Ciara Kenny

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

When things go wrong far from home

For Irish emigrants dealing with poverty, illness and even death, volunteer groups provide vital support, writes Ciara Kenny

Fri, Oct 5, 2012, 09:14


For Irish emigrants dealing with poverty, illness and even death, volunteer groups provide vital support, writes Ciara Kenny

Helping hands: The peace march in Melbourne to commemorate murdered Irish woman Jill Meagher. Photograph: Justin McManus, Fairfax Media/Getty Images

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 LINK Irish 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.

“They get money together for a one-way ticket and a visa, and hope to walk straight in to work. They might have a couple of hundred dollars in their pockets when they arrive, but the cost of living is extremely high here and if they have trouble finding a job at all their money can run out very quickly,”says Ross.

“We are getting calls from the embassy referring young lads to us who are practically homeless. They might have enough left for a few nights in a hostel, but no other money for food or anything. That’s the kind of desperation we are faced with at the moment, which is very different to what we have ever seen before.”

The lack of adequate travel insurance among the Irish community is another big cause for concern, especially among those who have extended their working-holiday visas for a second year but haven’t renewed their insurance policy.

“Those who come out on temporary visas have very few rights if things go wrong, and aren’t entitled to any welfare benefits,” says Orla Tunney of the Department of Foreign Affairs, who recently completed a four-year term as deputy head of mission at the Irish embassy in Canberra. “You are entitled to emergency medical treatment in a public hospital, but follow-up appointments are not covered. If you can’t work, you can’t earn money, which can get people in trouble financially. If the injury is really serious and you need to come home, the burden on families can be enormous.”

The Link groups liaise with local and national organisations that can provide practical and financial assistance to people in crisis situations. They also help to put people who are having trouble finding work in touch with potential employers through their network of Irish-Australian business contacts, or via their Facebook pages.

In response to the increasing demand for its services, the Perth bureau set up a weekly drop-in centre in the Irish Club last month to provide advice for people facing financial trouble. It has also applied to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs’ Emigrant Support Programme for financial assistance for the first time this year so it can rent a small office space and cover the costs of a part-time worker in 2013.

MORE THAN €1.3 million has been provided by the Irish Government to organisations in Australia since 2007 through the Emigrant Support Programme. Despite a shrinking overall budget, the amount of funding allocated to Australia has increased in recognition of the rising numbers of young people arriving there, and the ageing profile of the Irish community who moved there from the 1950s onwards.

The funding helps to cover the running costs of the organisations: rental on office space, phone bills, and the costs of hiring an administrator or case worker in some instances. But if the organisation wants to assist a member of the Irish community in a way that costs money, it has to fundraise.

“Fundraising is a huge part of what we do,” says O’Hagan, speaking about all four welfare organisations. “The Irish community and local business owners turn out in their droves to support us at the events we hold.”

Causes for benefit events can range from assistance funds to cover repatriation, special vehicles for disabled members of the Irish community, or new resources and equipment for the adult-computer classes. “We start the process and facilitate the fundraising, but the community are the ones who come along and support one another,” says O’Hagan. “We all know what it is like to live in a place but call another place home. That is what unites us here.

“This week and the weeks ahead will be tough for the Irish community here in Australia, but it is comforting to know we are here to support each other.”

Irish Australian Welfare Bureau Sydney

Irish Australian Welfare Bureau Melbourne

Claddagh Association Perth

Irish Australian Support Association Queensland (Brisbane)

Travel advice Australia

Travel insurance Before travelling, take out a comprehensive policy that covers all health costs including medical evacuation. Check the terms to make sure any sports or activities you intend to pursue in Australia are covered.

Budget your funds Bring enough money to cover living expenses for at least a month. Research how much a hostel costs per night before you leave, and how much you can expect to pay in rent. You will have to pay a deposit (rental bond) and most accommodation comes unfurnished.

Respect visa terms Immigration law is strict and there is no flexibility for overstaying. Working holiday visa holders who want to stay for a second year can extend their visa by doing three months of work in agriculture, mining or construction in “regional Australia” before their first 12 months expires, but don’t leave this until the last minute as no allowances will be made if you dont complete the three months in time.

Buy a return ticket It only costs a little extra to book a return flight rather than one-way. At least you’ll have the option to come home if things don’t go according to plan in Australia.

Research your job options before you go Some industries require skills to be accredited, which you can do before you arrive. Contact professional organisations and recruiters to see what you need to do in advance.

Fill out the back page of your passport Include contact information for next of kin and someone in Australia if possible. This saves a lot of time in an emergency.

Behave responsibly Respect laws and customs.

For more detailed travel advice, see

This article appears in The Irish Times today, and on the main website here.