Australia’s new Irish aren’t ‘victims of emigration’

Emigration is an emotive term, burdened down by memories of food parcels, one-way tickets in steerage and long-lost uncles. But it’s not always a tragedy

He wonders if he can trouble me for a minute of my time. He is standing on my doorstep in the Australian sunshine; tanned and buff enough to have just walked off the set of Home and Away. Only the accent gives him away.

It takes us a heartbeat to work out that we grew up no more than five minutes – and a few years – away from each other in Waterford.

“That’s gas,” he says. “I just met a fella from Tramore yesterday.”

The Australian standing beside him tries not to look bored while my new friend and I launch into a round of would-you-by-any-chance-be-related-to? He came to Sydney (where I am living for 10 months) on a whim, he tells me. He broke his arm, so he couldn’t play hurling anymore, and there wasn’t much else keeping him in Ireland. He’s an electrician by trade, and that’s what he did when he came first.

“But then I wanted more of this,” he gestures towards the bright blue sky.

So now he sells charity sponsorship packages door-to-door. He discovered he is good at it. (He is good: I hand over $50.)

Does he miss home, I wonder. “Nah. Look at this place. Look at me here, training an Aussie how to do the job in his own city.”

I’m in the opticians a few days later, stocking up on contact lenses. “Where are you from?” the young Australian woman behind the counter asks me.

“Ireland,” I reply.

“I got that. Where in Ireland?”

“These days, Dublin mostly,” I say.

“Where in Dublin?” she says, and I think that’s an odd question for an Australian. That’s when she tells me she’s from Dublin too. She’s been here seven years.

“I think I’ve got a bit of an accent now.”

She’s going back soon to get married, but then she’ll return. “Oh, it’s nice to meet someone from home. Although I suppose this is home now,” she says, sounding slightly surprised.

Or there's the friendly guy in the car rental place. He and his girlfriend came a couple of years ago to have a look, and then returned home so she could apply for a visa. "I'm her de facto," he explains in the international language of the embedded-abroad, meaning that her visa allows him to work. They might not stay in Australia forever -–"property prices", he says, grimly – but he doesn't think they will settle in Ireland.

Irish, all of them. They may be emigrants but they don’t see themselves as ‘victims of emigration’, not the ones I’ve met. They are the part of the a new wave you don’t often hear about it: educated and ambitious, they had a job back home – or could have found one – but they weighed everything up and decided to leave. According to figures in this newspaper, 26,000 Irish people came to Australia on a working-holiday visa in the year to June 2012; 10,000 arrived, like my family, on a four-year, employer-sponsored 457 visa, while 6,000 got permanent residency or citizenship.

This week, the author of a new study on emigration, Trinity College Prof James Wickham, said it is “astonishing” that the rhetoric about emigration in Ireland has never changed. I might not have understood quite what he meant before I left, but I do now.

Those of us for whom Ireland is still home view those figures as a tragedy; emigrants themselves, by and large, don’t. We watch them leave – 140 of them every day – and wonder if they’re gone forever. They don’t think beyond chunks of three to five years. When they talk about the “pain of emigration”, they’re likely to be referring to the new rules on 457 visas. They wear their citizenship lightly, seeing it as administrative issue rather than a patriotic one.

It’s not all sun, surf and big salaries – they do feel the absence of friends and family acutely. Then a moment passes before they add the inevitable, “but there’s always Skype.”

If you’re Irish, emigration is always going to be an emotive term, burdened down by centuries of food parcels and one-way tickets in steerage and long-lost Uncle Tommys and Auntie Eilises.

And yet, all that is so far out of step with the experience of many of the younger generation of emigrants, for whom better education, cheaper air travel, technology and a stronger sense of themselves have made the world a more navigable place.

As my new friend takes his leave of me, he turns back: “It’s funny how things go. I was devastated when I broke my arm. And now look at me.”