Airini Nga Roimata Grennell was born on 11 February 1910 at Waitangi in the Chatham Islands, the eldest of five children. Her father, William Henry Grennell, was a farmer and fisherman at Matarakau on the northern side of the main island. He was of Ngati Mutunga, Ngati Tama, Irish and American extraction. Airini’s mother was Mary Hazel Teripa Tikao, the daughter of Hone Taare Tikao and his wife, Martha Hana Toku Horomona (Hannah Solomon Score), who were of Ngai Tahu (known locally as Kai Tahu).
Around 1920 the Grennells moved to the South Island and stayed at Akaroa with Mary’s family until their homestead was completed at Koukourarata (Port Levy). Airini was sent to Sacred Heart Girls’ College, Christchurch, where she became a keen sportswoman, representing Canterbury in golf and basketball, and developed an appreciation for music. Around the age of 18 she travelled to England to study music professionally, gaining an LTCL and LRSM in teaching the piano and singing.
On 11 February 1931 at Christchurch, Airini Grennell married Hone Wereta, a farmer of Ngati Raukawa; later that year a daughter was born to them. During the 1930s Airini and Hone separated, and Airini went back to studying music full time. Her parents shared in the upbringing of her daughter.
The Grennells were part of the Koukourarata concert party run by their aunt Rahera Tainui. They performed regularly around Banks Peninsula, to raise money for the community during the depression, and later for servicemen and their families during the Second World War. In 1935 Airini and her sister Hinemoa also joined the Waiata Maori Choir, organised by the Reverend A. J. Seamer. Members of influential families throughout Maoridom belonged, including Te Uira Manihera and Inia Te Wiata. The choir travelled extensively, and in December began a tour of Australia. In 1937 they toured England, and following his coronation were presented to King George VI. After visiting India in 1938 the choir disbanded.
Airini’s attention then turned to radio, and in October 1938 she joined 4ZB in Dunedin as a programme assistant; her trained voice and excellent diction in both Maori and English fitted her well for this position. In 1940 her ‘Songs of the Islands’ session was very popular. During the Second World War Airini travelled with radio announcers to sing and play the piano for community concerts and to raise money. A talented soprano, she became known affectionately as the ‘Chatham Islands Nightingale’.
By the end of the war Airini had moved to Auckland, where she worked at 1ZB as a programme assistant. By 1949 she had returned to Christchurch and worked with both 3YA and 3ZB as an announcer. She helped to organise a series of radio programmes for women on 3YA and to initiate a network of women’s programmes on national radio. Airini was the commentator for five royal tours.
In March 1958 her husband, Hone, died and on 25 November that year, at Christchurch, Airini married Rudolf Gopas, a well-known painter and photographer from Lithuania who lectured at the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts. Airini continued her career in broadcasting until 1966 when, after 28 years in radio, she retired. She made a brief appearance on television, one of the first Maori women to do so.
Airini enjoyed her retirement among her people, becoming a respected leader of Horomaka Kai Tahu and Taranaki–Wharekauri Ngati Mutunga, playing the piano at family gatherings and maintaining standards of speech in both Maori and English. She played golf as long as she was able, and took many family photographs. Her husband, Rudolf, and her daughter predeceased her, and after her death at Christchurch on 8 December 1988 her ashes were interred with theirs in the family burial ground at Rapaki. Intellectually curious, witty and yet humble, Airini had helped to bring about a renaissance in Maori culture.