A letter to my father: Did you regret leaving Australia?
We heard stories growing up of sweating through heatwaves and avoiding snakes
‘You and I would drink tea until late into the night; especially on the first night, when we’d edge towards something resembling closeness that was rarely replicated’
I remember you always spoke wistfully of your time away in Australia, as a young married man. Down Under may well have been your halcyon years.
For a brief while you drove an MG, and later, to accommodate us, your burgeoning family, a Kombi. But an unexpected opportunity to inherit a relative’s farm drew you back to damp Ireland. And, suddenly you were back among your own people, near where your journey had begun in Cavan.
Growing up in Ireland, we heard plenty of stories of living thriftily with tank water, sweating through heatwaves and avoiding snakes. Australia had an aura of a faraway distant land of opportunities. This allure must have influenced my decision, as a 22-year-old, to head off to Melbourne.
Three decades on, Australia remains my home. Despite its chequered past, Australia is an astonishing place. Of course, it is full of contradictions. It can give the impression of being a laid-back place – and yet we’re about to launch into an acrimonious debate about marriage equality. This particular debate may say more about a lack of leadership from our politicians than it does about the average Australian.
Halcyon? I’m not so sure. I’ve never driven an MG, but I had the use of my mate’s Alfa while he was abroad. I’ve lost my hair and most of my brogue, and gained an Australian wife and daughter. Ireland will always run deep. And although Oz is far from perfect – a work in progress – it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else.
On my visits back home, you and I would drink tea until late into the night; especially on the first night, when we’d edge towards something resembling closeness that was rarely replicated.
I remember how you’d marvelled at the changes I’d describe: the miles of freeways, and the suburbs swallowing up vast tracts of countryside, and the brash aggression of Australian politicians. Your unabashed hunger for these updates made me wonder if you regretted your decision to return. But of course, we never broached that territory.
After returning to Ireland, you travelled all over the country, working for a few years with the Inland Fisheries Trust; and earning a fraction of what you were getting in Australia as a labourer. And, after the Fisheries, the rest of your working life was on the farm. Fifty years later, at your funeral mass, your old Fisheries boss would pause in the seemingly endless queue of hand-shaking sympathisers, to tell me you’d been a fantastic employee.
Always a fastidious farmer, you weren’t one to cut corners or to opt for the easy option. Your way prevailed. You would tolerate no dissenting opinion. And I realised back then we would never be able to put up with each other. We probably had more in common than we were ever prepared to acknowledge. You were artful with a slane [turf cutting tool], adroit at rebuilding collapsed stone walls, and you seldom missed a rising duck or pheasant. But for all that, and despite years of your unrelenting toil, our enduring poverty was ever-present.
Anyway, truth be told, there were too many of us and not enough acres. Small holdings always struggle to compete with agribusiness. This harsh reality no doubt dogged your every effort to get ahead. And as soon as we were old enough, we were out the door, with barely a backward glance. Emigrants always have the option of looking back later.
During those long winter evenings, if you weren’t out making a ceilidh, you whiled away the hours in the parlour reading Dickins, in between the occasional Ed McBain and paperback western. Though in later years, you’d cede to the lure of current affair programmes on the TV. And, later still, you enjoyed popular soaps like Coronation Street and Fair City.
You’re gone now, of course. Your final few years were made cruel by poor health. You knew little about what was unfolding around you.
You deserved better. Even though you were devout all your life, when you were ailing, and house-bound, no curate came calling.
In the end, you lived too long. But here, at the other end of the world, I still think of you often.