Happy to live where the people are luckier than they know


SYDNEY LETTER:After a decade in Australia, and despite the tyranny of distance on relationships, one family still has no worries, and no regrets

WE ARRIVED in Sydney from Dublin on August 26th, 2002. With apologies to the late Mr Armstrong, it was one small step for mankind, but one giant leap for man, woman and child.

I had previously lived in Sydney from January to December 1992 on a backpacker visa, and had visited a couple of times in the intervening years, so it was not quite a leap in the dark. But I was leaving a full-time job in The Irish Times, which, apart from childhood dreams of playing for Liverpool, was the only job I’d ever wanted.

We were also leaving the Celtic Tiger economy, which was just getting warmed up. Some people thought we were mad to go. They don’t think that now.

But if Ireland has changed vastly in recent years, so has Australia. It was the only developed nation not to go into recession during the global financial crisis, which is why it has become such a magnet for young Irish people.

The main reason Australia survived relatively unscathed was because the government pumped billions into the economy to ensure job losses were kept to a minimum. And yet the Labor Party, which saw the country through the world’s worst financial crisis since the great depression, was reduced to a minority government in 2010, hanging on with the help of independents and a Green MP.

This seemed an extraordinary act of hubris to someone who grew up in Ireland in the 1980s; but it was a situation best explained by a Co Clare man I met last Christmas at an Irish community function in Sydney. The man, who has lived in Australia for more than 40 years, said Australians had no idea how lucky they were.

He’s absolutely right.They have no idea of how bad things got, and still are, in most of the rest of the world. They have no idea what it’s like to see friends and family leave their country, not for a grand adventure but simply to find work.

The vast influx from Ireland to Australia in recent years has also seen a rise in the number of Irish people getting killed or seriously injured here.

In all too many cases, alcohol is involved.

When you come from a culture where pubs close at midnight to one where many premises have 24-hour licences, it can be hard to say no to another drink, particularly if you’ve got money in your pocket for the first time in a long time.

I know how much I drank and the stupid things I did when I was a backpacker 20 years ago, so the Irish drinking culture in Australia is not new.

Most of it is centred in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, which is where I lived in 1992, and I have often thought in recent years “there but for the grace of God went I”.

The tyranny of distance has hit me in recent years. Initially I went home most years, and twice one year. But it’s now almost three years since I was in Ireland. A few friends have visited us, but most have not.

Friendships at the other side of the world don’t burn out, they just fade away. I thought when we left Ireland that with email it would be easier to stay in touch; but it’s just another way to not be in touch. An email goes unanswered, a text isn’t replied to and suddenly people you thought you’d be friends with forever aren’t even on your Christmas card list.

Lest you think I’m whingeing about my lot, I am not. I’m happy we live where we do and can’t imagine ever living in Ireland again.

Our daughter, though she often refers to herself as Irish, is very much Australian. The outdoors life she enjoys and takes for granted is just not possible in Ireland.

The public school she attends is well funded both by the government and through contributions from parents. She gets to do drama and write speeches and a whole series of other confidence-building classes that I never got to do in school in Ireland.

And I have become Australian myself. I became a citizen in 2006 (along with 34 other Irish people in a lovely ceremony after Sydney’s St Patrick’s Day parade) and shout for Australia in any sporting event where the opponent isn’t Ireland.

My accent hasn’t changed (apart from a few words and phrases), but my demeanour is now more Australian than Irish. I only go to Irish bars here for lunch.

Most people have heard of Donald Horne’s famous phrase describing Australia as “the lucky country”, but few realise that he was being ironic, and scathing of its politicians of the 1960s.

But for us, Australia has been the lucky country. No regrets, no worries.