Raising kids abroad: how to keep them connected to home

“Would Zara be doing Irish dancing if we were living in Galway? Probably not," says one dad in Sydney

It's a sunny autumn morning in the central Sydney suburb of Woolloomooloo. Approaching the local sports centre, the chatter of parakeets visiting from the neighbouring Botanic Gardens is replaced by strains of Cooley's Reel, drifting out from the gym hall's open door.

Inside, a dozen kids aged from five up to 11 are whirling and twirling to the music, practising their steps with Irish dancing teacher Emily Kennedy.

The kids are having a ball, but for the waiting parents chatting together in the room next door, it is about more than dance; it is about finding a sense of "home" in Australia, and keeping their families connected to Ireland.

“Would Zara be doing Irish dancing if we were living in Galway? Probably not. That’s the difference being so far from home, you want to keep them in touch,” says Alan Connolly, an e-commerce director from Co Galway who has been bringing his five-year-old daughter to the class for almost a year.

“From the very first go she loved it . . . She just loves the Irish dancing, loves the Irish music. Any time I am playing at home she is up dancing.”

Connolly, whose Australian wife is from the Snowy Mountains, is keen to raise Sydney-born Zara and her two-year-old brother Jack as Irish kids, and says the family are “as involved in the Irish community as much as we can be”.

“For a long time I had them saying they were Irish, which didn’t please their mother too well, but they certainly know where their father comes from and they will hopefully always have that connection.”

Kennedy, a former PR executive from Roscahill in Co Galway who changed careers and set up the Kennedy Dance School in January 2015, says Irish dancing has become a popular competitive sport among people with no Irish heritage in Australia

– there are about 25 Irish dancing schools in Sydney alone – but most of her pupils have an Irish parent or grandparent. The majority are Australian-born, but a few have arrived in Sydney in the past few years having emigrated with their families from Ireland.

“It is usually the parents who are encouraging it at the beginning, but the kids really enjoy it and want to keep going,” Kennedy says.

“It keeps them connected to home. A lot of the parents would have done Irish dancing when they were kids, and they enjoy coming along and meeting other Irish parents who are from a similar background. I know some of them love when they go back to Ireland on their holidays and their kids can dance for their grandparents or at family get-togethers.”

Anne-Marie Julian, who moved to Australia in 2009 after she and her husband took redundancy from their financial services jobs in Galway, agrees that getting her children involved in Irish activities is as much about keeping herself connected with the Irish community as it is about them. Her son Christian (9) and daughter Lauren (7) have been coming to the dance classes since they began last year.

“I love it as much as the kids, I love hearing the music,” she says. “It is great to connect with other Irish people. I get to have a chat with the other parents, and the kids just love dancing with Emily. It helps them build that connection, and me to stay close to home.”

Mass immigration

Australia has long been a popular destination for Irish people looking for an adventure or a change of lifestyle, but since the recession hit Ireland in 2008, the number of families – and people of childbearing age who have since formed families – moving over and settling there has increased phenomenally.

This mass immigration in a short period of time has swelled the Irish communities in the bigger cities like Sydney, Perth, Melbourne and Brisbane, leading to a revival in Irish cultural activities such as Irish dance, music, language and, most especially, GAA.

For the Irish-born kids, participating in familiar Irish activities in Australia helps them to adjust and make friends.

For those born there, it fosters a connection to the place that their parents call “home”.

For the parents, it is about passing on traditions, getting their children involved in something they did themselves growing up, and helping the family to maintain their Irish identity.

Ariana O’Brien has just turned one, but her father, Ruairí, a plumber originally from Co Cork, is already planning what Irish sports she will play in Perth.

“He is a huge GAA head,” says his partner, Nicola Daly, a care worker who moved to Perth in 2011.

“He has just got all the papers sent over from the 1916 Rising commemorations at home, and his Cork jersey is out all the time. She got a hurley and sliotar given to her since birth. It is actually embarrassing here sometimes, because people here don’t know what a hurley is and he walks everywhere with this hurley. I’m thinking people are going to get really intimidated by us. You can see them looking at him with this big stick.

“He is definite she will play camogie, but I say she doesn’t have to if she doesn’t want to. I would be big on just letting her be whoever she wants to be.”

Eimear Beattie, a sports and history teacher from Co Limerick who runs the Irish Families in Perth group which now has 12,000 members on Facebook, says the Irish families who have settled in Australia in recent years are "all fiercely proud of their Irish heritage", and are keen to pass that on to their children.

Irish language classes for kids, which Beattie used to teach, had 78 pupils signed up at their peak in 2013. The GAA junior academy in Perth is thriving, there are Irish music classes run by Comahltas, several Irish dancing schools, and a newly established Perth Irish Rugby Club, which has plans for a junior team.

“We have all the Irish activities you would have in Ireland, just with better weather,” Beattie says.

The popularity of Irish cultural activities for kids is spreading beyond the Irish community, too. The school where Beattie teaches, in the mostly aboriginal area of Girrawheen in north Perth, has a Gaelic football team which will soon boast the first aboriginal captain of a minor state team in Australia.

Beattie’s three children, even three-year-old Tiernan who was born in Australia, “all identify as 100 per cent Irish”, she says, “even though they will have Australian citizenship by the end of this year. They are very proud of it. My eldest daughter, everything she does in school she chooses to do it on something Irish.

“My little girl started kindergarten last year and the teaching assistant was from Mayo, with the thickest accent. We were expecting she would lose her little accent, but she hasn’t yet, because she is around Irish people a lot here.”

Beattie believes a lot of Irish parents in Perth, many of whom moved there reluctantly, or with a plan to stay only short term, keep their kids involved in Irish activities because they plan to move back to Ireland eventually and want to ease that transition for them in the future.

“Some want to leave before their kids start in school, or before high school. They don’t want their kids starting in secondary school and completely losing their Irish identity,” she says.

“A lot of parents send their children to Irish classes for the sole purpose that if they do move back to Ireland they will be going to a gaelscoil, and they don’t want them slipping behind.

“Other ones, including ourselves, are doing communion classes out here, so if they go back they will have that done.”

It is also important for the kids to be familiar with Irish activities for when they visit Ireland on holidays, says Fidelma McCorry Breen, who runs Adelaide Irish Connect, and is completing a PhD on Irish migration to Australia at the University of Adelaide.

“It is important for the child’s sense of belonging, for them to be able to say ‘I’ve done this before’,” she says. “They can then share their perspective as a child brought up in Australia, where GAA matches are sometimes cancelled because of the heat instead of the rain. It is about giving our children an insight into how things are in Ireland.”

McCorry-Breen always brings her kids back bags of Tayto crisps from Ireland, which they love, even though they have been to Ireland only twice.

Her daughter Niamh is a keen Irish dancer, and her son Brendan watches the GAA matches online so he can talk to his granddad back in Ireland about them on the phone.

“It is the silly little things that they know they can be familiar with and love from Ireland. You need to maintain the links, the everyday things. It is not really about having an Irish passport, but knowing how a Gaelic match works, and that Tayto and batch bread is the very best sandwich you can have.”

For the parents, she says, it is “like a placebo or replacement for not being in Ireland”, and an instant social network. “Nothing will bind you like yelling at a football match.”

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