Thomas Bracken was a noted late 19th-century poet who wrote "God Defend New Zealand", one of the two National anthems of New Zealand, and was the first person to publish the phrase "God's Own Country" as applied to New Zealand. But he was known to his contemporaries as much as a “character” as a writer or public man.
Thomas Bracken was born, of Protestant parents, at Clones, County Monaghan, Ireland, on 21 December 1843. His mother died a few days later; on his father's death, when Bracken was nine, he was cared for by an aunt for three years before being sent out to Australia at the age of 13 to join an uncle, John Kernan, who farmed near Geelong in Victoria.
Thomas Bracken was a tall bearded man of good physique who surprised one Governor (the Marquis of Normanby) by his likeness to Charles Dickens.
When he was 14, Bracken was apprenticed to a Bendigo chemist but after 18 months preferred to seek his fortune as a farm hand and prospector.
He engaged in these occupations for approximately 10 years, making a hobby of writing verse. Early in 1869, at the age of 26, he landed at Dunedin.
In New Zealand Bracken devoted himself to journalism, joining the staff of the Otago Guardian. From July 1875 he was associated with John Bathgate in publishing in Dunedin the Saturday Advertiser, which under his vigorous editorship soon became popular and achieved a circulation of 7,000 copies. This journal was always sympathetic to the work of local writers. Some of Bracken's many contributions (which included in 1878 the New Zealand hymn, as he called it, God Defend New Zealand, and 1879 Not Understood) were written under the nom de plume “Paddy Murphy”. In 1879 the Saturday Advertiser became the weekly edition of the Morning Herald; Bracken was associated with it, even after a
further change of name, for several years more. In 1883 Bracken visited Samoa with J. Lundon who campaigned for New Zealand to take over the islands. Bracken was later associated with the Evening Herald in Dunedin, resigning the editorship when it attacked his political ally, Robert Stout, and then made a brief excursion to Wellington. Next year, however, Bracken in association with Bathgate and others became the owner of this journal, which was continued
until 1890 when it was sold.
When Musings in Maoriland (1890) did not attract the attention hoped for in Australia, the publisher persuaded Bracken to engage in a personal canvass and by this means he sold approaching 1,000 copies. He also lectured in Australia and contributed to Australian journals. In his last years Bracken suffered from failing health. In May 1894 he was appointed a Bill reader in the House of Representatives but had to give up the work some 18 months later. In increasing difficulties financially he died in the Dunedin hospital on 16 February 1898; he was survived by his wife and son.
All his life Bracken remembered his Irish birth and, although born and brought up a Protestant, felt drawn to the religion of the majority of Irishmen. He had helped canvass for shares when The Tablet was founded in 1874; in 1896 he formally joined the Roman Catholic Church.
Thomas Bracken was a tall bearded man of good physique who surprised one Governor (the Marquis of Normanby by his likeness to Charles Dickens. He was known to his contemporaries as much as a “character” as a writer or public man.
He was fond of long walks and convivial rencontres.