‘We left because we couldn’t afford a house’
New emigrants to Australia see better life and career prospects despite recovery at home
During his State visit to Australia, President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina visit the Irish Support Agency in Bondi, Sydney. Photograph: Maxwell’s
Olivia and Brian Macalister had enough. The married couple had good jobs and worked long hours in Dublin but struggled to save for a deposit to buy a house. In August, they packed up and moved to Australia.
“We left because we couldn’t afford a house,” said Olivia (30), one of the newest members of the Irish community in Canberra, Australia’s capital.
“Now we can save for our house and afford to travel,” she said. She chats over Irish canapés served at a reception for President Michael D. Higgins at the Irish embassy in Canberra last week.
The couple have swapped a small, one-bedroom apartment in the Dublin docklands for a two-bedroom apartment in Canberra that has twice the floor space and a lake view. They are paying the same rent.
The Dubliners may be thousands of miles from home, but they were unwilling to compromise on their standard of living back home by buying an affordable property outside Dublin that came with a long daily commute.
Career advancement was another factor for Olivia moving to the other side of the planet; she has landed a plum job in Australian National University, one of the world’s top third-level institutions.
For Brian (39), a chef, an improved quality of life brought him to Australia. The couple estimate that they are about $1,000 Australian dollars (€665) better off every month on disposable income in their new home.
“Just working harder and longer hours was not a solution back in Ireland - the playing field is not level,” he said. “Here there is a sense of being nurtured as opposed to being wrung out like a dish rag at home.”
The Macalisters are among the thousands of skilled, highly educated and hard-working emigrants still seeking out a better life 17,000 kilometres from home, despite an economic recovery at home.
In the seven years since the worst point of the economic crisis, just over 72,000 Irish people chose Australia out of 520,900 who emigrated from Ireland in that period.
As the economy started to improve, the flow of emigrants Down Under has declined, and the numbers returning to Ireland started to increase.
Some 5,300 people left Ireland for Australia in the year to April 2017, according to the Central Statistics Office, down from a high of 17,400 who left in the year to April 2012.
In 2016, the number of people moving to Ireland from Australia surpassed the number going the other direction. Some 6,900 people left for Ireland, compared with 5,300 heading south. A further 7,100 left Australia for Ireland in the year to April 2017.
The number of Irish holders of working holiday visas in Australia has fallen from a peak of 25,827 in 2011/2012 to 6,743 in the year to June. The number of four-year temporary skilled work visas being issued has fallen too.
But the Irish are still coming. Why, if job prospects have improved at home?
“There is work everywhere here,” said John O’Brien from Cork, standing at the Canberra reception and nursing a cold beer in the Aussie sun. He and Sean Cloherty from Connemara, both 31, moved to Canberra two years ago and are working as carpenters in the construction industry.
Sean said found a job within in his first hour of looking. The work and the sunshine brought him here, he says. At home, the prospects are very different for people in their line of work.
“I was on to my father two or three nights ago and he was saying rent has gone up to €1,000 to €1,100 a month and there is no work there,” said O’Brien. “It’s no life there for anybody. People are on the dole there from when they were 18 to 27. They never worked a day in their life.”
He acknowledges that the jobs situation is improving in the construction sector at home but says it is down to having the right connections: “It is picking up a bit but only if you know the right people.”
In Melbourne and Sydney, job opportunities and career advancement are the big draw for the professional Irish.
“It was really down to career aspirations. I probably hit a little bit of a glass ceiling in Dublin,” said Dubliner Kevin Fitzgerald (37), who works for an accounting software firm in Melbourne and has lived in Australia since 2011.
“I was working for State Street [the financial services firm] down on the docklands in Dublin for four years but it was getting to the point where I couldn’t see any more daylight or opportunity that was there.”
Fitzgerald had, for a time, a useful vantage point to see the ebb and flow of emigration between the countries. In a previous role, he placed accountants in jobs. As Australia’s mining industry slowed down in 2013, Irish accountants were finding it difficult to find work and opportunities started coming up again in Ireland.
Technology, he believes, will increase circular emigration between Ireland and Australia.
“It brings people closer together,” he said. “There wasn’t FaceTime or WhatsApp 10 years ago but now I can pick up my phone to my mother and see her face whenever I want.”
Post-Brexit risks are pushing businesses to look overseas to develop into new markets. This was the objective of the Government trade mission to Australia over the past two weeks coinciding with the Presidential visit.
Many young Irish professionals in Australia see the country as an economic beachhead into lucrative Asia-Pacific markets. Equally, they see the opportunities in Ireland for returning Irish entrepreneurs from Australia and Australians looking to do business with the European Union after Brexit.
“I don’t think we should be thinking of it as a one-way street - you can acquire decent skills and bring them back to Ireland,” said Fergal Coleman, the president of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce, which helps companies in Ireland find opportunities in Australia, and vice versa.
Coleman emigrated to Australia in 2003, returning after travelling to the country with UCD’s soccer team 25 years ago. His wife is from New Zealand.
Companies backed by Enterprise Ireland exported €256 million worth of goods and services into Australia in 2016, a 14 per cent increase on the previous year. Two-way trade is valued at about €4 billion a year.
Emma Hannigan, a former journalist with her own company, Curly Top Media, says that the young professional Irish have excelled in Australia because of their education, their work ethic and even their shared sense of humour and “have-a-go attitude” with Australians. This has led to a different kind of export back to Ireland.
“It is more about businesses flowing back rather than the people deciding to move back there,” she said.
The seriousness attached to these ties led the chamber to launch the Irish Australian Business Awards, which were held in Sydney on Friday night. The aim was to counter the stereotype of young Irish emigrating to Australia and getting drunk and to highlight the dynamic, new businesses being set up by the Irish.
“It was a joy to discover that there was this whole community of Irish people who were happy with what they did and highly professional. It was nothing to do with drinking or messing around. That is what people do on holidays. People come here for a year and they are on holiday,” she said.
The Irish are among the most successful in Australia’s emigrant community, Billy Cantwell, founding publisher of the Irish Echo newspaper in Australia, pulled out figures from the Australian census showing the opportunities for the Irish Down Under: They are the highest-earning Europeans based on income ranked by place of birth.
“The Irish are seen here as employable, they are well liked here. They are obviously seen here as not being ethnically different to your white Aussie so it is a seamless path. The Irish have thrived in that environment,” he told The Irish Times.
The internet may have made communication easier and air travel shorter and more flexible, but Irish emigrants still face that expat dilemma whether they are in Oz for 10 years or long: “Do you stay or do you go back?”
The Irish Support Agency in Bondi, the eastern Sydney suburb popular with the younger Irish emigrants, has been holding information sessions for people wishing to return home. There has been plenty of interest in them.
“What I have seen interestingly enough is that a lot of people go back to Ireland and then they come back again to Australia because they realise that maybe what they had here can’t be matched in terms of standard of living, cost of living, quality of life, those sorts of considerations in Ireland,” said Cantwell.
“It is an ongoing tug of war.”