Irish in Australia: ‘It’s scary here, not able to visit home at the drop of a hat’
Being so far away from family during the pandemic is taking its toll on some emigrants
Claire Doyle and Eve Roseingrave, a couple from Dublin who live together in Melbourne, made the decision to move back late last month
After twelve years in Sydney, Elaine Benson, from Thomondgate, Co Limerick, says her penance for living in one of the world’s most desirable cities is the constant internal conflict about whether to settle there for good.
That conflict has only escalated in the wake of Australia’s year-long travel ban and international-border closure. For Benson, the distance from her close-knit family, all living a few streets apart in Carrigaline, Co Cork, is becoming too great.
“I’ve gone through moments where I’ve just felt so lonely and isolated. They’re all together all the time and it makes me question a lot,” she says.
I want the physical closeness of my family and the family support, and for Rory to know his cousin and have a close relationship with his granny and grandad and aunties
With no certainty about when the Australian border will reopen, she worries about when she and her four-year-old son, Rory, will be able to get home again. “To think that he might be six or seven when they see him again makes me sad. It makes me feel regretful for moving this far away.”
Benson was due to visit last May, when her sister had a baby, but that trip never happened.
Looking on from Australia, where Benson is single but coparenting with Rory’s father, and seeing the support her sister is getting from family, is difficult. “I want the physical closeness of my family and the family support, and for Rory to know his cousin and have a close relationship with his granny and grandad and aunties. It just makes me question whether I’ve made the right decision to live so far away.”
But she is grateful for so much that Australia has offered: the climate, the work opportunities and the healthcare system not least among them.
Ireland’s third wave of coronavirus looks even darker and more deadly from Australia, where, apart from running her business from home, Benson’s life has not changed. Family and friends back home are suffering, so she does not talk about her own life.
During the 12 years, Benson has sat down numerous times with a pen and paper and made a pros-and-cons list. But she cannot decide whether to stay or go. Being so torn has left her with a “deep sadness”, she says.
James Donnelly, from Brockagh in Co Tyrone, has been living in Perth and working in a mine as a mechanical fitter for almost two years.
“We’re living in bliss. The way they’ve handled the situation, it’s unreal,” he says, praising both the Australian and Western Australian governments for their handling of the pandemic.
I was always a homebird. It’s pretty difficult now. It’s exacerbated by the fact there’s no end in sight. The thing I’m missing the most is just running around the farm with my uncle and my da
This is the longest the 30-year-old, who is one of five children, has been away from home. Most of his father’s family are still in Brockagh, and his mother’s family is nearby, in Magherafelt. He grew up surrounded by siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.
“I was always a homebird, a real homebird, like. It’s pretty difficult now. It’s exacerbated by the fact there’s no end in sight,” he says. “The thing I’m missing the most is just running around the farm with my uncle and my da.”
Donnelly says he is struggling with being so far from family, surrounded by so much uncertainty: “It’s only really hitting me now in the past couple of months... The longer it goes on, the harder it is.”
Looking after mental health is important, so Donnelly is looking into seeing a counsellor in Perth. “You’ve got to get help when you need it,” he says. But not everybody will be able, or willing, to find it or admit that they need it.
“A lot of people wouldn’t realise that the first place to go is your doctor and they can suggest someone or help you out, but a lot of people wouldn’t even know how to go about that.”
He worries about his friends’ mental health too. “Northern Ireland hasn’t a great track record of mental health to begin with. I rang a few friends there a couple of weeks ago, and it just sounds terrible: they sound so depressed. They can’t do anything; they’re just sitting in the house all day. They couldn’t even work during the first lockdown, and they were just losing their minds.”
Donnelly speaks of one friend who thinks society itself has changed because no one can do anything outside of working. “People don’t want you in their houses, people don’t want to hang out or even talk any more. He’s a single guy: he’s always out doing something on the weekends and that. And he just sounded f**king depressed... It’s such a mess at home. I’ve an aunty who lives on her own, and the poor woman’s losing her f**king mind: she’s spent 10 months on her own.”
Donnelly has a temporary skilled-worker visa, so he is unlikely to get back into Australia if he leaves. The advice from friends and family is to stay put. “Anyone I’ve talked to is just saying, Don’t come home until it’s over. And even then I’ve uncles telling me, Don’t come home until after the recession that’s going to hit after it’s over.”
I felt like I was living with one foot in Ireland and one foot in Australia, and that’s really hard. I would never feel like I could ever buy a nice car, or buy a nice piece of furniture, as I always had in my head I’m not going to stay here forever
Having decided that they were never going to stay in Australia permanently, and with family in Ireland feeling “farther and farther away”, Roseingrave, who is from Terenure, in Dublin, says the time felt right.
“There’s only so much investment you can put into a life that you know isn’t going to be permanent. It gets tiring after a while, and we both wanted something a bit more permanent, which is going to be what we have in Ireland,” she says.
“I felt like I was living with one foot in Ireland and one foot in Australia, and that’s a really hard way to live. I would never feel like I could ever buy a nice car, or buy a nice piece of furniture, because I always had in my head I’m not going to stay here forever,” adds Doyle, who is originally from Blanchardstown, in Dublin.
Life had been good in Melbourne, with career and study opportunities that were too good to turn down. They also had friends there who were like family. But the reality of the international border closure and the inability to visit home eventually pushed them to make the call to repatriate.
“The thought of not being able to get back to Ireland if something were to happen was a huge contributing factor. It’s quite scary being over here and not being able to visit home at the drop of a hat,” says Doyle.
Roseingrave says that even though they had talked about moving home a lot, the decision only felt real and solidified when the practical things, like giving up their jobs and their house, and booking a flight, were sorted out.
Doyle and Roseingrave were both permanent residents of Australia, and although they enjoy most of the same rights as citizens, they could not vote there, which added to the feeling of not really belonging.
“I’m really proud to come from a country where the young people are so politicised, and not having a vote here is really difficult. I definitely want to be a part of a changing Ireland,” says Doyle.