Tonore was born to a high-ranking family in Puketapu, near Napier. Her father died after being wounded in a battle with the forces of chief Te Kooti in 1868, and aged about 13, Airini was sent to live as a tamaiti whangai with her mother's uncle, chief Renata Kawepo, in Omahu.
In 1877 she married the Irish immigrant and estate manager, George Prior Donnelly. The were a well-to-do family and Tonore (the Maori form of Donnelly) was presented to the Queen in 1904 while on a tour of Europe.
During her childhood she became an expert in tribal genealogy and the court procedures and legislation dealing with Maori land, especially the punitive and mostly illegal confiscations and imposed leaseholds by the government following the mid-century Maori Wars. For over 30 years she spent a great deal of time successfully involved in litigation for herself (she inherited part-ownership of a number of tracts) and on behalf of her tribe.
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