Most emigrants who settle in Australia will not return

The Irish who move to Australia tend to stick together, but through Facebook and GAA rather than the pub

Antipodean idyll: the laid-back lifestyle and the beautiful beaches, such as on Fraser Island in  Queensland, attract Irish people to Australia. Photograph: Tourism Australia

Antipodean idyll: the laid-back lifestyle and the beautiful beaches, such as on Fraser Island in Queensland, attract Irish people to Australia. Photograph: Tourism Australia


With some of the “best cities in the world”, beautiful beaches, sunny skies and a laidback lifestyle, it’s no wonder Australia attracts so many Irish, despite the distance from home.

There has been a slight fall this year in the number of Irish moving down under – a result of a slowdown in the Australian economy and the rising popularity of Canada – yet it remains the second-most-popular country, after the UK, for Irish people to emigrate to.

It’s a destination for all sorts of migrants, from graduate backpackers on the east coast to tradesmen with families searching for work in the mines. But there have been significant demographic changes among the Irish arriving over.

The average age of those leaving Ireland has risen. There are fewer people in their early 20s and more people in their 30s and 40s with young children. Even the under-30s on working-holiday visas are older than they used to be, according to Edwina Shanahan of the Irish migration agency VisaFirst.

“Parents don’t have the funds to pay for their children to travel like they used to,” she says. “Even college leavers going on working-holiday visas want a job in their field so they can gain experience . . . They don’t just want a backpacking job any more.”

In the past year Shanahan has noticed a significant increase in professionals such as teachers, accountants and civil servants quitting full-time jobs to go. “Lifestyle is creeping up now as a motivating factor. People are looking for a better way of life.”

Resource-rich Western Australia has overtaken New South Wales as the most popular destination for employer-sponsored workers from Ireland, followed by Victoria and Queensland.

Although most Irish people are still settling in the urban centres of Melbourne, Sydney and Perth – which all make it on to the ‘Economist’ magazine’s list of top 10 cities in the world to live in – the wider regions are becoming more popular, Shanahan says.

“The cost of living is much lower, salaries are still decent and employers are willing to offer opportunities for permanent residency. When the Irish move there they often really like it and end up staying.”

Of 1,500 online surveys carried out by University College Cork’s Emigre project this year, more than 400 were completed by Irish people who have settled in Australia over the past decade. The researchers found that the Irish in Australia tend to stick together, with 64 per cent of respondents living with at least one other Irish person, and 66 per cent socialising regularly with other Irish people. Two-thirds have friends or family already living in their destination.

There’s some truth behind the stereotype of the Paddy down under playing GAA on Bondi. The GAA has grown in popularity, with experienced players, some of whom have lined out for their counties at home, joining up alongside novices who are taking up the game as a social and networking opportunity.

The number of players now registered in Australia with the Gaelic Football and Hurling Association of Australasia is approaching 4,000, up from fewer than 2,400 in 2007.

Facebook has replaced the traditional role of the Irish club or pub, a place to share advice on anything from applying for visas to finding a decent hairdresser. The Irish People Living in Australia page now has more than 21,000 subscribers, and the Irish Families in Perth group has surpassed 4,000, with members regularly meeting for coffee mornings, sports events, parties and Irish-language and dance classes.

Emigrants’ existing and new Irish connections are helpful during the settling-in period, with 27 per cent of new arrivals finding a job through another Irish person, and 38 per cent using Irish contacts while searching for a place to live.

Fifty-seven per cent of all emigrants surveyed had full-time jobs in Ireland before leaving; 87 per cent of those now in Australia are employed full time. Just 2.8 per cent said they were unemployed. They are much happier in the workplace, with an average job satisfaction of 7.6 out of 10 in Australia compared with 5.4 in Ireland, and are also much more positive about their salaries and career prospects, both with an average satisfaction rating of 8 out of 10.

But higher wages are mitigated in part by the cost of living, which was mentioned frequently by participants in the study. Rents are particularly high in Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

The benefits of a healthier lifestyle and improved career prospects also come at an emotional cost. Many of the UCC-study participants in Australia said they were concerned about not being able to support family members if they became ill, and they felt the distance from home more acutely than their counterparts in Europe, the US or Canada.

Just 44 per cent of recent emigrants to Australia return to Ireland on an annual visit; a similar number come back every two or three years.

Despite the stereotypes often bandied about of “drunken Paddies down under”, the Irish themselves feel their national reputation is good. Just 4 per cent of respondents to the UCC survey said they didn’t feel accepted by local people because of their nationality.

So what are their plans? Almost one person in three is undecided about where they want to be in three years; a similar number would like to come home; and the same again definitely don’t. More than half said it was unlikely or very unlikely to happen in reality.

Summing it up, the Emigre project leader, Piaras MacÉinri, says his overall impression is that more Irish will end up staying in Australia than coming back, in the long run, even if they are keeping their minds open.

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