In April 1930 a young man set sail for New Zealand – he was one of five Irishmen chosen to play on the British and Irish Lions Tour that year.
It was the trip of a lifetime. 24-year old Michael Dunne gave up his job in the bank to grab the opportunity and, for six months, travelled by boat through the Panama Canal, on to New Zealand, Australia and Ceylon.
83 years later - in the summer of 2013 - the Lions Tour rugby jersey that he wore on that trip finally came home to Ireland.
Despite the fact that Michael had kept a diary for every day of the trip, his family never knew that one special girl had, in fact, been the recipient of his precious rugby jersey.
While in Dunedin, in the South Island of New Zealand, the rugby team were treated to a Maori welcome and display. Michael got talking to some of the Maori girls afterwards. As he wrote in his diary: “…one of them, Miss Ellison, whom I liked very much”. This was the only reference to Rau Ellison in the diary but he continued to correspondent with her for the following year and a half.
Four letters from Rau survive that tell of the fact that Michael did in fact send Rau his Lions jersey, with the hope that she would perhaps return it in person to Ireland.
But Rau’s family arranged for her to marry a local man from the famous Maori Taiaroa family, and she would go on and have a large and happy family in Dunedin.
Michael Dunne also married, had six children and lived in Dublin, qualifying and working as a successful solicitor.
But Rau did not throw away that jersey and she did not forget about Michael. When her husband passed away in the 1960s she gathered all of her children around and showed them a photograph of this young Irish man who had visited Dunedin in 1930. She produced the jersey and said that it was very important that Michael’s family in Ireland would get it back.
Rau gave the jersey to her youngest daughter Robyn Opie who has spent much of her life travelling. Robyn carried the jersey with her on her travels for more than thirty years. Every time she heard an Irish accent she would tell them the story. Several times she got close to finding them.
But it wasn’t until this summer when Robyn happened to meet Irish former MEP Eoin Ryan in London and told him the story that the Dunne family were finally located.
Robyn came over to Ireland in August and presented the jersey – still in immaculate condition – to Peter Dunne and his three sisters Elizabeth, Kathryn and Annette.
The Documentary on One was there and on the eve of the All Blacks v. Ireland game on the 24th November, will broadcast “Lions on Tour – the Jersey Returns!” telling the incredible story of the return of this well-travelled jersey.
Michael Dunne was one of five Irish players who went on that tour to Australia and New Zealand. The other players were:
Jimmy Farrell, Bective RFC
Dr Paul Murray, Wanderers RFC
Fl Lieutenant (RAF) George Beamish, Leicester RFC
and Henry O’Hara O’Neill, Queens University FC
Diary readings by Michael Dunne - grandson of Michael J. Dunne
Other readings by Hilary Norton, Philippa Gee and Anthony Whittal.
Narrated and produced by Nicoline Greer.
Recordings by Ciaran Cassidy.
Sound supervision by Mark McGrath.
First broadcast Saturday 23rd November 2013, RTE Radio 1, 2pm.
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