Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Are Irish eyes really smiling in Western Australia?

Meeting with an Irish TD in Australia gave me an opportunity to reflect on how lucky we are to be here, writes founding member of the Irish Families in Perth group Karen Hennessy.

Sat, Sep 15, 2012, 11:41


Meeting with an Irish TD in Australia gave me an opportunity to reflect on how lucky we are to be here, writes founding member of the Irish Families in Perth group Karen Hennessy.

Karen and Laoise with Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty in Perth last week

Four years ago, myself and my partner Robert quit our teaching and engineering jobs and left Ireland on one big adventure for two years around the world. After seeing the sights of China and South East Asia we landed in Melbourne in June 2008.

Within four months, the whole world was in meltdown, but the two of us were in the right place at the right time. Melbourne went into panic mode, so we headed off on a long drive across Australia to Perth, where the gold was glistening. Rob got a job working working for an Irish-run company on a massive gold mine.

Years later, with several different visas under our belts and an amazing Perth-born daughter Laoise on my hip, I started up a Facebook page for Irish families in Perth along with Eimear Beattie, a fellow teacher from Malahide Community School who had also emigrated to Perth with her young family. Over the last year, the group has grown from 12 members to over 1,300, working to support old and new emigrants alike.

So when I got the opportunity last week to sit down one to one with a politician from Ireland to interrogate them about Irish emigration to Western Australia, I was ready with my questions in hand. Discussing the issues that face Irish emigrants in Perth, my conversation with Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty on his recent visit here opened both our eyes.

His first impression of Perth was not one of sunshine, as he arrived in the midst of a gale force winds and power shortages. On meeting the Irish community in the Irish Club in Subiaco, he couldn’t get over the number of mature emigrants in their 50s and 60s. “I expected all the Irish to be in their late teens and early twenties,” he said. To me, this is a reflection of what Irish people at home seem to think of Perth.

It was apt that when I sat down with Mr Doherty it was at a fundraising rugby game in aid of a young Cork man who was tragically hit by a train in Sydney, and on the day when young David Greene lost his life in Melbourne. The gathering showed how the Irish community all over Australia comes together in times of tragedy.

One of the first questions I asked was about the dangers he thought young emigrants faced in Australia. On acknowledging the pain and sadness caused to the families of these young men, Mr Doherty said: “In a situation where you have young people who are away from home on the other side of the world, they may end up doing things that they wouldn’t do at home just to be careful and aware of dangers that might occur.” He continued to say that there are dangers in the construction industry that have become apparent to him, and advised people to be mindful of “rogue employers” and sites that are non-unionized.

The Irish Families in Perth Facebook page caters for the growing number of young families arriving here recently, and those who have been in Australia for years. So one thing I wanted to ask Mr Doherty was what advice he would give to a young family who were about to make the journey across the oceans. He said: “Make sure you think it out properly and that it is the right decision for you. There are people coming here with good skills and are getting on well, but not to expect, if you don’t have those skills, just to land on Australian soil and earn big wages.” He also encouraged people to get in touch with the Irish community for a support system.

As members of the Irish community in Perth, we founded our group to support people with social issues when they arrive here. Many families can experience isolation, depression, and financial-related stress over paying mortgages at home while struggling with high rents here in Perth.

Mr Doherty informed me that there is a “package that is supposed to be coming that will help people who are in negative equity or in mortgage distress but unfortunately it would probably not be available to people who have left”. I found this hard to understand. A lot of the families in our group are under a lot of pressure trying to keep up mortgage payments at home, and we are still paying Irish taxes on the rental income.

Pearse Doherty with children from the Irish language class in Perth

One of the main concerns for the Irish community is the slowdown in development here, related to a slowdown in Chinese economic growth. Companies are letting staff go. Some families have uplifted their roots in Ireland and come out to Australia, only to find that their job is gone when they arrive. I asked Mr Doherty what his advice would be for them: “It would be very hard to give people advice in that situation. I would encourage them to keep faith, and continuing looking because there are a lot of opportunities in Western Australia.”

The day after our meeting, Mr Doherty attended the Irish language classes hosted by Eimear and some other parent volunteers. He said he was overwhelmed by the attendance of such a large number of young children, who seemed to be having fun while learning their “mother tongue”. He very kindly offered to sponsor the continuation of the classes, and on behalf of all of us I would like to thank him for the financial support.

Mr Doherty’s visit gave me an opportunity to reflect on whether Irish eyes are really smiling here in Western Australia. My own heart longs for home, but my head has fallen has fallen in love with this country that offers my family and many Irish families an adventurous and prosperous future.

Karen Hennessy has contributed to previous Generation Emigration articles in The Irish Times on finding a home in Australia and emigrating with children.