A little Ireland down under


Australia remains the default choice for many young Irish emigrants, but thousands are going that little bit further, to New Zealand – simultaneously exotic and familiar, writes KEITH LYNCH

SHE MAY be over 18,000km from where she was born, but Lillian Dowd seems very much at home. It’s a balmy February’s day in the heart of New Zealand’s second- biggest city, Christchurch. Tourists are ambling through the square and Dowd texts to describe herself as “the Irish-looking one”. When we meet, Dowd is soft-spoken, petite and boasting distinctive red hair.

With Ireland’s economic collapse, New Zealand is proving an increasingly popular destination. “So many people have gone to Australia, so we decided we’d do something different,” says Dowd.

In the past 10 years almost 30,000 Irish people – more than the population of Ennis – have received permission to work in New Zealand.

After a 12-month working holiday a few years previously, Dowd (32) and her partner moved to New Zealand permanently in late 2006. “The pace of life isn’t as hectic, and we’re big into outdoor sports, snowboarding, surfing and biking – and that’s a wee bit easier in Christchurch,” the Longford-born primary school teacher says. “Back in Longford the nearest beach was two hours away, while here it’s on our doorstep.”

While Australia remains almost the default choice for a young generation of Irish, Dowd thinks New Zealand offers the right mix of familiarity and diversity. Thousands of Irish agree.

“The social scene isn’t just like back home. We spend a lot of time going to other people’s homes and having barbecues. We try and go camping at the weekends in the summer, and hit the slopes in the winter. There’s not as much time in the pub,” Dowd says.

Christchurch, South Island’s main city, plays host to arguably the world’s strongest rugby club, Crusaders. Relaxed, green and uncluttered, the city enjoys a moderate climate and easy access to beaches and ski fields.

It might see 25 degrees-plus days in February, but a culture shock Christchurch is not. Most bewildering is the almost total lack of traffic, and those great Gaelic Trojan horses – Irish bars – are sprinkled along car-free streets with very familiar names.

There’s Armagh Street in Christchurch, Dublin Street in Wellington, and O’Connell and Galway streets in Auckland, the country’s biggest city.

Auckland, attracts the majority of New Zealand’s immigrants. Its oily streets, constant road works and hundreds of rainy days provide a sobering reminder of Dublin. The city’s GAA club, with its 400 members, is a starting point for the Irish.

STEPHEN CONNOLLY (23), from Ballconnell in Co Cavan, is the club’s development officer. He arrived in Christchurch in March 2008 before settling in Auckland. He found work in ANZ, one of New Zealand’s biggest banks, before taking up his role with the GAA club.

Like many young Irish people, Connolly travelled down under simply for a change of lifestyle, and New Zealand seemed a little more exotic than Bondi Beach.

“I wanted to have different stories to my mates. Half my village at home is living in Melbourne,” he says. “I think New Zealanders still have a lot of time for the Irish. When I’ve been in Australia, and when I’ve spoke to friends over there, it seems the Aussies are a bit sick of the Irish. There are so many of them,” he says.

Auckland’s young Irish people live mostly in the city centre, with pockets stretching to the suburb of Mount Eden, Connolly says.

PETER SCULLIONwas one of five young Irish physiotherapists to move to Auckland after finishing college in September 2009. “I came over because there were jobs here and there are no jobs back home,” the 23-year-old says in his Tyrone drawl.

Despite the chance to earn more in Australia – incomes there are almost one-third higher than those in New Zealand – Scullion choose Auckland. “I was looking at going to Australia for more money, but after talking to people I decided to come to here for the lifestyle,” he says.

Auckland is New Zealand’s most cosmopolitan city. It boasts a diverse ethnic make-up, with just over 50 per cent of the city describing themselves as European.

Nationally, according to the last census, Europeans, or Pakeha, make up 67.6 per cent of the population, Maori 14.6 per cent, Pacific people 6.9 per cent and a growing Asian community represents 9.2 per cent.

Racism does exist, and New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission has pointed to an increase in discrimination towards Asians.

Despite that, Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres believes the country is mostly tolerant of newcomers. “Traditionally New Zealand has welcomed migrants from the UK and Ireland. In fact they’re barely seen as migrants,” he says.

An influx of Pacific Islanders and Asians, who de Bres says “still experience more discrimination than others”, has at times led to tensions. “But overall the country is seeking immigrants on the basis of their skills. Most are welcomed here.”

New Zealand recently reported its highest immigration growth in five years, with permanent migrants exceeding departures by 22,588 in the 12 months up to January 31st.

The record rise can be attributed, in part, to Kiwis coming home. Traditionally, New Zealand’s young travel to the UK, Australia and the US, but now they’re seeing out the recession at home.

But there aren’t jobs for everyone. The unemployment rate has leapt to 7.3 per cent, modest compared to Ireland’s 12.7 per cent but still the largest New Zealanders have experienced in 10 years.

In 2008, not long before his election as prime minister, the National Party’s centre-right leader John Key described Ireland as once “a total basket case” turned “considerable economic success story”. Luckily, despite Key’s fondness of the Irish model, New Zealand has managed to escape the worst of the worldwide downturn.

But it hasn’t been all slaps on the backs and celebratory haka. The economy’s growth remains somewhat sluggish. Recent figures showed GDP growth of only 0.2 per cent in the third quarter of 2009.

The unemployment rate has raised concerns that the journey from recession will be slow but continued growth is expected.

The growth may be modest but the Irish Honorary Consul General Rodney Walshe says New Zealand is going to continue to see the Irish exodus.

“There is a national affinity between Ireland and New Zealand. Eighteen per cent of the population here are of Irish descent. New Zealand is the Ireland of the south Pacific, but with a slightly better climate.”

New Zealand: Facts and figures

  • In 2008-2009, 3,935 Irish people were granted permission to work in New Zealand.
  • New Zealand’s immigration service ranks those seeking to migrate through a points system, with skills, experience, education, character and health all taken into account.
  • Those seeking temporary work visas need to have a job offer. The job must be on an essential skills list, or your employer needs to demonstrate he tried and failed to find a New Zealander.
  • The country also offers a one-year working-holiday visa for Irish people aged 18-30.