mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Sport 40: 2012

The Irishman

The Irishman

When my mother tells me about our European ancestors, it is with the same pride that she describes our tüpuna Mäori. Her pride in being Welsh and Irish is at least equal to that of being Ngäti Tüwharetoa or Te Äti Awa. Henry Eagar and Jackson Keenan were among the first ancestors she introduced me to. Eagar is from her mother’s whakapapa, Keenan from her father’s. She has photos of each, and speaks of them with a fondness I suspect most Päkehä families would retain only for family members they had known in their lifetime.

It should be said that in the robust Keenan line there are many family historians more knowledgeable than I. I can only touch on those elements of our original Irish ancestor’s story that correspond with the experiences of my other ancestral Päkehä Mäori. Jackson’s grandfather, William Henry Keenan (Te Puponga), was born in 1806 page 14 in Sydney, but was said to have been from County Cork, Ireland. He first landed in Taranaki in the 1820s, and was among the group of Päkehä, including Dicky Barrett and John Love, who assisted the local Ngämotu people when Ötaka Pä was attacked by Waikato tribes:

The siege was pressed with great vigour, and the pa would have fallen before the overwhelming number of the invaders, had it not been for the heroic stand made by the whalers. Time after time the enemy succeeded in gaining an entrance, but they were in every case driven out with loss . . .17

The whalers had taken their chances inside the palisaded pä, and emerged, with their hosts, victorious. Their fates were now linked. Although they won the battle at Otaka, Taranaki tribes still faced immense pressure from other tribes, and in 1832 began to migrate south. ‘Also in the migration were the people of Ngäti Mutunga . . . and Te Puponga (William Keenan) from New Plymouth . . .’18 During their journey, fighting broke out at Whanganui,

and in the feast that followed, Keenan inadvertently partook of some human flesh, greatly to his disgust. The natives were highly diverted at this mistake and Keenan came in for a great deal of ‘chaff’ over it . . .19

Mäori names and wives were bestowed on most of the original group of Päkehä at Ngämotu. Tribal protection was returned to them for the efforts they had expended to protect the tribe. Keenan had the good fortune to earn the hand of Katarina Hikimapu Takuna (Catherine). Both the Keenans and the Heberleys married the Mäori way, had several children, then obtained Christian marriages and page 15 christenings for their children when a Minister passed through the area. Both settled in Queen Charlotte Sound, and, in the late 1850s, saw their families linked through marriage.

The families were, of course, also linked by whaling, and by their presence in the area prior to active colonisation. Keenan’s 1880 obituary is effusive and revealing of the time:

Another of the links has been destroyed, and the chain that binds the present with the past is becoming gradually weaker . . . With the gift of a fluent tongue and retentive memory what tales he could have told about the manners and customs of olden times, before the advent of any but European adventurers in the colony; when the early comers were more Mäorised than the Natives themselves, and might, not right, ruled this fair land. . .

Few residents in this part but can call to mind the tall upright figure that was conspicuous, especially on regatta days, his curt sentences, as if he was afraid to use two words when one would answer the purpose, and his curiosity in inquiring into the use and meaning of anything new or strange. . .20

It must have been this combination of irrepressible curiosity and reserve that allowed Keenan to succeed in his new home. I can imagine his horror at the scene in Whanganui, his desire to fit in with his hosts almost undermining his European sensibilities. But there must have been immense, sinewy toughness too. Both Keenan and Heberley lived long lives, despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges faced. Although I don’t know about the first Keenan’s appearance, his son William Henry (Pire) was said to have had red hair, twenty children, and been ‘dogged by misfortune’.21 These were men who lived by the fortunes the sea bestowed on them, and the fortunes bestowed on them by the tribes they married into. It is difficult to tell whether the red hair or the many children contributed to William Jnr’s misfortune, though it is known that his second wife Piki Love saved him from drowning when all others had failed. Perhaps he was lucky after all, in marriage.