Irish in Sydney: ‘All my friends talk about moving home’
How do emigrants feel about life in Australia? What about going back to Ireland?
We have seen so many documentaries in the past decade about the Irish misbehaving down under that you could be forgiven for thinking the contingent in Sydney are summed up by backpacker bars, GAA jerseys and milk-bottle legs burning bacon-crisp on Bondi.
But far removed from the stereotype, thousands of young Irish are beavering away in top jobs in the city’s business districts and high-rises, gaining promotions at work and becoming increasingly settled in their personal lives in a city more than 17,000km from “home”.
The number of Irish moving to Australia has plummeted in the past two years as the Australian economy has tightened and Irish unemployment continues to fall. Just 6,200 went in the year to April 2016, down from 18,200 in 2012. The numbers moving in the other direction, from Australia to Ireland, have almost doubled in just 12 months, to 5,500.
But Sydney, with its booming construction and financial sectors, continues to be an attractive destination for backpackers and professionals alike.
During a recent visit to Australia The Irish Times held a focus group in Sydney to meet some of the young Irish people who have made the city home in recent years, to find out about life there versus what they expect it would be like if they moved back to Ireland.
Is the famous Sydney lifestyle as good as it is made out to be? What are the best things about living there, and the biggest challenges? How do their career prospects compare between Australia and Ireland? And will they ultimately move back or stay in Sydney?
Elaine Doyle, social worker
I spent eight months searching for a job after I finished my MA in University College Cork in 2012. I couldn’t find anything at all, so I moved here. I was in Perth first, working in a mental-health service for two years. I went travelling then and ended up in Sydney. I now work at a counselling service for the Australian defence forces.
I love my life here, but for me and my friends there is a huge price we pay, missing our friends’ weddings and family funerals. It is difficult for my family too. I think if I was to have kids here it would break their hearts.
My friends talk about moving home all the time. As a single person, it is easy for me because it is my decision alone. Will it be this year or next? I don’t know. But I am definitely going back. At home, you have to do without the sunshine and the lifestyle, but at least you have your friends and family.
Gavin Grace, fire protection engineer
I did my master’s in 2010 in mechanical engineering but couldn’t get work in my field. I was working as a fund accountant for a while but didn’t like it, so I saved to come out here in May 2012. I worked in PJ O’Brien’s, an Irish bar in the city, for a while before I got an engineering job and was sponsored to stay. Now I am a fire protection engineer, designing sprinkler systems and protection systems for buildings.
I am doing a three-year MA through my company, so for the foreseeable future I will be here. The longer you stay in Australia, the harder it gets to leave. I am definitely happier.
The lifestyle is incredible; the work-life balance is nailed down. You can’t beat sitting out under the sun having a nice breakfast in a pair of shorts, even in “winter”. It is hard being away from friends and family though, so that is always a big draw to home.
Stephanie Lyons, chief risk officer, pensions
I had worked with KPMG as a chartered accountant in Dublin for three years, and the plan was always to take a round-the-world trip. I came to Australia on a working-holiday visa in 2009 thinking I’d spend a year here. I fell in love with Sydney and decided to stay.
The Sydney office of KPMG took me on board and eventually sponsored me. I worked there for four years, before I got offered another job working on pension funds. I am now chief risk officer. I became an Australian citizen in September 2015, which was a very proud day.
I’ve been in Sydney seven years now and I have really adapted to the local lifestyle. I’ve been away from Ireland so long, I think if I moved back things would be very different. A lot of my friends have moved on, married and started having children. It would be like moving to a new country all over again and trying to fit in. I don’t have any intention of moving back.
Carol Friel, music programmer
I left Ireland in 2012 to travel around Asia for six months, with a flight booked to Australia at the end. As soon as I arrived I realised how expensive it was and had to get a job quickly. In Ireland I worked creating in-store music for retailers. The company had an office here, and offered me a job. What was meant to be temporary work has turned into a better career than any I could achieve in Ireland.
I have been with an Australian guy for four years and am in the process of applying for permanent residency with him, so it looks like I’m here for the long term.
The lifestyle is a huge reason to stay. It sounds so trivial to talk about the sun, but I never have to think about what it is like outside.
But that’s not to say it’s all rosy. I worry about the future: the ridiculous cost of rent and property in Sydney; the fact that to pay for private primary and secondary education is the norm here; and the distance from aging parents is always on my mind.
Irish economy: What is your impression of the “recovery” in Ireland from afar?
Carol: Things definitely seem to be improving, but in certain sectors only. I don’t think the “recovery” would affect me.
Gavin: You hear stories about recovery, but I try to take it with a pinch of salt. I have an architect friend at home who says they are getting busier, but he is comparing that to when he was unemployed. I am sceptical. I think I would move to London before Dublin. My job is very reliant on construction, and Sydney is booming. There are signs that the Australian economy is slowing a little, but you wouldn’t know it from the construction industry in Sydney. There are cranes everywhere. There is such a shortage of housing that they can’t stop building. As we’ve seen from the crash in Ireland, that can all slip out from under you very quickly and that is constantly at the back of my mind; but I don’t see that happening here.
Work: How do the opportunities compare between Ireland and Sydney?
Gavin: I don’t think I would have a problem getting a job in Dublin now, because I have got great experience here. A lot of the companies in Ireland would be aware of the companies I have worked for because of the number of Irish who came out in the last few years. Ireland is very ageist, but companies here seem more willing to give people opportunities if they deserve them, regardless of age. And that’s across all industries. I know guys working in finance who have had three promotions in four years. I would be afraid of regressing in my career back home. I would rather be a small fish in a big bowl than a big fish with no room to progress.
Elaine: Ireland might be doing a bit better, but my career opportunities are still much better here as the social work sector is much more developed. I would probably find a job in Ireland, but it wouldn’t be close to as good as the one I have. My goal is to get as much hands-on experience here as possible, and go home and get a job in a university or something. Social work in Ireland is very under-resourced. I have friends who were working in counselling here, and have moved home and got temporary jobs in child protection in Ireland, because that seems to be the only option. They don’t get sick days or paid holidays. They tell me to stay in Australia, that I am lucky to still be here.
Stephanie: The industry I work in is a global one. Job opportunity is one thing that doesn’t scare me about moving back, because I’m sure I’d be able to get a job. When I moved to KPMG in Sydney, even though it was the same company I was working for in Ireland, I got a much more senior position. Things are more stagnant in Ireland, because there are fewer senior roles and people tend to move around less.
Carol: The media sector is so small in Ireland, which is limiting. I don’t think the job I do here even exists in Ireland and, if it does, I would have to wait for that one person to leave. I felt the attitude in most workplaces in Ireland was that if you had a job at all, you should be grateful.
Taxes, wages and cost of living: How do they compare between Ireland and Australia?
Stephanie: In Ireland the effective tax rate is about 50 per cent, but it is much less here. The salaries are much lower in Ireland too. If you want to save to buy a house, you are probably in a much better position here than you could ever be in Ireland.
Elaine: When I am ready to move home to Ireland to have a family, I don’t think any of those things will stop me. When I look at all the Irish people I know who have left Australia recently, it is because they are ready to be back close to friends and family and their network again. Yes, there are sacrifices, like lower wages and higher taxes. But for me, that’s not the be-all and end-all.
Gavin: For me it wouldn’t be a deal-breaker either. But you do have to weigh up costs. Sydney has a really high cost of living, but if you compare salaries with Dublin, Sydney beats it hands down. Dublin is a rip-off, especially for rent. A few friends at home have managed to buy property but only because they moved back in with their parents to save.
Carol: I don’t think there is a hope in hell of me ever being able to afford to buy a house in Sydney, or have a 20 per cent deposit for a house in Ireland either. That’s the sacrifice I make for working in media, in Australia or Ireland. There is a perception that the wages are phenomenal here. Yes, they are a bit higher. But it depends on your sector. The cost of living is really high and rents are astronomical.
Relationships: You all arrived single, has that changed?
Stephanie: I am with an American guy who I met here through work. Every time we go “home”, we fly to Ireland and then to the US before coming back to Australia. He lived in Ireland a few years ago, so if there was ever a scenario where we had to move back, he’d be happy to do it. If there was an opportunity to move to America, I’d be open to that too.
Carol (whose partner is Australian): We haven’t even talked about the possibility of moving to Ireland. The first time he visited was the first time in his life he had to buy a scarf, and that was in summer. I look at the kids playing on the beaches here and it isn’t even a question. I grew up in Westport, which is a great town for pubs and socialising, but I can count on one hand the number of days we spent on the beach as a kid. But you never know what will happen, in 10 years’ time I might have a totally unexpected longing to go home.
Elaine: I’ve had a few relationships with Australians but there comes a point when I’ve had to make the decision to continue it or break up. What’s the point if I love Ireland so much and I don’t want to stay here forever? I now only try to date Irish people.
Gavin: I met my (Irish) girlfriend while I was home for Christmas in 2014. We kept in touch and six months later she came out with a few friends and we met again and are together since.
Social life: How did you meet people? Are they mostly Irish or Australian?
Gavin: Rugby has been a big thing for me in terms of making friends. I joined the Eastern Suburbs club with my friend Conor and made some really good Australian friends. I moved to the Sydney Irish club when it formed; it is really social and the training times are more accommodating when you work full-time. We play once a week on a Saturday. Myself and my girlfriend play tag on the same team – tag has become really popular here – and we have got to know other couples through that.
Elaine: I had a huge network of friends – Irish and other nationalities – in Perth, but when I moved to Sydney I had to start all over again. I have family here, which helps. When I got here first, the loneliness was overwhelming. Even when you get to know people, you don’t have a shared history or a knowledge of each other’s backgrounds. The friendships aren’t as deep. I have travelled to a lot of places and have made friends from different countries, and I have to admit, I find it easier to be friends with Irish people.
Carol: I arrived with some friends, but one by one they left. It is tough sometimes. I’m turning 30 soon, and I don’t think I’ll be having a big celebration, because I just don’t have the friends here that I would at home. I think at this age it is hard to make new friends. If I was single I might be making more of an effort to socialise. If I played sport it would help but I’m not sporty. I work with a lot of French people and they are my long-term friends now.
Stephanie: I have a mix of Irish, Aussie and international friends. I lived in Bondi when I moved here, and did bootcamp every morning on the beach, which was a great way to meet people. I lived with an Irish girl, an Aussie and an American; the Irish girl was a colleague too and is now my best mate here. I sail and have made friends through that too. My close Irish friend is like me, she will probably stay here, but every year more and more of the Irish I know are going back home. A lot of them wait until they get their citizenship and then they go. Family and friends are the main reason – they are having kids themselves or their brothers and sisters are starting families and they want to be there.
Elaine: A lot of Irish people I know here are moving home now, to have kids, to be around family. It is really hard when your social network which you’ve spent a lot of effort to build begins to dissolve. That’s another reason why I would move home. I have an uncle here who moved over in the 1980s; he has some Australian friends, but all the Irish he knew have gone back to Ireland.
What are the big challenges living far from ‘home’?
Elaine: I worked with the Claddagh Association in Perth, which offered a counselling service, and I met a lot of Irish people who would probably never have had mental health issues at home in Ireland. The same challenges came up time and time again – difficulty making friends, missing home, moving house every few months, going to view a car to buy and having no one to bring for a second opinion – all these things built up and led to anxiety and depression. I do think people living far away from home are more susceptible. It is not all sunshine and beaches. We work hard, and we do without important things like family and friends to help us. There is a lot of extra costs too when you are without those supports, because there’s no one around to do you a favour. And if you lose your job, there’s no financial back-up.
Carol: Australia is a great place when you have a job and secure employment. I have friends who would have stayed on but couldn’t get sponsored, or couldn’t find a secure job. The cost of living is so high that you just don’t have the luxury of time to be looking for work. Apartments are unfurnished, so there are huge costs in getting set up. That was a big shock for me, having to buy a bed and a fridge and having no one to help.
Gavin: You learn a lot about yourself and how resilient you can be when you move this far away. You have to be, you don’t have a choice.
Do you get homesick?
Stephanie: After my trips back home I really suffer. Saying goodbye in the airport is really hard and those few days afterwards are the low point. That’s the time when I swear I’m moving back to Ireland. But you get over it quite quickly.
Gavin: The first time I went back for Christmas, my mum and sister dropped me to the airport and I got on the plane wondering what on earth I was doing going back to Australia. The next morning I had a medical for my permanent residency application, and I walked down in my T-shirt and flip-flops with a coffee in hand, thinking, What was I so concerned about? When I went home the second time it was much easier. I still get the odd pang, especially when I’m missing out on something, like when my two friends got married recently. My sister had a baby boy and I’m missing out on seeing him. But we still get to see each other on Skype or FaceTime.
Carol: I go home every 18 months. It is great when I’m home and people make the effort to see me and get everyone together, but I know it is not like that all the time; everyone is older now and things are different. When the time comes to go back to Australia, I am usually ready.
Elaine: I don’t get day-to-day homesickness, it is only when I go back to Ireland that I feel that way. My travel journal from the last time I was back says “please move home soon”. I have a very strong love for Ireland which is pulling me back. But I have travelled to some amazing places, and I now have a love for them too. Once you leave Ireland and realise the career opportunities and the lifestyle available in other places, how can you ever settle in just one place when there are so many other amazing places to live? It is almost a curse.
Gavin: The travel time is a killer; at least 24 hours, if you are lucky. To me, that is a big deterrent to staying long-term.
Carol: Travel time is a big thing for me too. I don’t mind the flying itself, I am used to it now. It is the thought of being so far away if anything was to happen. I had to go home for my granny’s funeral a year after arriving here, and that cost $2,500 (€1,750) which I wasn’t planning for.
Stephanie: It is only 24 hours. I went to UCC and am from Kildare, so sometimes I wouldn’t go home for a few months. Living here, I try to get back every six months. So it is not a huge difference. My dad passed away last year. Fortunately I got home in time to be there with him.
Family: How do your families feel about you living so far away?
Stephanie: My dad was always very supportive of me living here in Australia. He never asked when I was coming home, and that was really important to me. My parents’ support has given me courage to embrace my life here.
Carol: Before I came out here my mam cried for a day. My parents never say it, but I know they would be delighted if I said I was moving home. It is an unspoken topic really. My mam knows I am happy here, and I know she is happy I’m happy.
Elaine: When I went, they were really supportive. I know they miss me a lot. If your parents are supportive of you being out here it does make it much easier.
Gavin: My parents have been great. My mum is the last of her family left in Ireland; the rest have gone to the US or London. She was bawling dropping me to the airport when I was leaving, and dropping me to the airport when I was home to visit the last time – typical Irish mammy stuff – but she has been so supportive. I know others here whose parents are always asking when they are moving home. If my parents had been like that I probably wouldn’t have lasted. They tell me it is my life and I have to do what is best for me. They have been here twice and they love it. That definitely helps.
Returning: Is there anything you think should be done to help emigrants to move back?
Elaine: A few years ago representatives from the Australian government were coming to the RDS to tell Irish people they were wanted in Australia. The Irish Government needs to be doing something similar now to get us back. It is their responsibility to try to get all those people back home who felt forced to go, especially people in the public sector like teachers and nurses.
Carol: I don’t think emigrants need to be incentivised to return, but they should be given the same opportunities as people living in Ireland. Insurance is one example; I’ve heard a lot about how expensive it is for returning emigrants. Another issue is how hard it is to get your children into a school in your local area if you move home. I think that is a big barrier.
Stephanie: You shouldn’t be punished for going away to get a job and make a success of yourself.
Gavin: It is the Government’s responsibility. The barriers need to be lifted. If we want to go back and buy a house, we have to have a 30 per cent deposit rather than 20 per cent because we have lived abroad for more than four years. To me that is totally unfair. I looked into doing my MA in Ireland, only to be told by Trinity College Dublin that I would be considered a non-EU resident because I had been living abroad for three years, and the fees would be doubled. I was furious, as someone who was born and raised there – whose parents pay tax; I paid tax – that someone from another country in the EU has more rights than I do. It made me very resentful. It is a big deterrent to moving home now, that narrowmindedness.