When things go wrong far from home
THIRTY THOUSAND people marched through the streets of Melbourne last Sunday afternoon to honour murdered Irish woman Jill Meagher. Some carried placards and banners. Others held Irish flags or wore green scarves.
Among the hundreds of bouquets of flowers laid outside the shop where Meagher was last seen were pictures of shamrocks and leprechauns, and green, white and orange balloons.
“I have never been at something quite so moving in my life,” says Marion O’Hagan of the Australian Irish Welfare Bureau (AIWB) in Melbourne. “The whole community, not just the Irish community, came together in support for Jill last week, but the Irish presence was unbelievable. There were a lot of young Irish there on the march. There was a real sense among us that it could have been anyone. Times like this make everyone feel vulnerable, unsure, homesick. It is a very strange time in Melbourne at the moment. A very emotional time.”
When Meagher went missing in the early hours of September 23rd while walking home from a night out with colleagues, the Irish community in Melbourne was still mourning the death two weeks previously of 30-year-old David Greene from Cabinteely in Dublin, who was the victim of a violent incident at a backpacker hostel in the St Kilda area of the city. Greene’s friend David Byas, who was also injured in the attack, is still recovering in hospital almost six weeks later.
For welfare groups helping to support members of the Irish community in crisis, such incidents are becoming increasingly frequent as the Irish population in Australia swells. Volunteer-run organisations in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, which together make up Link Irish Australia, become a much-needed support network for Irish people or their families in Ireland in times of trouble.
“When there’s an accident or incident, the Irish embassy in Canberra contacts one of the welfare organisations, and the team of volunteers in that area mobilise to find out what they can do to assist,” O’Hagan says. “If there’s a family arriving from Ireland, we will meet them at the airport, provide somewhere for them to stay, and look after them for a full week. We organise someone to bring them to and from hospitals, or to appointments with solicitors or the police. In the case of death, we help the family through the repatriation process, and ensure the person’s friends and community left behind in Australia are looked after. It is all about making them feel they have support here they can rely on.”
The AIWB in Melbourne was on standby to provide assistance to the Meagher family, but as Jill’s parents were living in Australia, and many other federal and state agencies were involved in her case, its help was not needed. But it worked closely with the Greene family after the St Kilda assault. They thanked the bureau for its support following David Greene’s death. O’Hagan is in regular contact with David Byas’s parents, who are still in Melbourne while their son receives treatment.
THE LINKIrish Australia organisations have a much wider remit than just dealing with accidents and bereavements. They offer advice to the Irish community about housing, employment and social services, assist with passport and visa applications, visit people in hospital, prison and nursing homes, and help the isolated, widowed or bereaved.
They also host social gatherings, activities, classes and events for young mothers, families and the elderly, and help to promote Irish culture in the community. It is an impressive list of responsibilities for groups run almost entirely by volunteers.
The four Link organisations meet once a year to share ideas and discuss common concerns, and this year’s meeting in June was dominated by the rise in demand for their services from new arrivals across the country.
“In the last eight months, we have had a lot of requests from young men who have come to Australia, usually out of desperation because they couldn’t find work in Ireland, and fallen on even harder times here,” says Joan Ross of the Claddagh Association in Perth, which has recorded a 35 per cent increase in requests for assistance or advice since last year.