Irish in Australia: ‘We are in for a few hard years’

Many Irish down under aren’t running for the exit, despite a looming recession

St Patrick's Day is always a big occasion for Irish community organisations across Australia, but this year, it was far from a joyful one. As concern over the spread of coronavirus intensified, parades in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne were all called off with only a day's notice.

At the St Patrick’s Day Mass organised by the Irish Support Agency in Sydney, the seniors group, which meets regularly to play cards, learn computer skills and talk about their shared Irish connections, were told all activities were cancelled for the foreseeable future.

By March 23rd, non-essential businesses closed, leaving thousands upon thousands of workers – among them many Irish immigrants – out of a job

Soon the crisis in the Irish community deepened. On March 19th, Australia closed its borders to all non-citizens and non-residents. By Monday 23rd, non-essential businesses including bars, restaurants, cafes, nightclubs closed, leaving thousands upon thousands of workers – among them many Irish immigrants – out of a job. Temporary visa holders were excluded from the government’s emergency Covid support payment, as well as subsequent JobSeeker and JobKeeper subsidies. There was no financial safety net.

By the beginning of April, prime minister Scott Morrison was telling temporary visa holders with no means of funding themselves to "return to their home countries", as "our focus and our priority is on supporting Australians and Australian residents".


“The shock to the Irish community was immediate and obvious,” says Breandán Ó Caollaí, Ireland’s Ambassador to Australia. “We had an estimated 18,000 Irish people here on temporary visas. They were very vulnerable, and facing great uncertainty.”

There were students and backpackers who had lost their jobs and had no means to pay their rent. There were older people from Ireland visiting their Australian-born grandkids, or Irish tourists on holidays with no base to stay during an indefinite lockdown. A significant number were skilled workers on sponsored visas living in the country for several years, many with children in school, who had not yet become permanent residents and were also excluded from state supports.

About 2,700 people contacted the Irish Embassy in Canberra or the consulate in Sydney in March, asking for advice or assistance to leave the country. Ó Caollaí had eight staff manning the phones, answering calls mostly from young working holiday visa holders worried about what to do. "We had our full team working day and night," he says.

As border restrictions tightened, airlines were cancelling flights with little or no notice. Panic was setting in.

Lots of people were totally broke having paid up to 8,000 Australian dollars for flights only to have them cancelled, sometimes at the airport

“Lots of people were totally broke having paid up to 8,000 Australian dollars for flights only to have them cancelled, sometimes at the airport,” says Fidelma McCorry-Breen, vice-president of the South Australian chapter of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce (IACC).

“They had quit jobs, accommodation and sometimes were in a transit city when the international flight was cancelled.”

The Chamber acted quickly when the pandemic hit, organising webinars for its 22,000 members on protecting businesses against the impact of Covid, visas, travel, wellbeing, banking and grants. But as the days went by, it decided it had to do more, not only for their own members – mostly upwardly mobile Irish professionals – but for the wider Irish community.

Its Melbourne-based chief executive, Barry Corr, lobbied Qatar Airways to charter additional flights to Ireland. McCorry-Breen posted on several Irish Facebook groups around Australia asking people to get in touch if they were looking for a flight. Within 24 hours, she had received 961 messages asking for help – from backpackers, visiting grandparents, tourists and healthcare workers who wanted to return to work with the HSE on the frontline – which grew by a few hundred more in the following days.

Using lists of names gathered by the Chamber, as well as the network of Irish welfare organisations across Australia, the GAA clubs and their own consular staff, the embassy identified the most vulnerable people to be prioritised for repatriation. Financial assistance was provided in emergency cases, as well as a loan scheme to help those who couldn’t afford to pay for their route home.

The embassy chartered a repatriation flight with Australian airline Qantas – whose chief executive Alan Joyce is originally from Tallaght – to fly 166 Irish citizens to Dublin from Perth on March 25th.

An additional 850 Irish citizens travelled on five flights organised by Qatar Airways that weekend.

“As people started to board, there were many messages of thanks from the departure gate,” McCorry-Breen says. “Others got in touch again once they arrived in Ireland to express their gratitude.”

A lot of people were pressurised into making decisions very quickly, and had to leave without sorting things like leases, all their furniture still left in their apartments. They just didn't have time to get their affairs in order

But the crisis was far from over. At the Irish Support Agency in Sydney, one of four Irish welfare organisations across Australia, co-ordinator Paula Cobain continued to field hundreds of emails and phone calls from Irish people in distress.

“A lot of people were pressurised into making decisions very quickly, and had to leave without sorting things like leases, all their furniture still left in their apartments… They just didn’t have time to get their affairs in order,” she says.

In addition to the many temporary visa holders worried about their financial situation, the agency was also dealing with a small but very vulnerable cohort of Irish people who were in the country illegally, after overstaying their visas.

“Their income stream may have dried up having lost cash-in-hand jobs, and they weren’t entitled to any welfare,” Cobain says, emphasising how some individuals were doubly vulnerable with no family supports in Australia, or in Ireland. The agency had already been working closely with Crosscare Migrant Project and Safe Home Ireland, organisations assisting returning Irish emigrants to access accommodation and support services once they land back in Ireland, and these relationships have been vital in recent months.

“Not everybody is going back home to Mum and Dad,” Cobain says. “It’s not so easy for some people just to kick back home.”

An emergency Covid support fund of almost 200,000 Australian dollars (about €116,000) from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs’ emigrant support programme was split between the four welfare organisations in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane. This went towards food and fuel vouchers for people at risk of poverty, emergency accommodation, mental health initiatives, and care packages for older members of the community who were cocooning.

Many Irish people are still in need of support, almost five months since the crisis began. There is growing concern for those in the state of Victoria especially, which is now over a month into its second lockdown

Coffers were boosted by fundraisers, including an online Wish You Were Here concert in May featuring a starry array of Irish musicians including Damien Dempsey, Declan O'Rourke, Mary Black, Eleanor McEvoy and Paul Brady, which raised almost 40,000 Australian dollars.

Although the phones at the welfare agencies and the embassy aren’t hopping as incessantly as they were in March and April, many Irish people are still in need of support, almost five months since the crisis began. There is growing concern for those in the state of Victoria especially, which is now over a month into its second lockdown.

“Large numbers of Irish people chose to stay,” says Ambassador O’Caollaí. “It was their decision. But Covid-19 hasn’t gone away, the resurgence in Melbourne has caused additional concern. We are still putting the message out advising people to travel home if that’s the best thing for them...the Australian economy is in bad straits, and the unemployment rate is growing.”

After some changes to eligibility criteria, the government allowed all workers to draw down some of their superannuation, the mandatory pension fund all employers in Australia pay into on behalf of their employees, easing the financial pressure for many people who have lost work in recent months. But backpackers haven’t been entitled to draw down money since June. Cobain is anticipating a second wave of financial assistance cases for the Irish welfare agencies in the weeks ahead.

She is also very worried about the deepening mental health impact on those who are far away from their families in Ireland, with no date in sight for when they will be able to return to visit. Over the coming months, the agency will be giving an extra push to its existing mental health programmes, initiated after a rising number of suicides in the Irish community in Australia in recent years. “There is a whole cohort of people who would have gone home for Christmas who won’t be able to this year, and that really concerns me,” she says.

Many Irish around Australia report job losses, reduced hours and wage cuts across a range of occupations, but the picture is very different depending on where they live

The fortunes of the Irish in Australia have certainly hit a sudden bump. The country has been a haven for Irish people over the past decade, with more than 114,000 people moving from Ireland between 2008 and 2019, according to the Central Statistics Office.

Australia has long been a popular destination for Irish backpackers, but in the years following the crash in Ireland in 2008, the numbers heading down under soared, as unemployed Irish workers – from labourers to hairdressers, doctors and nurses to accountants, engineers and other young professionals – sought better opportunities in an economy that was still booming.

In the years that followed, a strengthening Irish economy held on to more workers and began attracting those who had left back home again in increasing numbers, but Australia still remained a popular destination for emigrants; 6,500 moved from Ireland in the 12 months to April 2019 (CSO data for 2020 is due out later this month).

But coronavirus has changed the world in the past five months. In June, Australia officially entered its first recession in three decades. Unemployment is now at 7.4 per cent, the highest rate since 1998, and it is forecast to hit close to 10 per cent by the end of the year.

Among the dozens of Irish around Australia who responded to a call-out by The Irish Times last week asking how they have been affected by the crisis, many reported job losses, reduced hours and wage cuts across a range of different occupations, but the picture is very different depending on where they live.

We are the Donegal of Australia, so to speak: isolated and far away from the big smoke of the east coast, lacking the same tourism numbers. Unlike some other states, we have come through relatively unscathed

“Hospitality has been profoundly impacted by Covid-19, particularly in Victoria which would previously have been the heart of the industry,” says Barry Corr, who, in addition to his role as chief executive of the IACC, also runs his own HR consultancy in Melbourne.

“Victorians are back in another six-week lockdown, where bars, restaurants and cafes are takeaway only, for those that trade at all. Given the number of [Irish] working holiday visa holders who worked in those sectors with limited support networks established here, it has been difficult.

"But other states have had quite a different experience, with the likes of Western Australia having very low numbers of cases and returning to almost business as usual with nightclubs opening in June and crowds back at sporting events… This is a remarkable situation which reflects the scale and diversity of Australia."

Eimear Beattie, a teacher from Tipperary who has been living in Perth with her family since 2011, says Western Australia, or WA, “hit the jackpot in terms of Covid-19”.

“We are the Donegal of Australia, so to speak: isolated and far away from the big smoke of the east coast, lacking the same tourism numbers,” she says. “Unlike some other states, we have come through relatively unscathed.”

With a population of more than 2.5 million, WA so far has recorded only nine deaths from Covid-19.

A booming mining industry had attracted tens of thousands of Irish workers fleeing the recession in Ireland, but following a downturn in the industry around 2014, the Irish population contracted again. Many families moved home to Ireland, while the singles headed for the east coast, the UK or Canada.

But Beattie, who runs the Irish Families in Perth group via Facebook, says she is “100 per cent convinced that more Irish will see Perth as an option to migrate to” post-Covid-19.

“We have had many on our page post how they regretted their decision to move home, how they were treated, and the expense of car insurance and housing in Dublin especially. Many people are also inquiring about emigrating to Perth for first time...I haven’t received such an amount of messages since the Irish recession. Perth doesn’t have the crazy house prices of Melbourne and Sydney, has arguably better beaches and a Mediterranean climate. The healthcare system is superb and lifestyle is excellent.”

Employment prospects for skilled workers around Perth could be on the up, too; Corr says members of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce in WA are concerned about the availability of skilled workers to help deliver some of the major infrastructure projects funded under an economic stimulus package 223 million Australian dollars for WA announced in June.

One of the many Irish workers who fled Perth for Sydney around 2016 was Sligo man Ollie Gordon. He agrees that WA is "booming".

“I know a lot of people who are moving back to WA, leaving Sydney because they are sick of the big rent. Around Perth, there are opportunities again to work in the mines.”

Now 33, Gordon runs his own labour hire company, TradeConnex, recruiting for the renewable energy sector. The company has projects all over Australia, and hires a lot of Irish backpackers.

In addition to four full-time office staff, TradeConnex employs 70 labourers and tradespeople. That’s down from 220 before Christmas.

“We were expecting construction to pick up in March as it does every year, but then Covid hit.”

The company is ticking over with the help of the government’s JobKeeper wage support scheme, but Gordon is concerned about how the pandemic will impact on their ability to find good workers in the future.

With a temporary visa ban in place, no working holiday visa makers will be able to enter the country until 2021. “We are getting messages from people at home who are thinking of coming over here when it’s all over. But we can’t say yet how long it is going to be before the country opens up to immigration again, or what the work situation will be in six months.”

Does talk of an economic recession worry him?

“I know there will be a bit of a slump, but I’m not concerned. The government is pumping a lot of money into renewable energy, so it looks like we’ll have a lot of work ahead. It’s a massive country and there’s opportunity wherever you go.”

It’s difficult to predict how migration between Ireland and Australia will be affected by this pandemic in the longer term, but it will stall almost completely for this year at least, with strict border controls in place until the end of 2020.

For those who have started to build a life here, their reasons for staying are still predominantly intact. We are here, we are making a real contribution to the community and we will continue to do so

The Australian government’s Department of Home Affairs committed in July to continue its permanent migration programme at the same level for this coming year, at 160,000 places, recognising that “migration continues to make substantial contributions to Australia’s economic prosperity, national wellbeing and social cohesion”. But the situation will be closely monitored to ensure that immigration policies “do not displace job opportunities for Australians”.

The push-pull factor will ultimately depend on the economic fortunes of both Ireland and Australia, Barry Corr believes, but “Australia will always remain an attractive option” for Irish people.

“Quality of life, opportunity and a sense of shared connection was behind my moving here, and I suspect would be the same for many others when access to visas returns to normal,” he says.

He doesn’t think the Covid-19 crisis will ultimately have much impact on people’s decision to stay in Australia or move home.

“For those who have started to build a life here, their reasons for staying are still predominantly intact. Of course the usual life events that trigger moves such as illness or bereavement, marriage, children arriving and reaching school age are still factors, but I’m getting no sense at all of the Irish in Australia rushing for the exit. We are here, we are making a real contribution to the community and we will continue to do so.”

Irish voices: ‘We are in for a few hard years’

Jessica Jones
I am 36 and from Carlow. I have been in Sydney since January 2019, sponsored as a hairdresser. When Scott Morrison decided hair salons could only have clients for a maximum of 30 minutes, the salon I am sponsored in decided they had to close. We were all off work for two weeks and received no payments from anyone. The PM then changed his mind about the "30-minute" rule, but in order to make it safe for our clients, we split into small teams to ensure a small number of people in the salon at any one time. We all went from working full-time to two days each. This was barely enough to cover rent, food and bills.

We work so hard, we pay taxes, we are here to cover skilled positions in roles that the Australians find hard to fill, and it was just very disheartening to basically be told to go home.

Unless you’re a citizen or permanent resident, you can’t return to Australia. If we had to go home in an emergency, we would not be allowed to return, even though we would still be employed here and our visas still active. It’s very worrying; in the salon there are six of us sponsored and we all feel the same.

Thankfully this month we are back working full-time hours, but it’s such a worry seeing what’s happening in Melbourne.

David Morrissey
My partner, Tara, and I lived, trained and met in London. We arrived in Sydney in early January to be greeted by one of the worst bushfires in decades. When Covid-19 hit, working in one of Sydney's biggest hospitals meant our exposure to the virus was very likely.

In the emergency department I come into close contact with positive cases and deal with people who are isolated in the hotels. It’s tough, and very different to what we thought life in Sydney would be like. As a result of Covid-19, our housemates and school friends from Ireland had to return home due to job loss.

Diarmuid Gordon
In 2011 I moved to Australia from Limerick, during Ireland's recession. I was 29. My plan had been to return to Ireland in 2013 but I met an Australian woman, now my wife, and decided to stay. Australia has been good to me. I live with my wife and two young daughters in a beautiful suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne. I am general manager at a Honda and Kia dealership.

When I look at the rest of the world going through this pandemic, I count myself lucky to be in Australia. The public health system here is like no other. The national government has done an excellent job. They have kept us well informed and acted swiftly in supporting Australian businesses and citizens.

Sales at my dealership have dropped dramatically. From arriving to the “lucky country” nine years ago, we are in for a few hard years ahead. A second wave of Covid-19 hit Melbourne recently. It feels like we are in a movie while the rest of Australia go about their daily lives.

I was planning to bring my wife and two daughters back to Ireland for Christmas for the first time as a family. We have had to cancel our trip. I do see myself staying in Australia for the long term, but the experience of this pandemic has highlighted the true distance between Australia and Ireland. My parents are planning to come back to Australia next March. Australia’s borders may not be open at that stage so we will just wait and hope.

Rebecca Bird
I've been lucky not to be too affected financially. Although a number of my work colleagues were made redundant, I was "saved" and feel very grateful. I felt guilty that so many Australians were losing their jobs and me, an Irish immigrant, was being saved. I was quite hard on myself for a couple of weeks and felt one of them should have been kept on instead of me.

Not being able to fly home has hit me hard, and made me extremely homesick. I don’t know if it is the sense of feeling trapped, but I would do anything to be able to go home. I’m now considering moving home when I can finally fly again; before Covid-19 I thought Australia was my forever home. I have been here seven years and have a good life, I know I wouldn’t have it this good if I moved home... but home is home and it is extremely hard in times like this without family.

Darren O'Connor
Living in Sydney throughout the pandemic has highlighted how much I never want to go back to Ireland. The government has handled everything extremely well in New South Wales, and most people have been looked after, provided you're a permanent resident. I've been here nine years, and am just about to buy my first apartment, an investment. Recession or no recession, there is plenty of work around in the IT and finance sectors. Friends in construction are busier than ever.

With the recession coming, the government has provided cash boosts to small businesses (I contract as two companies and have received more than 30,000 Australian dollars in boosts). I suspect there will be more stimulus to small businesses, and lending will continue. Construction will keep booming in major cities due to house shortages. I don’t think a recession here will ever be as bad as what Ireland has seen. And there’s sunshine.

Caoimhe Kenny
My partner, Conor, and I are 28 and 27, from Wexford. We came to Sydney in December expecting to start working, to save and travel and potentially get sponsored in jobs. With the onset of Covid-19, my job in HR became redundant and Conor was in construction but only on a casual basis. We decided to head off to do our regional work (which you have to do to get a second year visa in Oz) in outback Queensland after being offered a position mustering on a 30,000 acre cattle farm through an ad on Gumtree.

We feel like the luckiest people. We are having this amazing experience while the world is in lockdown, we have stable jobs and are really enjoying our outback experience.

Niamh Lane
I am 28 years old from Cork. I came to Australia five years ago to work as an occupational therapist. At that time jobs with the HSE were few and far between. My current work role is in the emergency department at St Vincent's Hospital Melbourne, as well as providing outreach to vulnerable people in the community. I've been in the emergency department where ambulances arrive with confirmed Covid-19 patients and we try to find ways of getting the "non-Covid" patients out to free up space. I've been out to housing commission flats in full PPE delivering emergency nappies, baby formula and meals to those in home quarantine.

Recent weeks have been the most difficult. As selfish as it sounds, seeing friends and family regaining some “freedom” and enjoying “staycations” while Melbourne is back in lockdown and dealing with up to 500 new cases a day has been an emotional rollercoaster.

I had been missing home before Covid-19, and my boyfriend and I had been contemplating where we wanted to “settle”. Australia has been good to me and I’m grateful for the opportunities I have had here but when it comes down it, Ireland will always be home and that’s why I’ve made the decision to move back. I’ve booked a flight for the end of August and plan to self-isolate for two weeks before seeing my family and friends. I’m going to do my masters in September in UCC and hope to find work as an OT on my return. I’m hopeful for my future back in Ireland.

Pearce Manning
I am originally from Belfast. I arrived in Australia in July 2019 on a working holiday visa. When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, I was living in rural North Queensland in the tiny town of Atherton. I had just started my three months of regional farm work to secure my second year visa. I was living in a hotel with 50 other backpackers, all working on nearby farms. In a remote location we felt safe. We were classed as "essential workers", and given we all shared communal living areas, we were technically from the same "household" which meant we could be out in public together and exercise together.

Queensland was one of the first states to shut its borders, which proved effective in keeping the coronavirus numbers low. The farms soon insisted that anyone arriving from outside the state must self-isolate for 14 days. Given the relatively low case numbers of coronavirus, Queensland was one of the first states to lift the lockdown rules as pubs and restaurants soon reopened.

I finished my regional work and returned to Melbourne in early July. Within days the city went into its second lockdown. Job hunting was a unique experience; interviews are now over Skype. I was fortunate to return to a government job at the Environment Protection Agency where I had spent my first six months. I feel very lucky.

Aisling Breslin
Gold Coast
I'm 24, originally from Naas. I moved to Australia a year and a half ago. I have lived in Melbourne and did my farm work in North Queensland, travelled down the east coast and then stayed in Melbourne. I spent the first lockdown in Melbourne working as a data analyst for the tram network here (my voice is the Irish one you hear on announcements on all the major trams in Melbourne). I moved to Surfers Paradise in Queensland once I was able to leave Victoria. My friends were supposed to meet me here but due to the second lockdown they are currently stuck in Melbourne.

Life seems pretty normal here in Queensland, but it is hard to get full-time work, and you are last on the list for jobs as they are looking to hiring Australians first. I don’t know what to do, as it is hard to feel settled with Covid-19 in the background, for fear it hits here again. I work in hospitality but I feel going back to a farm is the only security I can be guaranteed right now for work.

It’s a strange time to be a backpacker in Australia. So many have left, so everything feels a bit post-apocalyptic in hostels. With the restrictions it’s hard to meet people. I came to Australia to travel, but it is very different to my first year here.

Riona Canavan
I'm from Newry and my partner, Shane, is from Limerick. We met in Australia but I am now here two years. It is a very worrying time in Melbourne at the minute. Being so far away from home, it really can be hard at times. I had just started to go back to work and then Melbourne went back into stage 3 lockdown and now, again, my hours in work are cut. I work as a recruitment consultant and seeing how the industry has changed so much really is scary. Companies are not hiring like they were before and money is scarce. I am lucky to have kept my job even on reduced hours.

My partner is the director of a Specsavers in one of the busy shopping centres and his shop sales are down more than 50 per cent. The shopping centres are emptier than ever before and with masks compulsory everywhere it is putting people off going out. His hours were also reduced and we were struggling to pay rent until luckily we got it reduced for a few months.

It is hard to watch so many businesses struggle and the economy get worse. We have lost so many friends who have lost their jobs. We aren’t entitled to any help in Australia so it can be very hard.

Michael Healy
I'm 28 and work as a sales team lead at where I worked in Dublin for two years before moving to Sydney in January 2019 with my girlfriend Eadaoin. Living in Sydney gives us a quality of life that we simply could not have had living in Dublin. Before moving, we both worked full-time and still lived in our parents' homes (like many 20-30 year olds we know in Dublin) saving as much as we could each month. We now have our own place.

Indeed took care of us all really well when Covid-19 hit, they were very proactive with the switch to work from home. Working in recruitment advertising enabled me to see the stark economic impact that Covid-19 has had on businesses here in Australia. Recruitment ground to a halt almost overnight.

All my close friends here were impacted in different ways, while thankfully none of them lost their jobs permanently, roles were paused and hours were reduced. In my role, I have also been able to track the economic recovery and, if trends continue, recruitment levels look like they will be at 2019 highs in almost four weeks’ time.

On a personal level, the pandemic has definitely made home feel further away. Visits to Sydney from friends and family had to be scrapped and a mid-year trip home to see Eadaoin’s first nephew and attend her brother’s wedding had to be cancelled. I come from a family of seven and have never missed a Christmas at home with them. Sadly the outlook is not positive for this year as Australia’s current laws permit only citizens and permanent residents to re-enter the country; if we leave we would not be eligible to return.

Shirley Roche Forde
I moved to Australia in October 2013, as my husband moved on a sponsored visa in August 2012. We never settled in Melbourne, and moved to Brisbane in 2016, and three years later, bought a home. That April we got the call every expat dreads: your dad is dying. We got home in time to have three days with Dad before he passed.

This year, Mum, who’s home alone, got sick and went to hospital. We found out she has six to eight weeks to live. It’s the first time I have hated being here; we can’t travel due to Covid-19, and it is the first time I really feel we are on the other side of the world. We have to talk to Mum by FaceTime and try to say our last goodbyes, and as time draws closer it’s harder, as she is so weak now.

You have the guilt of being so far away and not being there to help her when she needs us so badly. But thankfully my brother, who works for an airline, has moved back from London to help her. She would have been lost without him, as would I.

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Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny

Ciara Kenny, founding editor of Irish Times Abroad, a section for Irish-connected people around the world, is Editor of the Irish Times Magazine