Becoming and Being Irish O’Dochartaigh in Aotearoa – New Zealand

Jack Doherty laughing

Born 1950 in New Plymouth under the gaze of Taranaki, my strongest early influence was Irish Catholicism. The Catholic theme dominated my upbringing and education, more than being Irish.  Even the annual St Patrick’s Day athletics in Stratford was all about the free train ride, the picnic lunch and the events with all the Catholic primary schools – and nothing to do with being Irish. Many of the teachers and priests were Irish born and on a missionary zeal in the South Pacific

The first time I realised I was Irish was on a St Patrick’s Day in New Plymouth. My father went off to work as a civil servant, proudly wearing a bright green ribbon on his jacket lapel. This was a profound statement linking him to a message his father, Barney, had passed on about being proud of who he was.

I completed my Catholic education as the Catholic Church was seeking to reform after the Vatican Council. I left with basic secondary school qualifications and a yearning to find out about what the world around me could teach me – things my teachers hadn’t.

Australia provided an environment that encouraged my development into manhood. The experiences were enjoyable as I began to learn I was a Kiwi. Old Australian First- and Second World War soldiers told me Kiwis had saved their lives and how honoured they were to be seen as their mates. My sense of being a Kiwi has always been enhanced by my overseas experiences more than at home.

When I first arrived in Australia, en route to Kings Cross, I dined with an expat uncle and aunty living at Bondi Beach. I remember his welcome and warning in a serious tone, ‘Enjoy yourself, son. There are many opportunities in this land. Just a word of warning, don’t go near the Aboriginals.’

Three weeks later I was farming on a large outback station and living with three Aboriginal brothers. My contact with these three men taught a naïve New Zealand boy that Australia had a deep secret. White Australia had a distrust and dislike of the indigenous Aboriginal people and I had my first experience of racism.

My parents, my Church, my schools and my community in New Zealand had never taught me about this topic. My life has never been the same, after this real life lesson.

Returning to New Zealand two years later, I lived with Hemi Baxter at Hiruharama, and eventually with a group of others, established Te Wakaiti in the South Wairarapa. My work with indigenous tangata whenua (the people of the land) was often preceded with two most significant questions,

Kō wai koe, Haki? Nō hea koe?’

‘Who are you, Jack? Where are you from?’

No one asked me this question more than Aunty Kahumanu Walker, a Tainui kuia (elderly woman) from Waahi Marae in Huntly who came to work at Te Wakaiti with the rangatahi (youth).

One day in 1993, I knew the answer to these two questions, in my heart and in every cell of my body. I was 43 years of age and part of a Commonwealth scholarship group being welcomed in Derry, Northern Ireland.

Paddy ‘Bogside’ Doherty, stood in front of us and called out, ‘Which one of you is the Doherty boy?’ I missed his call, not understanding his broad northern accent, and one of the Kiwis in our group nudged me saying, ‘Isn’t that you he is talking about?’

When he repeated his call, I stumbled to my feet nervously saying, ‘That’s me’.

Paddy looked across the room at me simply announcing, ‘Welcome home, boy.’

 He explained how Derry was the city of the Doherty’s and began to talk of his involvement in rebuilding Derry after The Troubles.

I was emotional and still cry 25 years later, at this man welcoming me home and telling me, once and for all, who I was and where I was from. I visited Paddy ‘Bogside’ whenever I was home in Ireland and now pay my respects at his grave in Derry.

In 2001, while living in Ireland, I was invited to summarise the presentations at a conference for 400 Irish nurses. I was introduced as ‘Jack Doherty from New Zealand, however, we all know that with a name like that, he is really a Donegal boy.’

Once again, I was claimed. I knew I was home, who I was and where I was from.

The conference was on empowerment so I shared my own personal ‘empowerment’ story as a patient in New Zealand. I was reeling with the side effects of my cancer treatment when the nurse asked if my surname Doherty was Irish or English? When I weakly whispered, ‘Irish’ she cheerily replied ‘Oh well, English – Irish, all the same.’ I sat up in bed, for the first time in three weeks, gasping, ‘No! It’s bloody not!’ I turned a corner in my recovery that day, realising my work was not complete, and once I recovered, decided to go and live in Ireland, rather than just be a tourist.

For two months I lived in Donegal – home!

On the surface it was hearing the pronunciation of my name, seeing the many different spellings, and the daily surprises noticing the numerous shop frontages owned by Doherty’s and reading the high percentage of people bearing this name in the local school roll or parish newsletters.

At a much deeper level it was learning the painful history of the Doherty clan in Inishowen in Donegal, visiting the castle ruins at Burt, Inch Island, Malin Head and Greencastle. Hours were spent and tears were shed wondering and wandering about the Grianan of Aileach, the Doherty Keep in Buncrana, knowing and feeling Sir Cahir O’Doherty’s clan defense at Doon Rock and coming to know significant tūpuna or ancestors like Columbcille.

Jack Doherty
Jack Doherty

I traced, followed and lived my own Doherty family history, meeting cousins whose grandparents were siblings to my own grandparents, reading old family letters written from New Zealand to Ireland and back again, and walking across the same field my grandfather had walked across as he left for New Zealand.

I cried for months and months. I know who I am and where I am from.

My answer to Aunty Kahumanu, and to my Māori whanau, friends and colleagues is simply this.

Kō Slieve Snaght te maunga 

 (Slieve Snaght is my mountain)

Kō Lough Swilly te moana

(Lough Swilly is my sea)

Nō Inishowen te whenua

(Inishowen is the land)

Nō Donegal tōku rohe

(Donegal is my region)

Kō O’Dochartaigh tōku iwi

(O’Dochartaigh is my clan)

Kō Columbcille me Sir Cahir O’Doherty ōku tūpuna

(Columcille and Sir Cahir O’Doherty are my ancestors)

Kō Doherty Aotearoa tōku whanau

(The New Zealand Dohertys are my family)

Kō Kevin Bernard Doherty tōku ingoa

(Kevin Bernard Doherty is my name)

Kō Jack Doherty āhau

(I am Jack)

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