Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports to New Zealand

by Clare de Lore / 16 March, 2018
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Rodney Walshe with a treasured book. Photo/Clare de Lore

When he arrived here from Ireland in 1960, Rodney Walshe had nothing but a suit and the gift of the gab. They took him a long way. 

Rodney Walshe, one of Ireland’s best-known exports to New Zealand, has a sparkle in one eye and a glint of steel in the other as he says, “Now, you won’t go quoting me and starting any papal wars, will you?” Walshe, who was Ireland’s Honorary Consul General, the republic’s official representative to New Zealand, for nearly 40 years before retiring in 2015, is keen to preserve his unblemished reputation.

A constant presence in the Irish, consular and business communities since arriving here in 1960, Walshe is a Protestant born and raised in Dublin. His mother, Lillian, known to her family as Mimi, was widowed when he was just three. She supported her three children with the widow’s benefit and a small income from taking in sewing. When her two daughters emigrated to New Zealand, their stories of a better life on the other side of the world convinced 65-year-old Mimi and her 24-year-old son, Rodney, to join them. After a month at sea on the passenger ship Rangitoto, they disembarked in Wellington with one small trunk, Mimi’s two suitcases and Walshe’s suit carrier, a farewell present from friends.

That suit, his only one, and the gift of the gab came in handy. Within two days of arriving, he landed an interview, then a job, with General Motors. After five years, aged only 29, he became the managing director of the building supply company Fletcher Merchants. He went on to work in the travel industry and, in 1976, went out on his own, establishing the Walshe Group, one of Australasia’s biggest specialist travel representation companies. That same year, he was appointed Honorary Consul General for Ireland.

In their home in Auckland’s St Heliers, he and his wife, Marlene, have impressive collections of New Zealand art and Irish lead crystal. Their two adult children are involved in the family business, and their granddaughters are keen Irish dancers.

Walshe at 16, with sister Vivienne, left, and mother, Lillian. Photo/Walshe family collection

Walshe at 16, with sister Vivienne, left, and mother, Lillian. Photo/Walshe family collection

Was it hard to leave Dublin?

An injury ruled out a career in rugby, which I loved, so I was drifting. My sister Yvonne said, “Come out to New Zealand, you cannot go wrong”, so we sold up. I didn’t tell anyone we were leaving until I was sure we were booked, because once you tell one, it is out. My life had been rugby at night after work or when I was doing university study at night. I was a Scout leader, I taught Sunday school and I had a good job with prospects. But we wanted to be near my sisters, so we got on the Rangitoto. I had been only to Wales and Scotland, so it was an adventure.

The Irish have contributed a lot to literature. Was that part of your life?

Yes, and for a small country, Ireland has produced more Nobel literature laureates than you’d expect: WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Seamus Heaney and Samuel Beckett. I’ve met two of them. Shaw came to my school when I was about 14 and I vividly remember his nicotine-stained beard. I’ve had conversations and lunch with Seamus Heaney. I’ve also debated with Brendan Behan in a pub – we’d been playing rugby one afternoon and were enjoying a drink afterwards. Behan came in and declared we shouldn’t even be allowed in because we’d been playing the “British” game. A few years later, Marlene and I were in one of his plays here in Auckland, an amateur production of The Hostage. We had only just met. I played the brothel keeper and Marlene played a prostitute. Her only words were, “Get off the stage, you dirty low things.”

A presentation from former Taoiseach (Irish PM) Enda Kenny, left, and Taoiseach departmental official Philip Hamill. Photo/Walshe family collection

A presentation from former Taoiseach (Irish PM) Enda Kenny, left, and Taoiseach departmental official Philip Hamill. Photo/Walshe family collection

Has religion or a religious divide featured much in your life?

I never in all my life in Ireland felt ostracised for not being a Catholic. My friends and I understood each other perfectly. But my sister Vivienne fell in love with a Catholic in Dublin and wanted to marry him. Mimi would have given in eventually, but his family wouldn’t have it, and that was it. We were all Christians, but that was the way it was. Soon after we arrived here, my mother said that with less emphasis on religion in New Zealand, there would have been no issue for Vivienne and her intended.

What was your first impression of New Zealand?

When we sailed into Wellington, it was calm and very beautiful. At dawn, we saw this long white cloud and that’s when someone told us about Aotearoa. Then we saw the hills and houses built on them and it reminded me of Howth in Dublin. On a practical level, my first month working in New Zealand was the first time I ever had money left over in my pay packet. In Ireland, I never even had petrol for my motorbike. I was on £1000 a year here compared with £400 in Ireland.

With Irish dancing prizewinning granddaughters Erin, Ciara and Regan.

How did you end up representing Ireland?

When I came here, it was my first taste of being a minority. I found it easy, though, and people loved my accent. There is a natural empathy between New Zealand and the Irish. When I became consul, there were three distinct Irish communities, but I took the position that I was simply from Ireland, not part of any faction. Someone took up a petition saying that I wasn’t a member of the Irish community and not even the right religion, and the community would not support me as consul. At that stage, I was already representing Tourism Ireland and we were trying to set up trade links. The Irish Government took no notice of the complainers, and the consulate here became one of the most successful anywhere. I received the President’s Award, limited to 10 Irish people living abroad each year, a great honour. I work closely with my successor, Niamh McMahon, as she requires, and I remain involved in my business.

What’s your take on the impact of Brexit on Ireland and on the country’s relationship with New Zealand?

Ireland will be the only English-speaking country in the EU once Britain leaves, so it will be the gateway contact point for New Zealand and Australia. It is obvious there is keenness for New Zealand to be in Dublin because of that. It is positive in those respects. [During the Irish President’s recent visit to New Zealand, both countries announced they would set up embassies in each other’s capital.]

A customs check at the border post between Northern Ireland and the republic, c1960. Photo/Getty Images

A customs check at the border post between Northern Ireland and the republic, c1960. Photo/Getty Images

Are you worried about the implications for the peace in Ireland because of the necessity to differentiate between Northern Ireland as part of the UK, and Ireland as a part of the EU?

Yes, and no one knows how this will be resolved. British Prime Minister Theresa May is propped up by the unionist Democratic Unionist Party, and [the republican] Sinn Féin is gathering momentum and is the second-strongest party in the North. Some people say, “Let’s have a technical border.” How can you? How the hell do you manage this? When I played rugby, I would go back and forth from south to the north, with my Irish passport. There were barriers, guards and barbed wire at the border, and you think, “This is my country?” It isn’t right, whether you are from the north or the south. You can separate anything you like politically, but physically you can’t.

What would you recommend people read to get up to speed on the Irish?

Ireland: A History, by Robert Kee. It covers from 8000BC to 1974. If you wanted to look at the Irish in New Zealand, read A Lucky Landing, by Anna Rogers.

At Scott Base, as a trustee of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. Photo/Walshe family collection

At Scott Base, as a trustee of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. Photo/Walshe family collection

For your pleasure, what do you like?

Roddy Doyle is my favourite by far. I recommend the Barrytown Trilogy, which is made up of The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van. Two have been made into films; terrific stuff. Another favourite is Spike Milligan, just genius. He wrote the scripts for The Goon Show, Puckoon and Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall. There’s Frank McCourt, of course: Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir and ’Tis. John Banville’s The Sea, which won the Booker Prize, and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne. Most recently, I read a novel called Killer Intent, by Tony Kent.

There has been a resurgence in the Irish language. What do you think about the better promotion and teaching of Māori?

As I was a Protestant, my school didn’t have much emphasis on Irish. I happily learnt French, Latin and English, but I struggled with Irish. Now I am so pleased to have some of it. Every public servant speaks Irish and every minister has to. They are not learning it because they have to but because there is a place for it. That is where New Zealand needs to get to with te reo.

Bungy jumping from the Sky Tower. Photo/Walshe family

Given Ireland’s contribution to science and literature, why are there deprecating Irish jokes?

People were just ignorant of the Irish, but that is no longer the case. Many are surprised at what Ireland has done and who it has produced. Ernest Shackleton was born in County Kildare. Two of the three people who saved the crew when Endurance got stuck in pack ice in 1915 were Irish: Shackleton and Tom Crean. The third, Frank Worsley, was from New Zealand. There is an excellent book about Crean, An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean, Antarctic Survivor, by Michael Smith. When I read that, I became avidly involved in Antarctica. I got a $100,000 donation from the Irish Government for New Zealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust, and now the senior representative of Ireland in New Zealand is an ex officio member of the trust.

St Patrick’s Day is widely celebrated in New Zealand. Do you have anything special coming up this year?

One Christmas, a few years back, I put the spire in Dublin and the Sky Tower in Auckland on my Christmas card. I had arranged for the Sky Tower to be lit up green for St Patrick’s Day. When the Government of Ireland looked at that card, it decided to try it everywhere, and now there are 300 sites around the world that are lit up green on the day.

One of the things they wanted to know was how much it had cost, because all governments are like that. I thought about it for a bit, then told them one bottle of Bushmills [whiskey]. There was dead silence. So we keep on doing it, with the Auckland Museum, the Sky Tower and the New Brighton Pier in Christchurch. Now we can even turn the Auckland Harbour Bridge green.

This article was first published in the March 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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