Story: O'Driscoll, Thomas

Page 1 - Biography

O'Driscoll, Thomas

1838–1891

Hotel-keeper, political agitator

This biography was written by Marie W. Greaney and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993

'Tear them down boys; I will give £100 out of my pocket this minute to prevent them from marching.' Thomas O'Driscoll was said to have incited a riot with these words on 26 December 1879, as members of the local Hibernian society and other Irish Catholics gathered in the yard of his hotel to prevent members of an Orange lodge taking part in a parade through Timaru, New Zealand.

Thomas O'Driscoll was born in the village of Ash-hill in the parish of Ballymacelligott, County Kerry, Ireland, probably on 1 April 1838, one of at least 12 children (eight of whom emigrated to New Zealand) of Mary Mason and her husband, Patrick O'Driscoll, a farmer. He arrived in Timaru early in 1866 and worked for some time as a builder, also undertaking fencing and ploughing. On 6 July 1869 he married a widow, Mary Garity (née Carroll), at Timaru, and became publican of the Hibernian Hotel. Mary O'Driscoll had at least six children from her first marriage, and she and Thomas were to have one child, Catherine, born on 6 July 1872.

O'Driscoll became an important figure in South Canterbury's Irish community. He was a frequent sponsor of baptisms, and his use of his wealth to assist the poor no doubt created a sense of loyalty towards him. When his intention of preventing the march of Foresters, Oddfellows and Orangemen became known, extra police were brought in from Christchurch. He had written to other Hibernians in Waimate and surrounding townships asking them to help stop the march. It took place nevertheless, and at the height of the ensuing riot a magistrate read the Riot Act. No arrests were made at the time, but warrants were issued later; nine men, including O'Driscoll, were charged with riotous assembly and disturbance of the peace.

At a court hearing in March 1880 three of the accused were found not guilty; the remaining six, including O'Driscoll, were found guilty. Sir Robert Stout, the defence counsel, appealed to the Supreme Court, maintaining that the judge had misdirected the jury. The appeal was dismissed in December 1880, and the six were remanded to the district court in Timaru for sentencing. When sentence was finally passed in January 1881, O'Driscoll, described as being at the 'head and front' of the riot, was fined £100; the other men were bound over to keep the peace. The judge said in sentencing O'Driscoll that he had heard nothing but good about him apart from that which had occurred on that day, and 'I will not send a man of his high character to herd with felons in gaol.'

Thomas O'Driscoll seems to have led a quiet life after these events. He was stunned by his daughter Catherine's death in a convent in Sydney, Australia, in September 1891, and seems to have lost much of his own will to live. He died at Timaru on 8 October 1891, following an operation for peritonitis. Mary O'Driscoll died on 24 February 1903.

Thomas O'Driscoll was well regarded for his hospitality and generosity. His strong political feelings, born from the sense of frustration generated by English oppression in Ireland, manifested themselves publicly on only one occasion. The rest of his life was devoted to building a position of respectability by dint of hard work and strength of character. Lisava Avenue, Timaru, takes its name from his imposing brick and plaster mansion.