Much to love about Perth but family draws emigrants home
The prospect of finding work in Ireland is a big issue for Irish abroad hoping to return
Irish nurse Ruth Abbott at Scarborough Beach in Western Australia. Photograph: Philip Gostelow
Annie Armitage and husband Antoine Maher at Claisebrook Cove, East Perth. Photograph: Philip Gostelow
Social worker Sinéad Glackin, who moved back to Australia three years ago.
Carpenter Alan McCarthy. “I always wanted to go to Australia; everyone does when they are young, thinking of the sun and the sand.”
During a recent visit to Australia, The Irish Times held a focus group in Perth to explore how Irish people who had moved there in the last decade feel about life in the most isolated city in the world, versus what they expect it would be like in Ireland if they were to move home.
How does the lifestyle compare? What is their impression of the Irish economy from afar? What are the best things about living in Perth? And the worst?
And do they ultimately plan to move back or stay put?
In 2013, at the height of the mining boom, Western Australia was the most popular state for Irish workers on four-year employer-sponsored (subclass 457) visas, with more than 4,000 Irish living there on those visas in June that year.
The downturn in the industry – and related construction and extraction sectors – as demand for iron ore from China dropped in the past two years has had a significant impact on prospects for Irish workers, but new immigrants from Ireland continue to arrive, to work in the trades and health in particular.
In March this year there were 1,890 Irish on these visas living in Western Australia.
Recent surveys, including one published by Crosscare Migrant Project last week, have shown that employment prospects in Ireland are the biggest concern among Irish people living abroad who are looking to move home, and this was certainly evident among the group in Perth.
All agreed they would have to take a substantial salary cut if they moved back to Ireland, and pay much higher taxes.
Other concerns included the high cost of car insurance, high rents, and limited job opportunities outside the big cities.
There was no doubt among them of the lifestyle sacrifices they would have to make, most notably the outdoorsy activities on offer in the world’s sunniest city.
But there was one constant they all said that could bring them home in the longer term: family.
Ruth Abbott, nurse
Myself and my partner had a great social life in Dublin but meeting the bills was hard every month. We wanted to travel but we couldn’t save any money. I was sick of working as a nurse in Ireland. It was extremely stressful. I would come home every evening and cry.
One night I came home and said, “we’re going to Australia”. We arrived in Perth last October to a house party of 60 people, some old friends I hadn’t met in years, others I hadn’t met before, everyone hugging and asking what we worked at, saying they could help out with contacts.
My partner got a job straight away, but it took me a while to get my registration and find work as there was an embargo on public health recruitment.
So I did agency work, which was amazing. Agency nurses earn ridiculous money here. I don’t know how the hospitals can afford to pay that much. You go in and do eight hours with four patients. I haven’t come home crying at all.
There are no patients on trolleys. They come in, they are admitted straight away, the porter brings them to a bed. I came from a hospital where patients could spend four days on a trolley. I have since got a permanent job.
I do not want to go back to Ireland to work as a nurse. I am not one to Ireland-bash – I love Ireland, it is my home, and I can’t wait to go back to visit. But the quality of life here is just incredible.
We were only here four months when I found out I was pregnant. We had a big decision to make, but we decided to stay. Our finances are much better here, which is a big factor. We would get the children’s allowance at home but that isn’t a reason to go back no matter what my mother tries to tell me!
Long-term, I think we would go home in about five years. But as the last few months have proven, anything can happen.
Alan McCarthy, carpenter
I have had the travel bug all my life. I left Ireland when I was 20 to play hurling in Boston and ended up staying five years. I went home then and bought an apartment, and was there for two years. I always wanted to go to Australia; everyone does when they are young, thinking of the sun and the sand.
I had a good job in Ireland as a supervisor for a timber frame company. I left in 2007 for six months to go travelling. I came straight to Perth and got a job with another friend and realised it is good here. Work was easy, the lifestyle was unbelievable. Within two years I had built a house of my own.
I set up my own business then, renovating houses, still thinking it would be short term. I am still here nine years later.
I’d be lost without the GAA. It’s just like home, people come out and someone knows someone, it helps you get along. You constantly meet new people.
But it can be a bit isolating here sometimes. I have a dog but there’s no one to mind him when I go on holidays; you take those little things for granted in Ireland.
It is always in the back of my head to go home. It is not homesickness really, it is just about being around family and friends. My parents just left, and it hit me how they are getting older. I’m at that stage now where I stay for good or I go home and set myself up.
People give out that there is no work at home but it is getting better, and you’ll always find something if you are willing.
In my trade it is about making your own luck – it is dog eat dog no matter what country you are in. The lifestyle is a bit different though; my poor dog will have to put up with swimming in cold water for the rest of his life. I’ll be leaving my shorts here and forgetting about the sunshine.
But I’m not too worried about that; we were born with the rain, the dark clouds.
Annie Armitage, pharmacy retail manager
I have been here four years this October, when I am going to go for my citizenship. I turned 26 at home, and realised I hadn’t travelled, so I booked a one-way ticket to Perth. Two weeks later I met my husband-to-be. We had to decide very quickly about our relationship, and he ended up coming with me.
If I hadn’t met him I would have done the one-year backpacking around that everyone else does. I wouldn’t have come to Perth. But he is a plumber and had to stay where the work was. I am glad we stayed. I love that it is really quiet. We usually go home for Christmas, and Grafton Street is like hell on Earth for me.
We got married in Ireland this year, and since we got back I have been finding things hard. I don’t know if it is a come down from the wedding...I usually get really homesick at this time of year here because Perth is pretty crap in winter. There’s nothing to do – it is a summer place.
We have had a lot of discussions about what we are going to do. My mum would love us to move home.
We would like to buy a house – should we do that in Australia or Ireland?
Perth ticks all the boxes, but if we have kids it is the grandparents-grandchildren relationship we’d be missing out on here, as well as cousins, aunties, uncles...You can Skype them but it is not the same.
We both do the same jobs as we did at home, we go out the same amount, but it is quality of life here that is so amazing. But I don’t know if that is just embedded in my brain now. Is it really true?
Sinéad Glackin, social worker
I first emigrated to Australia when I was seven with my family. I lived in Sydney for 12 years. My mum hit 40, and decided she wanted to move back to Ireland. I was 19, feeling like I had been dragged back. I stayed 15 years. I swore I wasn’t going to do the back and forth thing, that I was going to stick in one place.
I went back to university as a mature student and graduated in 2011 and struggled to find work in social care. That is the last thing to make a comeback after a recession, so leaving Ireland made sense.
My partner Laura, who I have been with for six years, worked in a hardware store. I had a great part-time job working with LGBT young people, but the funding was cut. We were struggling financially. I had an Australian passport, so we said let’s go and see what happens.
We had no big plan, we were just broke in Ireland with no prospects.
We’ve been here three years now. I am working here as a case manager in the WA Aids Council, which I love.
I find the homesickness really hard and I am constantly torn. I know I wouldn’t get a great job if we went back, and Laura wouldn’t either. We spend all our money and our annual leave saving to go home.
The last time we were home was just after the marriage referendum. That was a really bittersweet moment. We were obviously so happy, but we felt so far away. We had a little party here anyway.
Her permanent residency application has just been approved based on our relationship, but we couldn’t get married here if we wanted to, so that might be something that would take us home.
The Irish in Perth on…
The economy in Perth
Alan: The economy is quieting down but it is still busy enough. A lot of my friends here are bricklayers, and they get treated like pigs, they don't get paid some weeks. A lot of people are going to Sydney. Sydney is booming. A lot of people are going home too, or to Canada or America.
Sinead: My cousin landed on my doorstep recently, and stayed six weeks because they couldn't find a job. It is getting harder. I think there is a bigger downturn on the way. It probably won't be anything like what we know from Ireland though.
Ruth: It is not as easy to find work as it was. Irish nurses who arrived two years before me walked into jobs. But if you are willing to work hard and prove yourself you will get something. But that is the same at home too I think. There are always jobs, it just depends on what you are going to accept.
Annie: Last Christmas my husband was made redundant. Everyone says there is a downturn, but it is not like Ireland.
The famous Aussie lifestyle
Ruth: There is so much to do here, with outdoor cinema, events in the parks... there's the GAA if you are into that, and now I'm having a baby, there are loads of family activities. At home, there might be things going on in Dublin, but I am from Offaly so there's the local and little else. It was great craic and I would have been the first in the door, but it is the same every weekend. Not everything here revolves around alcohol. The weather is a big thing. If you are in a bad mood, you can just go outside and it is sunny and it just lifts you.
Sinead: You do so much more during the week here. After work you can thrown together a picnic and hit the beach. Last year we randomly bought a boat. We were on the shores of the Swan River with our friends, and we said wouldn't it be great to own a boat. It was nothing between the four of us. Then they left and we had to sell it, but we have the memories.
Alan: It is embedded in our culture at home to drink. The pub is where you go to meet people, there is nothing else to do. Here, you can meet your friends on the beach, in a park, go for coffee. You still have a drink, but you are doing something else as well, like having a barbecue or a garden party. We are in the middle of nowhere here in Perth, but it is great for travelling. At home you'd be lucky to get abroad once a year for a holiday. Here I go to Asia a lot. That is something I am going to really miss when I leave.
Annie: I hated the first three months here. It wasn't until I started working and made friends that I got over it. But every winter I go into a bit of a depression, and start questioning what I am doing here. The weather I think has a lot to do with it. My group of friends here is shrinking as the Irish people move back home.
I thought I was missing out on loads at home, but my friends have told me I'm not missing much at all. They don't see each other that often, it is only when people are back from abroad that everyone meets up. Everyone is getting married now and having kids, it is not like it was when we were 20 and going to Coppers every week.
Ruth: The distance is the hardest thing; if you could go home on a two-hour flight we would have no hesitation about staying here forever. I have nieces and nephews. When I left my niece was crawling and now she is walking, you feel guilty that you don't get to see that, or to share the happiness. Now my family won't be there when my child starts walking. It is a huge thing, especially for Irish families because we are so close. The 1916 commemorations was a big thing. I felt very homesick knowing that was happening in Ireland.
Sinead: I find it hard to make friends. It is a fine balance, trying not to come across as too keen, trying to find people that are your kind of people. A couple we are good friends with went home recently to get married, and we are just heartbroken. All of a sudden, we have no one to go out with on a Saturday night. If you have kids or if you are sporty, I think it is much easier. The Aussies have a different sense of humour, they don't really get sarcasm, and they have their connections, so they don't need to meet new people. It can be really lonely.
The Irish reputation in Australia
Alan: When the crash happened, so many Irish people moved out here, and like there is at home, there were good people and bad people. There was one family who were robbing a lot of houses around Perth, pretending to be roofers and doing driveway paving jobs and that was on the news a lot. That gave the Irish a bad name.
Everyone thinks we are alcoholics, even though I think the Aussies drink more. The reputation got so bad here a few years ago that there were jobs being advertised with “No Irish need apply”. You'd often hear about the Irish being discriminated against when applying for houses, because houses had been wrecked.
Annie: We used my husband's name when applying for houses for that reason, because his name is French, and I really think it helped.
Sinead: Laura used to tell me to put on my Australian accent when calling up about a house. You would see stories in the newspapers about Irish people getting really drunk and doing stupid things. And the media always make a point of emphasising that the person was Irish.
Alan: The Irish have a great reputation work-wise. They have a saying here, that WA stands for “wait awhile”. And it’s true! That laid-back attitude the Australians are famous for transfers at work too. That is why there are so many Irish managers, project managers, business owners, supervisors doing well over here.
Sinead: There is a bit of an anti-Irish sentiment creeping in, especially when things are getting a bit tougher economically. I got on a bus recently and the Irish bus driver greeted everyone getting on. Another Irish girl started chatting away to him, and then this Australian woman said “That'd be right, f***ing Irish everywhere.” You get that a lot.
Alan: I pay about 28 per cent tax here. Getting taxed so much is a worry going back home. It is definitely something I am considering when weighing up Perth versus Ireland. The government pays your pension here too. If you earn $1,000 per week, they pay 10 per cent on top of that. Most people I know at home have no pension, and that is big trouble coming down the tracks.
Ruth: At home you pay about 50 per cent tax if you're earning over €36,000. Even if you are on less than that, and you try to work overtime to make some extra money, half it goes on tax. Why would you bother?
Sinead: Even for me, working for a non-profit here, the wages are good. And there are tax breaks. I can assign a certain amount of my wages to go on rent and it will be tax free, or on entertainment, which includes eating out in restaurants and cafes, and on things like sunglasses and sun cream.
Concerns about moving home
Sinead: Job prospects, definitely. I would be going back to a JobBridge scheme, or something else way below my qualifications. I'm afraid to even think what my credit rating would be like. I'm here three years, I have a good savings pattern, a good credit rating. We are hoping next year to apply for a mortgage. I know a lot of people here are thinking the same, will I have that big black mark against my name with the banks if I go back?
Ruth: You have to have a certain percentage deposit now to get a mortgage and that is really high, especially if you are a middle-income earner. You have to go wherever the work is in Ireland so you don't have a huge choice about where you live.
Alan: I have been hearing of people quoted €2,500 for car insurance when they move back from abroad. That is crazy. There is talk of a recovery, but how can you go back to that? I know people who are taking the risk and driving without insurance, because they just can't afford to pay for it.
You read about a housing shortage, but you wonder how on earth could there be, with all the empty housing estates that were left behind. Homelessness has gone through the roof.
I have resigned myself to starting again from scratch. I know I won't make the same money I make out here. I will be giving up a lot. I was at home for a wedding for the first time in four years, and I sussed out jobs. I was offered work making kitchens. It wasn't as good as what I do here, but it would be a start.
This article was researched with the support of the Department of Foreign Affairs' Global Irish Media Fund.