‘I just wanted to try to do things my way’

Wild Geese: Fergus Doyle, Sydney

There are Irish business people all over the world, but not many have had the Irish Ambassador step in on their behalf after a slight from a journalist. Fergus Doyle has.

When Protectionist, the horse he co-owns, won the Melbourne Cup last November, a newspaper suggested Ireland uses potatoes for racing stake money. The Herald Sun article said of the Cup: "It's worth $6 million and they swarm from everywhere, from rich countries like Japan to countries offering up not much more than potatoes, like Ireland, to win it."

In a letter to the paper, Ireland's Ambassador to Australia Noel White said he found the comment "deeply offensive".

But Doyle is well able to take care of himself. Originally from Co Wexford, he moved to Australia from England in February 1967.

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“I grew up on a farm. We were a big family and I could never see any great opportunities in Ireland if I stayed. My three brothers had already gone to England, along with half the village. When they would come home, I could see they were going well and that had an influence on my decision.”

After some time in England he knew he wanted to leave again, but Australia was not his first choice.

“I always wanted to go to Canada, but what changed my mind was I looked at the weather and it was about -20 degrees [Fahrenheit] in Canada and it was about 98 degrees in Sydney at the time. I’d been working in Cambridge and it was so bloody cold there. I’d had enough of cold weather so I decided I would go to a warmer climate,” Doyle says.

He was not long in Sydney before he met his soon-to-be wife Delia, who is from Co Mayo.

Apart from two years in Melbourne, they have been in Sydney ever since, and have three children and six grandchildren.

Doyle immediately found a different culture in Australia. “It was very hard to save in England. You spent every penny. But in Australia, the Irish felt they were so far away from home that they needed to save.”

A look at a travel agent’s sign confirmed this. To his shock, he discovered a one-way flight to London was A$1,200 (€860). His boat journey Down Under had cost just £10, courtesy of an Australian government initiative to increase the population.

After working as a machine driver for an Irish-owned construction company Doyle bought his own machine and started contracting. Soon after, he bought a half share in another construction company, eventually owning it outright.

“It became quite a large company and employed up to 300 people at times,” he says.

At its height, the company had a contract with Sydney Water worth A$100 million a year to repair leaking mains. Doyle sold the business in 2009 to a company owned by the Singapore government. By then, he had already moved into land development and breeding horses, and later bought a pub that is now one of Sydney's premier Irish venues.

He had always intended to be his own boss. “That was my goal. I just wanted to try to do things my own way. I didn’t get the opportunity in England to do it, but there were plenty of opportunities in Australia at the time. There was plenty of work, unemployment was low and most of the Irish who came here were prepared to do anything to get a foot in the door,” says Doyle.

Some of the Irish who have headed for Australia in recent years do not have the same drive, he says. “A lot of the young kids who come out here have a trade or a degree, but they are not prepared to dirty their hands to get a start. Anybody who makes a start has got to get a job somewhere to find their feet. I think they have been softened a bit over the years. All of the Irish who worked with us over the years had a great culture and a great work ethic. A lot of those who worked for us now have their own businesses and they have done very well.”

He says those going to Australia now need patience. “They need to be prepared to wait six months or a year to find the job they want. Take the first job you get, be prepared to travel to other parts of Australia and get to know the culture here and how things are done.”

After almost 50 years in Australia, Doyle certainly knows how things are done.