Memories of a trip from New Zealand through the Panama Canal to England and
to Kells in Ireland in the 1920s
If you are seven or eight and living in New Zealand where you were born,
you probably hear a lot about your parents' childhood especially if it was
spent in another country. You may even be taken on a visit to meet your
grandparents, or some uncles, aunts and cousins. It will take you several
days to make the journey to Scotland, Poland or France which you know are
on the other side of the world - the 'Old World' as Great-Granny calls it -
and you will go by fast plane.
My father was born in Ireland in Tralee, County Cork, in the south-west.
He had a name which was recognisably Irish and people often asked me if I
had been to Ireland. How I wished I had! Our father's surname, which we
all used, gave us a link with the family's history. I began to realise
that every family has its own story and the first step towards knowing
something about it is to recognise the names. If your father was Scottish,
you might be called Fiona McKay; or Maureen O'Donovan if he were Irish.
And a girl of French origins might be Jacqueline de Lisle. And a boy from a Polish family
could be called Marek Ogonowski, or Mieczyslav Surynt.
The Irish are good story-tellers and I picked up from my father some of the
legends and history, the folklore of old Ireland.
You only have to ask the question, 'Why....(or 'When....) did your family
come to New Zealand?' to be caught up in the game of tracing family
histories. My brother Brian (the name of an ancient Irish warrior-king)
had a second name, Fitzgerald, meaning Gerald's son.
This Gerald, my father, was a young man when he came to learn farming in
New Zealand. He was put in the care of distant relatives living in
Auckland and was enthusiastic about the little country that was becoming
his home. He joined a scheme in which young trainees (called 'cadets')
were placed on farms for practical work and linked with a correspondence
course in Agriculture.
See Photo Supplement 1 - Agriculture
His switch to study theology with work in the Anglican Church may well have
been tied up with the beginning of the First World War.
The war caused a good deal of anxiety and disruption, but the people of New
Zealand, many of them having survived the rigours of pioneering days, soon
put the disasters behind them and the country began to have a prosperous
look. Several years had passed before my father announced one day that he
was taking my mother, Brian and me to England and Ireland. It was not a
surprise to us, for we knew he cherished the hope of one day returning to
his birthplace. We were going for two years and there was a possibility
that we might not return to live in New Zealand. We were not rich, but we
had a few bits of furniture and other treasures that were precious to us
and we took as much as we could, including our piano. Alas, we had to
leave behind a Sydney Silkie pup, our cat and our first car, a Model T Ford
that was provided for my father's work as a country vicar.
It was June, 1928 when we left New Zealand in wintry weather with some
sense of loss and anxiety as the smart ship, the SS Tamaroa, dropped its
moorings and steamed out of Wellington Harbour. The ship seemed enormous
and the smell of the engines was nauseating. It was some days before our
bodies adjusted to the thugging of the engines and the irregular swelling
of the waves. My poor mother was seasick for most of the voyage but was a
little soothed by champagne which the ship's doctor prescribed. We were
not much bother to her as we soon found companions and old ladies who would
prop us up beside them in their deck chairs and read to us from Alice in
Wonderland. A welcome interruption came when longboats were rowed out
through the surf off Pitcairn Island and, with the help of rope ladders,
some of the islanders came aboard with strings of shell necklaces, carved
wooden ornaments and seagrass baskets for sale or barter.
I had my sixth birthday party on deck with a cake made by the ship's cook.
Pitcairn Islander with a model for sale
Soon after this excitement came the grim realisation that the chest cough
Brian had developed was in fact pneumonia. It was long before the
discovery of penicillin and all one could do was to wait for the crisis to
pass - the signal of life or death. My mother, with her bag packed, was
all ready to disembark at Panama if it was necessary to take him to
When, after intense anxiety, the doctor announced that the crisis was
passed and the temperature down we went on our way with joy, sailing
through the Panama Canal, calling in at Christabal, for fuel and going
ashore for a few hours at the colourful Dutch island of Curaçao in the
Caribbean. There I experienced the delectable thrill of walking for the
first time on to a strange land. The wonder of such landings has never
The fish market at Curaçao
Typical architecture at Curaçao
The bridge of boats at Curaçao
See supplement of photos of the Panama Canal in 1928
I was grateful to my parents for taking me to the 'Old World' at this age,
and it was not difficult to adopt England as home. It was already there in
stories, nursery rhymes and pictures.
Brian and I did not like the first school we were sent to - a small private
establishment stuffy and unimaginative.
Boys, it was believed by many parents and educationists at the time, needed
the extra discipline of a boarding school. Brian was therefore sent to a
preparatory school on the south coast as a boarder. Our holidays were
therefore special and one of these was the best holiday ever. I envied my
English and Irish cousins their annual holiday at Kells, a small fishing
settlement (hardly even a village) on the west coast of Ireland.
There my father's brother, Harry, kept a chicken farm because he developed
the dreaded disease tuberculosis which was rife at the time. There was
little hope for a cure for the disease then and doctors prescribed a life
in the open air.
Uncle Harry, Ruth and Kitty feeding the chickens
Uncle Harry lived with a sister in a row of small whitewashed coastguards'
cottages, two of which had been converted for him. A further three were
kept in order for the family invasion which happened for a number of years
When our family arrived there wasn't a cottage for us but, whatever
happened, we must go to Kells. We willingly agreed to live for six weeks
in a large room above the boat house. This we loved. Each day began with
a swim in the cold sea and breakfast in one of the cottages. This meal
would sometimes be topped off with bits of cooked lobster which we broke
into edible pieces while their ill-fated brothers crawled on the stone
floor with ungainly grace, awaiting their turn in the pot of boiling water.
At any time of the day we might cook up an extra meal of shrimps and prawns
which we caught in small nets which my mother made for us out of wire and
netting. Sometimes we would hear across the bay the haunting call of the
fishermen who had spotted a shoal and in no time the men would be out with
My close friend and confidante was my cousin Kitty , the closest to me in
age and the only other girl. This I did not mind one bit having already
recognised that boys were better off than girls in everything.
Sometimes we were led off on long walks over the hills by eager adults who
pointed out to us the bog violets and flashes of white heather among the
purple. Patches of bog were a hazard, but they were a part of the lushness
of the Irish countryside, as were enchanting sheltered corners where many
mosses and wild flowers grew and the rowan branches dropped their brilliant
berries over the fuchsias and ferns and ground cover. It wasn't hard to
imagine that fairies and leprechauns lived here. At least for that summer
we looked for the little people.
However we were the only two girls and had to tread carefully as we felt we
were accepted by our male playmates in all their activities for the time
being and it was as if we were admitted into a club. We even wore the male
uniform - boys' trousers and shirts.
Along the land we often saw carts filled with peat led by slow old donkeys
and aging couples. The men carried a loy, the spade shaped like a half
moon used for cutting the turf, and the women drew their black shawls
closely round them as the evenings became chilly and the golden weather was
Sandy and Kitty throwing out peat at Kells, County Kerry
Photographs for this article were taken by Gerald Neligan and supplied by
Ruth Fry, his daughter.