Celebrating the Irish connection in New Zealand
As Ireland take on All Blacks in Dublin, Mick Flannery, Damien Dempsey and 130+ Irish acts play first NZ Irish Fest in New Zealand
Dublin born and raised in the Hutt Valley, Gerry Paul spent sixteen years touring the world and has performed in over forty countries
Ireland and New Zealand are poles apart geographically, but probably the most similar countries in the world. The population size, agricultural countryside and beautiful landscapes all draw parallels. But their highly competitive nature and love of sport, particularly rugby, makes for a huge match between the All Blacks and Ireland this weekend.
Just because the game is in Dublin doesn’t diminish the celebrations here in New Zealand, and not only for the match itself. This weekend we will host the inaugural NZ Irish Fest, the first ever national Irish festival in New Zealand.
The concept arose accidentally in May when Damien Dempsey and Mick Flannery’s managers both reached out to see whether I could put on shows in New Zealand over the same weekend in November. While pondering how to promote two Irish shows on the same weekend to the same audience, the idea of a festival presented itself.
I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the All Blacks versus Ireland match announced for the same weekend. So I reached out to the legendary Lisa O’Neill and two Auckland based Irish comedians Alan McElroy and Darren Jardine, and the festival started to grow legs.
To celebrate the great cinema coming out of Ireland, we added six films to the programme, and thanks to Culture Ireland’s support, we were able to fly out Irish director Ken Wardrop, whose film Making the Grade is being featured. The New Zealand premiere of Black 47 provided a poignant opening to the festival, and our new Irish Ambassador to New Zealand, Peter Ryan, and Galway Film Fleadh director, Steve Woods, led a insightful Q&A after the screening.
Kiwis love the Irish, and being a Dublin-born Kiwi, I was surrounded by Irish culture growing up here in New Zealand, perhaps stronger than if I had grown up in Dundrum. My mother Alice, who is from Co Monaghan, is a very fine traditional singer, and I learnt a repertoire of Irish songs by backing her at sing-songs at the local Irish Club here in the Hutt Valley.
At the age of 18, I set off back to Ireland to immerse myself in Irish music, and set up the traditional band Gráda, with who I was lucky enough to play music in more than 30 countries. I based myself in Dublin for seven years, and then Galway for six.
I feel very grateful of the opportunities Irish music has given me. A career highlight was playing with Sharon Shannon at the Wellington Town Hall for the NZ Festival of the Arts, where as an adoring fan I had seen her play when I was 16. As part of the house band for RTE’s Big Music Week in 2013, I travelled around Ireland on a train and played with some of Ireland’s finest musicians, including Damien Dempsey, Lisa O’Neill, Martín O’Connor, Luka Bloom and Jerry Fish. In a roundabout-way, it led me to presenting my own show on RTE Junior, called Woohoo! Splash, where I played the zany character of Mr Splash.
Last year I was asked to curate the music for President Michael D Higgins’ state visit to New Zealand. I arranged an Irish and Maori collaboration with trad musicians Alan Doherty, Tola Custy and Pauline Scanlon, and NZ band Trinity Roots, who have strong Maori ties. I believe the Irish have so much in common with Maori people. Both have a deep connection to their land and culture, and had to fight imperialism to keep their language, music and traditions alive. We both have an ability to laugh at ourselves, enjoy a good knees up, and many of the traditions around wakes and tangis (the Maori farewell to the deceased) are quite similar too.
We have more than 100 events taking place in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch as part of the festival this weekend, with concerts, trad sessions, comedy, ceilidhs, film, GAA showcases (including a cameo appearance by Wellington mayor Justin Lester), pop-up Gaeltachts and loads more. It is a great time to be Irish in New Zealand, and we’re really delighted that kiwis have received the festival with open arms.
When our new and very first Irish resident Ambassador to New Zealand Peter Ryan was asked when he took up the post in August why it took till now to get an Irish Ambassador to NZ, he replied “We had to beat the All Blacks first”. If Ireland beat them again this weekend, we may end up with a shamrock on the flag.
New Zealanders are friendly and welcoming and love the Irish, and with one in six claiming Irish heritage, we’ll be heard all around the country cheering this weekend.
Gerry Paul is an award winning songwriter, musician, producer, children’s author, television presenter, and festival director - who in his spare time likes to go spearfishing, wrestle sharks and discover new recipes for cooking kai moana.
NZ Irish Fest takes place from November 15th – 18th. See www.nzirishfest.co.nz