Clones man penned New Zealand national anthem

by John Graham

Thomas Bracken was a politician, poet and writer.

As a county Monaghan has produced some great people who have made their mark in the worlds of politics, literature, the arts, sport and even the military. Perhaps if asked about famous Monaghan people the name that would spring most readily to mind would be that of the now highly acclaimed poet, Patrick Kavanagh, perhaps boxer Barry McGuigan who put Clones on the world stage, novelist and playwright Eugene McCabe has also made his mark while more recently the highly acclaimed film The Butcher Boy gave the town of Carn (Clones) a whole new lease of life. These are people who have made their mark at home but Monaghan can also boast that many of her sons and daughters have made their mark in other parts of the word and have contributed hugely to their places of adoption, General Jackson of the American Civil War had Monaghan connections, Charles Gavan Duffy became Governor of new South Wales in Australia and there are now communities in various parts of Canada, Prince Edward Island, Miramichi and Peterborough that were developed by emigrants from the Farney County and these people have made a great contribution to the social, political and economic development of those countries.

If asked however to come up with the name a Monaghan and person who had made a huge impact in their adopted country it is unlikely that the name of Bracken would immediately spring to mind. Indeed mention of the name Bracken immediately brings to mind the famous Tipperary club J. K. Brackens, a great supporter of gaelic games and all things Irish and his memory is perpetuated in the hurling stronghold that is the Premier County. Mention of the name Bracken could also bring to mind someone who made their name in the British political system, Brendan Bracken, ironically a son of the aforementioned J. K. who sprang to prominence as the chief adviser to Winston Churchill during the second World War and afterwards and whose contribution to the British political system is recorded in a somewhat over nostalgic biography, Poor Dear Brendan.

Mention the name Bracken however in far away New Zealand or among New Zealand people anywhere in the world and it will immediately evoke a very strong reaction as this former Monaghan man is held in very high esteem in his adopted country where as a politician and poet he made his mark but his true claim to fame is the fact that he is the author of the New Zealand National Anthem.

Thomas Bracken, was born in Clones in 1843, the son of the local postmaster, publican, and grocer. He emigrated to Melbourne in 1855 at the age of 12 to join his uncle, John Kiernan who lived near Melbourne and at that time was a rancher, grazing animals on vast tracts of land in the as yet uncharted territories. Accounts vary as to the reason form his emigration at such an early age, some sources say that he did so when he lost both his parents, others that he did so when his father died. There is no suggestion that he completed his schooling as we are told that the young Bracken started work as a chemists assistant and took other odd jobs but that did not last long.

Then came the famous gold rush in the 1850’s with places like Kalgoorlie gaining world headlines and being cited as the Klondike of the southern hemisphere and young Bracken got gold fever. Gold prospecting may have seemed more adventurous than his career as a chemists assistant or odd job man but unfortunately like so many others he found no gold and ended up having to take other odd jobs at stockriding, sheep shearing and store keeping. There was however another aspect of his abilities emerging at this time and he showed promise of future talents by writing poems about the life of the gold diggers, the stock riders and the sheep men. That part of his life saw him through to the age of twenty five when he got the urge to move on again and we find him arriving in New Zealand in 1869. His first job there was as a sheep shearer but he continued to write and published a small volume of verse, "Flights among the Flax", which brought him into some notice in literary circles and he had within a year, won the OTAGO Caledonian Societies' prize for poetry. His ability and recognition as a writer now led him to pursue a new career in journalism and in Dunedin, he was associated with the commercial staffs of "The New Zealand Tablet", "The Otago Guardian", and the "Morning Herald", becoming editor of the latter and later being a founder and part proprietor of the "Saturday Advertiser", which he made into a literary and commercial success but only as long as he directly controlled it.

He used the Saturday Advertiser as a vehicle for his poetry, humorous articles and satires as well as contributing to many other papers and over the years he became famous throughout Australia and New Zealand and is regarded as one of the best poets in that part of the world in the 19th century. His poetic publications in book form, in addition to the one already mentioned, are: "Flowers of the Freeland"; "Behind the Tomb and Other Poems"; "The Land of the Maori and the Moa"; and "Musings in Maoriland" (Dunedin, 1890), his last and fullest collection. Bracken's themes are mostly local and colonial. He was not a world ranking poet, but took an honorable rank among the pioneers of Australian poetry and in his best verse, “much true and tender poetic feeling finds skilled and picturesque expression”.

Always interested in the well being of the working classes and the native Maoiris, something that was always reflected in his writings he was the perfect candidate for election and he later entered parliament for Dunedin Central in 1886. Politically, he supported the liberal leader, Anglo Irish, Sir John Grey, and continued to show constant support for the working classes on all issues, something that saw him elected for a second term. Indeed so successful was he at this stage of his life that a New Zealand source later wrote of Bracken: "If asked to pick the Irish emigrant who contributed most to his country of adoption, you might well settle for Thomas Bracken. Little known and less remembered in Ireland, he nevertheless won outstanding claims to fame beneath the Southern Cross. Born in Clones, he emigrated to Australia where he worked at many jobs and learned much about life that stood to him in his writings and later on in life. After a few years, the young Tom Bracken went to New Zealand where he made his mark as a poet, journalist and member of the legislature. Many people there gladly acknowledge that he helped shape attitudes of democracy and tolerance of all citizens in New Zealand. His greatest claim to fame remains his writing of the national anthem of New Zealand."

Thomas Bracken died a relatively young man at the age of fifty five years from goitre in Dunedin Hospital and later his friends erected a monument over his grave to “Thomas Bracken, poet, journalist, politician, born in Ireland (sic. Clones Co. Monaghan) 21 December 1843, died at Dunedin, New Zealand, 16 February 1898”. It took almost another hundred years for similar recognition in his native place, there was a short article in a monthly magazine, Ireland’s Own, in February 1990 which may have prompted further action as a couple of years later a plaque was unveiled on the County Library building in Clones to acknowledge Thomas Bracken as the author of The New Zealand National Anthem. The ceremony took place on the 150th anniversary of the Waitang Treaty which set up the state of New Zealand and a group of Maori dancers were brought over from New Zealand specially for the occasion. This too was a first for Clones as the costumed dancers prayed at the place although there were a number of locals who felt that their contribution was more of a lament for the death of a dear departed one.

There is no doubt however that Thomas Bracken does hold a very special place in the hearts of New Zealanders and particularly the native Maori whom he described as “the original owners of the land”. And now so that people can get a flavour of the writings of this Clones born poet I quote the words of his best known work, (apart for God Defend New Zealand) “NOT UNDERSTOOD” perhaps a reflection of his own life and described by one contemporary source as "that charming little bit of philosophy by the late Thomas Bracken”

Not Understood
Not understood, we move along asunder;
Our paths grow wider as the seasons creep
Along the years; we marvel and we wonder
Why life is life and then we fall asleep
Not understood.
Not understood, we gather false impressions
And hug them closer as the years go by;
Till virtues often seem to us transgressions;
And thus men rise and fall and live and die
Not understood.
Not understood! Poor souls with stunted vision
Oft measure giants with their narrow gauge;
The poisoned shafts of falsehood and derision
Are oft impelled 'gainst those who mould the age,
Not understood.
Not understood! The secret springs of action
Which lie beneath the surface and the show,
Are disregarded; with self-satisfaction
We judge our neighbours and they often go
Not understood.
Not understood! How trifles often change us!
The thoughtless sentence and the fancied slight
Destroy long years of friendship and estrange us,
And on our souls there falls a freezing blight;
Not understood.
Not understood! How many breasts are aching
For lack of sympathy! Ah! Day by day
How many cheerless, lonely hearts are breaking!
How many noble spirits pass away,
Not understood.
O God! That men would see a little clearer,
Or judge less harshly where they cannot see!
O God! That men would draw a little nearer
To one another - they'd be nearer Thee,
And understood.