Higgins praises work of Bondi’s Irish support agency
Irish group is teaching community how to spot mental health issues among vulnerable
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina visit the Irish Support Agency in Bondi in Sydney Australia. Photograph: Maxwells
President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to the work of the Irish Support Agency in the Sydney suburb of Bondi for the help they provide to members of the Irish community who find themselves in difficulty.
Visiting the centre in the beach-side Sydney neighbourhood, Mr Higgins thanked the agency for protecting Irish individuals on their own or helping people who are grieving a long way from home.
The agency was established in 1985 with the aim of assisting vulnerable Irish citizens and in particular the elderly and young people in difficulty. Sydney’s eastern suburbs have a large younger Irish population.
“People at different ages will encounter different versions of strangeness in managing a situation that is changing, that may be very, very hard from home,” the President told the agency’s members in eastern Sydney on Saturday afternoon over a lunch spread of soda bread, black pudding and scones and jam.
Funded with a grant of about €135,000 by the Emigrant Support Programme under the Department of Foreign Affairs, the agency helps Irish emigrants with illness or injury, death and the repatriation of remains to Ireland, employment advice, services for elderly people and help if Irish emigrants are arrested or imprisoned.
Younger Irish emigrants
It has been focusing more recently on providing support around mental health and well-being by offering training course led by an Irish mental health first-aid nurse.
The aim is empower people in GAA clubs and Sydney’s wider Irish community to spot signs of people struggling with mental health so they can be directed to services. The agency hopes to extend the course to Irish bar staff.
“In my experience, being on the other side of the planet from home, it magnifies the good times so you feel on top of the world but it can also magnify the bad times when a couple of bits of bad luck can actually make a massive difference,” the agency’s president Harvey James said, welcoming Mr Higgins to the centre.
“It is those moments of vulnerability where you really, really feel the distance.”
Roisin Trainor (28), the centre’s co-ordinator and a native of Derry, said that some emigrants can struggle with homesickness, particularly with the death of a loved one at home and they can’t return, leading to feelings of guilt.
“Sometimes they leave Ireland with hope that the grass is greener in Australia and everything will be okay and that just maybe intensifies the struggle for them,” she said.
The act of emigrating often masks deeper problems that they think can be solved with a move overseas.
“They are hoping to step forward into a new future, in a different country, a different continent. They expect something to be different. But life is life; it is not as easy to get away from what’s in your head,” said James who emigrated from New Ross, Co Wexford 20 years ago.
Brendan Nolan and Adam Davis, owners of Sydney Irish restaurant 34 Bia who help out at the centre, say that the cost of living in Sydney and the long, pressurised working hours can contribute to psychological stresses.
“Being away from home is one thing, but pressure on jobs and stuff, money - it is very expensive to live in Sydney. If you are not making money, it can really affect you,” said Mr Nolan who is from Co Tipperary.
Mr Davis points to the heavy consumption of alcohol in Australia as being part of the problem.
“Those who are working are working massive weeks: six, seven days a week. Those guys in the construction industry and things like that - they are pushed so hard and they are working 15-hour days, seven days a week and then they are just getting burned out,” he said.
“Then they go home and sink [alcohol] all night and they think that’s the way to fix it, they feel better, wake up in the morning and do it again.”
The agency has also been offering information sessions to people looking to return to Ireland. Trainer said that the most pressing issues for these emigrants relate to what rights their Australian or non-EU partners would have back in Ireland and questions about social welfare and tax, particularly if they own property in Australia.
One emigrant who has no intention of moving back is Liam O’Mahony (76), one of the agency’s members. He emigrated from Bandon, Co Cork in the early 1960s and is never homesick for Ireland.
“Jesus Christ, homesick?” he said, shocked at the question. “That is a very funny question after 55 years. I am married. I have kids here. I have grandkids here. Never.”