How often have you heard God Defend New Zealand in your lifetime? Hundreds?
Did you know it’s not even a song? At least not originally.
It’s a poem. One written by a man whose name is rarely known now, but whose work is celebrated every time that song is used.
Thomas Bracken was the son of Margaret Kiernan and Thomas Bracken, born on December 30, 1841 in Clonee, County Meath in Ireland.
His mother died only a few years later and his father in 1852.
Thomas was mostly cared for by an aunt before he was shipped off to Australia at the age of 12 to an uncle near Melbourne.
He worked at various jobs and began writing poetry. His first volume of poems was published in 1867.
In about 1869 he came to New Zealand and took up a job as a warder at the Dunedin prison but soon moved to journalism, finding a job at the Otago Guardian.
He and two others started three newspapers including the New Zealand Literary Miscellany, full of political, literary and social issues.
In 1881, he won the seat of Dunedin Central and was in Parliament for three years.
He married Helen Hester Copley on February 1, 1883 and had a son, Charles.
He never stopped writing poetry and published both in New Zealand and Australia, sometimes using a pseudonym Paddy Murphy.
He was a passionate advocate for the use of the Māori language, translating many of his poems - including God Defend New Zealand, into Māori.
Of all his poetry, it is God Defend New Zealand that survived the longest.
The New Zealand Saturday Advertiser ran the poem under the title National Hymn and announced a competition for a musical work to go with it. The winner was a score written by John Joseph Woods - a teacher from Lawrence in Otago.
It gained rapid popularity even though it was not official.
Bracken gave up his rights to it to Woods.
It was not until December 1938 that the National Centennial Council recommended that the government adopt it as the national hymn and the rights to Thomas’s words and Wood’s music were bought.
However, the work was not given equal status with 'God save the Queen' as a national anthem until 1977.
He was also the first person to use the phrase “God’s own country" in relation to New Zealand.
Thomas died in Dunedin of goitre on February 16, 1898. He is buried in Dunedin’s Northern Cemetery.
From Bracken’s poems,
To Find The Key:
An hour of joy, a day of tears,
A lesson in life’s changeful school,
A dream of happy fleeting years,
A mad plunge in the whirling pool,
A sail upon the waves which flow,
Unto the hidden mystic sea,
Wherein we sink! And then we go,
To try the lock and find the key.
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