Half a lifetime in Australia
In the 1980s, Australia represented uncharted territory, a chance to get ahead, writes Philip Lynch
The first year away went in a flash. But I felt like a stranger who’d stumbled into a strange land. It took the best part of a decade to begin to feel at home here in Australia. There’s a huge difference between a trip away and a new start, which is the lot of us emigrants.
In 1983 I bought a one-way ticket to a country on the other side of the world about which I knew precious little beyond the stereotypes of bronzed, sporty Aussies, Sydney Opera House and Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it was then known.
Looking back now, my naivety was unbelievable. I had no job lined up, just somewhere to stay for a while. It could easily have gone pear-shaped, but I was determined to give it my best shot. I couldn’t go back, I told myself: there was nothing for me back home.
Ireland in the 1980s had little to offer my generation. Australia represented uncharted territory. Even though I haven’t forgotten the angst-ridden day I left, the image of my mother’s grief that morning eventually eased. I wonder if migrants’ mothers are forever destined to bear the burden of their departed children.
I was excited to gradually be able to explore this huge continent, from the astonishing vastness of the outback to the wonder of the Great Barrier Reef, the miles and miles of pristine sandy beaches, and the stunning landscape up in the Northern Territory – or the Top End, as locals affectionately call it.
Home was like a B&B
Lots had changed on my first visit back to Westmeath, after two years. It was the mid 1980s, and my younger brothers and sister were now well on their journey into adolescence. I felt I’d assumed the status of guest of honour. In the mornings, still jet-lagged, I’d get up to find my mother poised with the teapot and a place set at the table, as if I was in a B&B.
My time away had already set me apart, and all of us knew mine was only a temporary stay. I also noticed my interest in Irish politics had begun to wane. On successive visits I felt as if my Irishness was ebbing away, to be replaced by something I still can’t quite define.
I had a detached view of the Australian way of life in those first few years, too. I was bemused by the constant refrains of “No worries”, “She’ll be right” and “Fair dinkum”.
I qualified as a psychiatric nurse, and even though things were going well I wasn’t convinced I’d be in Australia long term. There was something missing. Ireland was always beckoning, always hovering in the background like an impatient adult. I still felt Irish, not Australian.
The Westmeath countryside where I spent my formative years was seared in my memory. By contrast, when I made it out beyond the sprawling suburbs of Melbourne, the bush seemed so arid and inhospitable.
In those preinternet days I’d tram it into the city to trawl through the Irish newspapers in the State Library of Victoria. I’d sit at the reading table with others, and we’d silently take in the news from home. But my trips to the library petered out.
I have now spent more than half my life here. Australia is far from perfect. Indigenous Australians continue to be over-represented in our correctional facilities, and their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than other people’s. Australia is a country of migrants, yet we are increasingly intolerant of asylum-seekers who arrive by boat.
But for this Irish bloke, Down Under has rolled out its welcome mat. I’ve clambered aboard, and it has long since ceased to be a strange land.
This article appears in the Weekend Review supplement today.