In the Frame: For the love of the Irish

Teresa O'Reilly is proud of her family ancestry and the book about her family, written with Kingsley Field.
Teresa O'Reilly is proud of her family ancestry and the book about her family, written with Kingsley Field.

There is a great deal of pride in her voice, when Teresa O'Reilly says: ''I am the oldest living person in New Zealand with the name O'Reilly who is a descendant of Thomas and Mary O'Reilly (nee Smyth). They came to this country in 1884 from Ireland.''

It's that Irish bond that is so dear to her. This 78-year-old Otorohanga-born woman has spent most of her adult life quietly but relentlessly researching her ancestors,both in New Zealand and ''back in the old country''.

Now living in Hamilton, Teresa, who has never married, is a great-grandchild of Thomas and Mary O'Reilly, and she knows a lot about the clan in this country.

''I've always been interested in genealogy and, once I started delving into the history and detail of the O'Reilly people, I've become fascinated by all the things that  happened to the family, especially in the old days before they decided to come out to New Zealand. Really, they moved here - Thomas and Mary O'Reilly and their  10 children - to get away from the terrible poverty and the dreadful oppression of the English overlords that was so common in Ireland.''
Today, there are a large number of descendants of Thomas and Mary,  who have grown up in New Zealand.

The story goes that  their eldest son, Philip, was told to take a horse from his father's leased farm in the townland of Corcorra, County Meath, and to sell the animal at the local fair. He did exactly as instructed,  then pocketed the money,  headed to the nearest large port and  left on a ship bound for New Zealand.

In fact, the family may have secretly planned  for their 24-year-old son to run away. Young Irish men had almost no chance for employment and frequently found themselves in trouble with the overbearing laws of their country. Migration was a fine alternative.

Philip arrived in New Zealand in 1879, immediately found work and, within a few years, had accumulated enough money to help his parents and nine  siblings to emigrate to New Zealand.

The family was reunited in Palmerston North early in 1885.

In 1886, Philip  obtained  100 acres of standing bush in the first land ballot of potential farm country at Apiti, northeast of Feilding. He married Rose O'Donnell three years later. He was 35 and she was 18.  Over the next quarter century, the couple raised a family of 13.

After 34 years, Philip and Rose sold their Apiti land, which is now a flourishing dairy farm less than 5km from the vibrant little Apiti township, and moved to Te Kawa, south of Te Awamutu, where they continued dairying.

With them came several members of their family, who married and began families of their own.
It is now estimated that there are almost 1000 descendants of this couple, many of whom live  in the Waikato,  with others spread around the world.

Teresa has vivid memories of her grandfather, Philip O'Reilly, a small, wiry, pipe-smoking man speaking in a rich brogue and still digging his vegetable garden at the age of 90.

A ''100th'' birthday party was held for him in 1947, involving a major family gathering at Taupiri. It was not until some decades later that Teresa discovered he was actually only 91.

''Some of the O'Reilly descendants may not yet understand the importance of knowing who their ancestors were,'' Teresa says.

''But I believe it is good to know where we come from, especially for the Irish, because often those early migrants came to New Zealand to get away from  appalling living and social conditions in Ireland.

''The O'Reillys in this country can trace their ancestry back through generations of an O'Reilly clan in Ireland, although formal records are not available.

''A lot of Catholics were not allowed to keep records of their families, nor were they allowed to go to school, but the oral history of the clan goes back through centuries.

''I think there is a growing interest in genealogy and people are wanting to know something of their own history. It's why St Patrick's Day is such an important day for the Irish - it gives us a chance to get together with other Irish people, to enjoy our own special humour and to remember who we are and where we come from.''

Last year, Teresa privately published a book of almost 200 pages containing more than 170 photographs, titled The O'Reillys in New Zealand, which traces the history of the family both before and after they migrated to New Zealand. The books have since been sold as far away as Canada.

Teresa O'Reilly is proud of her family ancestry and the book about her family, written with Kingsley Field.
Teresa O'Reilly is proud of her family ancestry and the book about her family, written with Kingsley Field.