. The ballot, held in mid-1886, proved successful for the 30-year-old Philip, and he suddenly found himself the owner of 100 acres in his new homeland – a situation he could never have attained had he stayed in Ireland. His land was part of a 10,000-acre new development block, which included 850 acres set aside for public use, such as the founding a town and other urban amenities. Those successful in the ballot, including Philip, wasted no time in take up the task of bringing their new land into production.

The work of bush-felling, burning, and clearing the land was arduous and dangerous. Initially, the men lived in lonely tent camps they erected in the bush, and only occasionally made the lengthy walk out, perhaps with a horse, to bring back basic supplies. But Philip, with several employees, and his neighbours set to with as will, and within five years they had cleared and brought into production substantial areas of the land. It was while they were felling the bush in June 1886 that Philip and others in the area were woken one night by the noise of immense explosions which they initially believed to be a pitched battle between Government forces and Maori. Several days later they learned of the Mt Tarawera eruption, near Rotorua to the north, in which several Maori villages and the world-famous pink and white terraces were wiped out, resulting in more than 100 deaths.

Within a year or two of those early settlers beginning their bush-clearing work, the little town of Apiti began to establish itself, several saw mills being set up to utilise the huge amounts of totara, tawa, rimu and other good-quality timber much sought-after in larger centres such as Feilding, Palmerston North and further afield. In less than a decade Apiti had become a flourishing centre.

Just three years after he began carving a farm from the Apiti bush, Philip O’Reilly, then aged 35, married an 18-year-old part-Maori girl called Rose O’Donnell. Rose, one part Maori and three parts European, was the granddaughter of a high-born Maori woman, Rangiwhakairi Rehua, of Ngati Raukawa, in the Otaki district. Patrick and Rose married on July 24, 1889, at St Patrick’s Catholic Church in Palmerston North, and Rose immediately went with Philip to live at Apiti. It is probable that Philip built a whare of some size for him and his wife to live in, but even so, conditions must have been very basic, and no doubt the winter when Rose arrived at the bush settlement was bitterly cold. The area is known to average more than 150 frosts a year, with temperatures sometimes dropping to below minus 10 degrees Celsius.

Within 10 months of their marriage, Rose gave birth to their first child, Marie Brigid, known as Mary, on May 15, 1890. She was followed by Alice Ann on April 8, 1892. The couple had a total of 12 children, and they adopted a nephew as well. The sons were Tom, Walter, Jack, Roy (nephew, always accepted as a son), Philip, Patrick and Lionel Vincent (known as Peter). Their daughters were Mary, Alice, Rose Martha, Vera, Eileen and Monica. Their last child, Lionel (Peter), was born on September 13, 1915. It was from their seven sons that the O’Reilly name was strongly established in New Zealand, and now more than 850 descendants of Philip and Rose have been identified, living in New Zealand and Australia.

During the last decade of the 19th century, the little township of Apiti grew rapidly as the surrounding farmland was brought into good dairying and sheep production. The town boasted a butchery, dairy factory, hotel, fellmongery, stables, several general goods stores and, by 1892, a school. As well, a mail coach came through the town three times a week, indicating that there was a good road into and out of the settlement. By 1895 a telephone office had been set up in one of the stores, while a number of permanent houses and public amenity buildings had already been erected. Bushfires were occasionally a problem, and in 1898 a major fire swept through the district, burning fences, sheds and several homes. The O’Reilly home, by then a substantial dwelling, narrowly missed being razed, but several sheds, yards and wooden fences were burnt. The family was moved into the town for safety, and stayed for a short time at the Apiti Hotel.

All 13 of the O’Reilly children attended the Apiti School over the next 25 years, with the older sons turning to work on their father’s farm as they completed their education. At some point, perhaps in the early years of the 20th century, Philip O’Reilly purchased a second farm, of 101 acres, across the road from the back of his Apiti property. In 1912 Rose and Philip’s eldest daughter married David Malone, an Apiti farmer. They were the first couple to be married in the town’s new Catholic church. Three of the Mary’s sons – Colin, Philip and Walter – served in World War II, and family tradition has it that when the young men left home the hair of both their parents “turned white overnight”. All three servicemen returned safely.

In 1920, after more than 30 years at Apiti, Philip O’Reilly decided to move, and he shifted everything from the property to a dairy farm at Te Kawa south of Te Awamutu. There, with Rose and several of their children, he established another farming operation. Twelve years later he sold that property and bought another farm a little further south, at Kiokio, near Otorohanga. His third son, John Philip, known as Jack, ran that farm and took care of his parents, Rose having been confined to bed for some time. She died at the farm on July 2, 1933, aged 62.

Philip was, says a grandson who knew him from that time, “a wiry little fellow” known to his grandchildren as “Grandpa” and to a wide range of others as “Pop”. But the relationship between Philip and Rose had diminished substantially over the years, and Philip often spent long periods away from the Kiokio home, staying instead with his brother David in Palmerston North. Following the death of Rose, he spent more time back in the Otorohanga – Te Awamutu area, living for a considerable time with his second daughter, Alice, and her husband Neil Gibson, on the Gibson farm at Te Kawa. There Philip indulged his passion for growing vegetables, establishing a large garden, and working in it almost daily.

In 1947 members of the now substantial O’Reilly family agreed that March 25 that year would mark “Pop” O’Reilly’s 100th birthday, and they set to with an eager will to organise a major family gathering to celebrate the occasion. As with many Irish people born in the 18th and 19th century, there were no accurate birth records, but the family had long believed “Pop” had been born in late March, and that the year of his birth was 1847.

Invitations to family members were sent far and wide, and secret letters to such eminent dignitaries as King George VI, the New Zealand Governor-General, the Catholic Bishop of Auckland, and political leaders of the day, advising them of the special event. “The party,” says Teresa O’Reilly, Philip’s granddaughter who attended as a 12-year-old, “was a wonderful day. I took a day off school and went with Mum and Dad (her mother Madge [nee Callaghan], and her father Jack O’Reilly, Philip’s third son). The party was held at the big home of Uncle Reuben and Aunty Vera Phillips at Taupiri (Vera being Philip’s seventh child).”

For the occasion Philip was dressed in a smart three-piece dark woollen suit with a pale stripe, white shirt and tie, and sporting a high-crowned Fedora hat and his walking stick. Inevitably, his beloved straight-stemmed pipe was clamped firmly between his teeth. Scores of family and friends attended, and a number of congratulatory letters, cards and telegrams were received, including messages from the King and Queen, the New Zealand Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, the Catholic Bishop of Auckland James Liston, and the Governor-General.

“Pop” O’Reilly sat stoically through it all, sucking on his pipe, taking an occasional sip of whisky, and accepting the congratulations and good wishes of all and sundry. Over the next several days the media made much of the occasion, and for several months afterwards Philip received letters and cards from well-wishers around the country.

Six months later, on September27, 1947, Philip O’Reilly died in his bed at the Te Kawa home of his daughter Alice, and following a Requiem Mass said by Father Colgan at St Patrick’s Church in Te Awamutu, he was buried at the Te Awamutu cemetery.

And it was not until 1994 – almost half a century later – that Teresa O’Reilly, the little 12-year-old granddaughter who had attended those 100th birthday celebrations in 1947, paid a visit to Ireland and spoke at length to a third cousin there, David Smith, who, like Teresa, also had a keen interest in the family history. Together, Teresa and David established that in March 1947, when Philip O’Reilly and his family celebrated so happily, Philip was, in fact, only 91.

“But,” says Teresa happily, “it doesn’t matter. We had a great party for Pop O’Reilly, and it was a wonderful day.”

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