National song contest – Frank McNally on New Zealand’s Irish anthem

When Ireland play the All Blacks in Tokyo this coming weekend, as surely everyone now knows, both teams will be coached by New Zealanders. Less well publicised is that when the sides line up beforehand for their national anthems, both songs will have been written by Irishmen.

If Ireland lose, or at least lose badly, somebody somewhere (probably on this Letters page) is sure to blame it on Phil Coulter, whose politically correct Ireland’s Call now deputises for Amhrán na bhFiann at rugby fixtures away from home.

And yes, the power of anthems to fire up teams is beyond dispute. We only have to the recall how the impassioned singing of Flower of Scotland helped propel that country into the quarter finals. Oh wait.

But as a musical expression of national fervour, God Defend New Zealand is complicated by the fact that its words were written by the Meath-born Thomas Bracken, who emigrated as a boy in the 1850s and yet remained an Irish nationalist all his life.


Indeed, when his poem first appeared in print, via a newspaper he then edited in Otago, it was under the name “Paddy Murphy”, a pseudonym Bracken also used for comic writings.

Some of the latter were famous enough to be published back in the old country, by this paper among others, including an 1882 ballad, “The Legislative Spree”. Bracken had by then also become a member of the New Zealand parliament, but satirised its proceedings in Hiberno-English: “An’ in the night, och such a sight was never seen before,/The tables groaned, avick mavrone, wid aitables galore;/Pork sausages an’ Irish stew, stewed tripe and frigasee,/Biled fowls and roast, an’ tay and toast, were ready at the spree.”

God Defend New Zealand, by contrast, is reverent to a fault. It’s as much hymn as anthem, beginning: “God of Nations at thy feet,/In the bonds of love we meet,/Hear our voices, we entreat,/God defend our free land.”

It was an instant hit when published in 1876. And when a competition to set it to music quickly followed, this country was again implicated in the winner, John Joseph Woods, a first-generation New Zealander of Irish parentage.

Woods’s melody helped the song ear-worm its way into the nation’s consciousness, although the process took a century. God Save the Queen was still the official anthem when, at the Munich Olympics of 1972, the gold medal ceremony for New Zealand’s eight-man rowing team was mysteriously accompanied instead by the Bracken/Woods song.

Emotionally ambushed by this surprise, the medallists shed tears. “We were bawling like babies,” one said afterwards. God Defend New Zealand became joint official anthem in 1977, alongside the “Queen”, and has since supplanted the latter at sporting events.

In the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Bracken was for a time said to be from Clones, Co Monaghan. Something may have been lost in translation there, however. A more recent version relocated him 100km southwards to the near namesake of Clonee, Co Meath, where he was orphaned in childhood before moving first to Australia, to live with an uncle.

One biography also has him born Protestant and turning Catholic, while the other suggests he was born Catholic and converted to atheism. They agree at least that he was a liberal politician, sympathetic to New Zealand’s indigenous Maori and to underdogs in general. Alas, his poetry has not aged as well as his principles.

Highly popular in its time, it is, as a gentle biographer puts it, “received less patiently today”. So, like Ireland’s Call, God Defend New Zealand has critics. Some people find it too religious. Some think its language in general is outdated. And then there’s that odd line: “Guard Pacific’s triple star/From the shafts of strife and war.”

Nobody seems to know what the “triple star” is. There are four stars in the NZ Southern Cross, for example, while theories that Bracken was referencing the country’s three biggest islands (including the tiny one at the bottom, population 381), or that he was paying oblique tribute to the flag of a 19th-century Maori rebel, both sound like a stretch.

But then again, as a vehicle for psyching up the rugby team, this anthem doesn’t carry the same responsibility as others. The Haka does all the All Blacks’ heavy lifting (and drops the weight on the opposition) instead.

So, insipid as it seems by comparison, God Defend New Zealand will probably survive a few years yet. It will certainly outlast Joe Schmidt in his current role. And in the meantime, it guarantees one thing. Whatever happens in the quarter finals, Ireland can claim to have a national anthem in the last four.