Australia’s Irish on jobs, swimming pools and the ‘mammy factor’
Generation Emigration reports from Sydney and Perth on their successes, struggles and the couples divided over whether to stay or return
Bright early-morning sunshine glints off the water at the poolside cafe next to Sydney’s Botanic Gardens as 30 or so members of the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce gather at the harbourside venue for one of their sold-out business breakfasts.
That most of the smartly suited attendees, who are networking over flat whites and eggs Benedict, appear to be under 40 is remarkable for such a professional event. With lawyers, entrepreneurs, tech professionals and company directors among them, it would be difficult to find a stronger example of how successful some of Australia’s young Irish have become since moving over.
When recession gripped Ireland in 2008 Australia seemed to have it all, with its laid-back lifestyle, booming economy and well-paid jobs. Like those attending the breakfast, tradesmen, healthcare workers, backpackers and white-collar professionals arrived in their droves, whether to travel around or to take up jobs in the big cities and mines around Western Australia and Queensland.
Over the following six years more than 100,000 Irish people headed down under in search of a fresh start or adventure, and Australia fast became the most popular destination for Irish emigrants outside the UK.
In the past two years, however, the tide has taken a dramatic turn. The Australian economy has tightened, particularly in Western Australia. Back in Ireland unemployment has dropped (to 8.3 per cent in July, when the number at work surpassed two million for the first time since 2009). Returning to Ireland is becoming an increasingly attractive option for those Irish looking towards home.
Figures this week from the Central Statistics Office show how much things have changed, with just 6,200 people moving from Ireland to Australia in the 12 months to April this year. That’s just over a third of the total in 2012, when numbers peaked at 18,200. They also show a dramatic jump in those moving in the other direction – from Australia to Ireland – in the past year, from 2,900 to 5,500.
The Irish Times is at the chamber’s event in Sydney to talk about the Generation Emigration project, but most of the questions that the breakfasters ask relate to moving home.
“What is the economy really like outside Dublin?” one asks.
“What are people saying about our chances of getting a mortgage if I return with my family?” wonders another.
The chamber’s president, Barry Corr, says that such chatter is increasingly common at Irish networking events. “Unfortunately, not all the people who came over did so by choice,” he says. “It was always going to be the case that when the Irish economy was strong enough to offer them the opportunity to go home again they probably would.”
The chamber’s membership swelled from less than 1,000 four years ago to 7,000 in 2016. But so many members are moving back to Ireland that it set up a Dublin branch this summer.
It works closely with the Irish recruitment agency CPL, which in April sent a delegation to Australia in a drive to bring Irish workers home, particularly those in engineering, law, project management, IT and financial services.
Although Ireland’s improving career prospects have certainly facilitated their return, Corr says that “the major family events are the biggest driver. Life events are more important than anything else: where they are getting married or having their first child, or the child going to school, or a death of a parent.”
His observations are supported by the findings of a recent Ipsos MRBI survey for The Irish Times, in which more than a third of emigrants who said they wanted to move home identified family as the trigger. Another 16 per cent identified homesickness as the main reason. Just one in five said that work or a job offer would be the main cause of their decision to return, while 12 per cent cited improvements in the economy.
The Irish surveyed in Australia and New Zealand were the most likely of Irish people abroad to say that they plan to be home within three years, at 30 per cent, compared with 19 per cent in the UK and just 2 per cent in the US.
“I think the main factors which will drive people my age home are having children, buying a house, getting married. I actually don’t think jobs are as important,” says Fiona Mayers, who has been in Perth with her partner since 2011.
Her experience is fairly typical of many of the young Irish we meet during our 10-day visit to Perth and Sydney. Having recently turned 30, the marketing manager from Clonakilty, Co Cork, along with the rest of her Irish circle of friends in Perth, is facing decisions about where to “settle down”.
“None of us moved here originally with the intention of staying forever,” Mayers says. “I came out in 2011 not knowing what to expect, that maybe things would be better at home in a year or two and we’d move back. But you get the bug here, do well at work and earn good money, and think, Why not get residency and then citizenship, so you have that security?
“There is talk of going back home, but there is still a lack of trust there about how good the economy [in Ireland] actually is. My friends all have good jobs out here and are doing well. They are worried about having to go down a few rungs on the career ladder if they go back to Ireland, or that they might have to go to England instead, which is closer to home but still a new country.”
She adds: “There is a lack of confidence that they will find a good job, especially outside Dublin.”
Many of Mayers’s Irish friends are happy to stay in Australia for now, but many more are homeward bound.
“We are at the airport every few weeks now waving people off,” she says. “Among my friends at the age we are, everyone is weighing up whether to commit to Australia, by buying a house or something, or go home. We are floating between the two, but time is ticking by.”
For now at least, Mayers and her partner, a restaurant supervisor, see their futures in Australia.
“We enjoy the lifestyle here too much to give it up. We will probably take the plunge and buy a house in the next few years. It might not be forever, but who knows. We are hoping some of our friends will do the same.”
At the Head Office hair salon in Bondi Junction in Sydney, where 10 out of the 11 employees are Irish, there is a lot of talk about leaving Australia among both the staff and their Irish customers.
Debbie Mullett from Dublin, who has been living in Australia almost six years, is fairly certain she will move home soon.
“I want to give Ireland another go, see if it works, and if it doesn’t I can come back,” the 30-year-old says. “A lot of my friends have babies, have bought houses, got married - will there be many people around to go out for a few drinks after work? I don’t know… If you could move your family here you would stay, because everything else is great.”
Her 25-year-old colleague Deirdre Ward is getting married at home in Ireland later this year. She says she “will see about staying in Australia after that”, though she is also concerned about how her social life will compare.
“I’d be going home to the country, from living in Bondi Junction with the city just there, to living in the bog with the green fields where you have to get transport everywhere. It would be a big change... It is a wee bit lonely here sometimes. It is so big. You know everybody at home, you grew up with everybody. I don’t know my next door neighbour here.”
Marion O’Hagan, who runs the Irish Australian Support and Resource Bureau in Melbourne, says that homesickness is the biggest factor motivating Irish people to move home.
Getting easier, not harder
“What actually sends them back is the fact that Ireland is improving,” she says. “They see the possibility now to go home and have a good life. But it is all connected with missing family.”
But family in Ireland is not a good enough reason for everyone to leave their Australian lives behind. Most, if not all, of the dozens of Irish people we meet in Sydney and Perth mention the Australian sunshine versus the dull, dreary Irish weather as a key deterrent to moving home.
The women of the “Irish Mums” playgroup in the Perth suburb of Padbury are divided between the few who are quite clearly homesick, and struggling with the distance from family support, and the majority who seem delighted with life in Western Australia.
“A lot of families that came out here because of the recession are still here and are never going to go back,” says Eimear Beattie, a teacher, originally from Co Tipperary, who has been living in Perth with her husband and now three children since 2011.
“I never thought I would bring up kids abroad,” she says, “or live anywhere else apart from Ireland for the rest of my life. But now I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else, because our lifestyle is so good and we have made great friends out here.
“It would be very hard for us to go back now; we are so used to certain luxuries. Obviously you miss friends and family, but as time goes by it seems to be getting easier for us rather than harder,” Beattie says.
“The weather is fabulous all year round. My husband gets home at 4pm every day, and I’m home at 3.30. We have a pool and a five-bedroom house. We could never have that at home.”
The ‘mammy factor’
Beattie is behind the Irish Families in Perth Facebook page, which organises regular meet-up events and has an active online community of more than 12,000 members. So few people are as knowledgeable about trends among the Irish in Western Australia.
She says that the page has seen a lot of chat about moving back in the past 18 months, and she agrees that homesickness is the driving factor.
“When you emigrate you are not going to have the same support around you, and that can be a big shock to the system for some people,” she says. “They might have a great lifestyle, and be earning great money, but there is still a loneliness that gets them. I know so many people who are homesick and wanting to leave, struggling with the emotional distance.”
Five of Beattie’s friends in Perth have recently left for home. She says they came out with a five-year plan, and are going back to Ireland before their children start school. Some have made enough money to pay off debts, buy a house or afford for one parent to be able to stay at home with their kids when they move back.
“The ‘mammy factor’ is a big thing,” Beattie says. “Usually the woman with young kids is the one who wants to go home to be close to her mother. Sometimes couples have different views; one is homesick and the other loves it here. There have been separations because of that.
“The ones who have made the definite decision to give things a real go here are the ones who are getting on best; they are not constantly looking backwards. The others who ended up here accidentally or reluctantly, who never really wanted to be here, are the ones who are struggling.
“You wonder, if they do go back home, will they settle there either? You hear about that quite a lot, too, people returning to Ireland and then moving back here again because it hasn’t worked out. The cost of that is unbelievable. They call it the $20,000 holiday.”
The tightening economy, particularly in Western Australia, is also a major factor in the exodus of Irish. The price of iron ore has plummeted in the past two years, leading to a dramatic scaling down of production in the mining sector, where tens of thousands of Irish workers were employed during Australia’s boom.
Several multibillion-dollar oil and gas projects, such as Wheatstone and Gorgon, have moved out of construction phase, also shedding thousands of workers.
In January 2015 the Irish community in Western Australia was devastated when 4,000 workers were let go in a week. Beattie’s husband was one of them.
The high salaries once on offer, especially for workers willing to take fly-in-fly-out contracts – working for a few weeks on site, often thousands of kilometres from their homes in Perth – have reduced dramatically.
Brian Mooney, originally from Finglas in Dublin, runs Mooney’s Irish Sandwich bar in Perth. He estimates that the number of Irish working on construction sites in the city has dropped by up to 60 per cent in the past year.
“The Irish buzz around Perth was definitely down after Christmas,” Mooney says, “and it has continued to drop. Some of the Irish bars around here don’t open some nights any more.”
Mooney has seen the Irish community change unrecognisably in Perth since 2000, when he arrived looking for a bit of adventure at the age of 33. A three-year stint as a camp manager in the mines gave him a taste for hospitality, which eventually led him, many jobs later, to open the cafe five years ago.
Irish construction workers were beginning to arrive in Perth in droves, he says, hungry for breakfast rolls before a long, hot day on site in the sun.
“When I opened my doors first, my customers were 99 per cent Irish,” Mooney says. “They wanted their Sunday World and their proper batch-loaf sandwiches, something to remind them of their mammies. They missed this stuff. I was making an absolute fortune.
“Lots of them left Ireland because they genuinely couldn’t get any work. One hundred came and 10,000 followed, but now it’s going the other way. The hardest-working ones are still here. They are settled, they are having babies, and saying to themselves, ‘Jaysus, we have it great here, why would we go home?’
“I think the ones who are here now will be here for good, but a lot of others moved on to Canada or America or the UK. They will follow the work wherever it is going.”
Ruairi Spillane, a Kerry man who runs Outpost Recruitment in Vancouver and the Irish community website Moving2Canada.com, says he has received many emails from tradesmen and construction professionals in Western Australia looking for information about jobs in Canada.
“Perth has been incredibly good to the Irish, and has paid a massive service to the Irish economy by absorbing thousands of Irish workers in the last few years,” he says. “A lot of them were leaving Ireland in negative equity, and going out to the mines and earning such good wages helped them get their life back on track.
“But with so many big projects winding up a lot of people have already left Western Australia. Among those who are still there, a lot of them are looking over their shoulders. Things are definitely slowing, and sponsorship of foreign workers, including the Irish, is more contentious when the economy is down and there are Australians out of work.”
Seeing an opportunity, Spillane flew to Perth earlier this year to host a seminar on moving to Canada, at the Irish Club in Subiaco. Forty Irish workers attended.
“I thought there would be a bit of hostility there,” he says, “that I was trying to lure Irish people away to Canada, but there is a consensus that people need a plan B. A lot of them are happy abroad and don’t want to go back to Ireland.
“Returning to Ireland might be financially crippling, relatively speaking, with the pay cut they will have to take. There’s the bonus of being closer to family, but if they are enjoying the lifestyle that living abroad brings, and want to stay away for a while, they don’t have a lot of options.”
Canada is not the only alternative destination. London was an obvious choice until the June Brexit vote reduced certainty about the prospect of getting a job there. With tax-free salaries and generous allowances, the Middle East is an attractive option for workers who want to maintain their high wages, but there are lifestyle sacrifices to make.
The economy in Canada is not booming at the moment, Spillane acknowledges, especially with the postponement of several major liquefied-natural-gas projects. Still, “it is an alternative for them to keep their eyes on”.
Australia’s east coast tells a very different economic story from the west. The Sydney skyline is crammed with cranes, clear evidence that the construction boom continues in Australia’s top-performing province, New South Wales.
“All the couples are moving back to Ireland, but all the single lads are moving to Sydney or Melbourne,” says Ollie Gordon, who made the move himself from Perth to Sydney in April.
Gordon, a carpenter by trade, spent three years working fly-in-fly-out contracts in the mines in Karratha before realising that “there was more to life than money” and accepting an administration job with a Perth-based Irish construction company, West Force.
In July 2015 Gordon joined All Force Solutions, an Irish-owned recruitment company, and in April landed in Sydney to set up a new office there, targeting Irish workers moving to the east coast from Western Australia.
“We came over for a trial in February and saw how busy things were, and said we would give it a go,” he says. “We advertise a lot in Perth, on all the Irish sites. We want to work with people who are finished up in the mines or who don’t have ties in Perth and want to come to Sydney.”
Gordon’s room-mate, Billy Brosnan, an engineer and foreman from Co Kerry, has also recently moved from Perth to Sydney after eight years travelling and working in Western Australia, mostly fly-in-fly-out in the mines.
“When I started in the mines four years ago there were a lot of Irish guys arriving,” Brosnan says. “In the last year or so I didn’t see any new arrivals, really. There are a lot more opportunities at home now, so they don’t have to come out, and any of the ones who couldn’t find work are already gone.”
He still sees young people around Perth and Sydney who have obviously recently arrived, but he thinks they are there primarily to travel rather than to find work.
“I don’t think Australia is as popular. London is really booming, so if you’re leaving to work you’d go there, because it’s closer. A lot of lads I know have left Australia to work in London.
“Some of them have gone back with the missus,” he says, “because she wanted to have a baby near her family in Ireland, but they are working in England, going back and forth for the weekends. It is as good moneywise in London as it is here.”
Not so many of his friends are moving back to Ireland. “There seems to be work in Dublin, all right, but what about the rest of the country? I’m from Kerry, just outside Listowel. I doubt I’d have much of a chance finding a job around there.”
For now Brosnan is delighted with his new job in Sydney, working on a new tunnel project for another Irish manager.
Although this week’s CSO figures show that returning to Ireland to live is desirable for thousands who made their way down under in the past decade, it is also clear that many are happy with their lives and are unlikely to be back, in the near future at least.
“Every so often you think, God, I’d love to move home,” says Brosnan. “Then you’re back for a few weeks and it’s raining, and all the lads are soaked every day coming home from work, and you think, Nah, I’m going back to Australia."
This series of articles is supported by the Global Irish Media Fund