9 Irish-Australians Who Made It Big In Business

Image: Ian Walton/Getty Images.

Being Irish-born is a distinct advantage in modern Australia.

Why? Because it makes you more likely to be a high earner, that’s why.

The 2011 census tells us that when individual earnings are compared by place of birth, the Irish are right at the top of the tree. Only those born in Zimbabwe have higher individual median weekly income.

So the Irish are like an ethnic version of Sydney suburb Mosman, a virtual place where everyone’s doing pretty well.

Clearly not everyone who emigrates from the Emerald Isle to the Emerald City earns what Alan Joyce earns. But the statistics point to an ethnicity which is clearly well-regarded by Australian employers and, indeed, to a migrant group who have made the most of their opportunities here.

Should we be surprised? Well, not really.

The common ground is there. Australia is, after all, the most Irish country in the world, outside of Ireland.

The most recent census tells us that just over two million Aussies claim Irish heritage but that only takes the story back two generations. (The Howard government changed the heritage question in the Census, asking Australians to trace their ancestry back only two generations. Most Irish Australians need to go back three or four generations to find their Irish roots.)

In truth, genealogists believe that more than a third of the population has an Irish ancestor who, one day, stepped aboard a ship (or a plane) to leave the old country for the new world.

In its 25th Anniversary Edition, the Irish Echo named the Top 100 Irish Australians of all time and identified a number of current migrants who have thrived in Australia’s meritocratic environment.

But the list also points to the fact that Irish success in Australian business is a story with many chapters.

Here are just some of the Irish Australians who have made a name for themselves here.

Alan Joyce, Qantas CEO

Photo: Getty / Robert Cianflone

Born into a working class family in Tallaght, Dublin, Joyce gained a degree and masters degree from Trinity College and worked with Aer Lingus for eight years before emigrating to Australia in 1996 to work with the now defunct Ansett airline. While at Aer Lingus he had applied to train as a pilot but was turned down.

He joined Qantas in 2000 and, after impressing his bosses, was appointed Chief Executive Officer of its budget subsidiary Jetstar in October 2003. He turned down an offer to return to Aer Lingus after its CEO Willie Walsh left to run British Airways in 2005.

In November 2008, he was appointed CEO of Qantas. Despite his success, Joyce has a reputation as a man with his feet on the ground. “I’ve always been very conservative, with no elaborate expenditure. Maybe it’s my working class background; you appreciate the resources you have,” he said.

Of his position as head of Qantas, Joyce said: “I think it’s one of the best, if not the best, aviation jobs in the world.”

Following his controversial 2011 grounding of the Qantas fleet due to industrial action, a poll in the Australian newspaper showed an increased negative public perception of the airline.

Joyce is an Ambassador of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation.

Michael Malone: IT Entrepreneur

Born in Co Clare, Malone emigrated to Perth with his parents and two brothers in 1978. Having worked through university as a fencing contractor, he founded Western Australia’s first internet service provider (ISP), iiNet, in 1993 in the garage of his parents’ home.

“No one had heard of the World Wide Web yet, but that changed in October 1994. A year after we started, there was a piece of software released called Netscape, which changed everything,” he said.

From such humble beginnings, Malone led the company to become the second largest ISP in Australia with revenues of over $700 million. The company was publicly listed in 1999.

Malone has won many industry accolades. In 2006 he won the Business News award for the most outstanding business leader in WA under the age of 40. In 2009 he was named CEO of the Year in the Australian Telecom Awards and National Customer Service CEO of the Year in the Australian Service Excellence Awards. In 2011 Malone won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

Last March he quit the company he founded more than 20 years ago. Malone said he made the decision to leave iiNet while on extended leave. He said he had “come to the point where I want to dedicate my time to other opportunities”.

Paul O’Sullivan, SingTel-Optus Country Chief and Optus CEO, Group Consumer

Born in Dublin, O’Sullivan learned the value of good business from an early age. His father, a senior public servant, had his children take up odd jobs to supplement their household income.

“I’ve sold everything from newspapers to French wine and Irish peat fuel,” O’Sullivan said.

Having done a degree in economics at Trinity College and post-graduate studies in Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program, he held various international management roles with the Royal Dutch Shell Group in Canada, the Middle East, Australia and the UK.

O’Sullivan moved permanently to Australia 22 years ago and is an Australian citizen. He was appointed chief executive of telecommunications giant Optus in 2004.
Though he is somewhat reclusive in his private life, he is a supporter of the Australian Ireland fund.

When former Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo described Australia as like “stepping back in time”, and having “restrictive” immigration policies, O’Sullivan strongly disagreed.

“This is the most egalitarian, inclusive and dynamic society I have lived in, an experience I have to say is reinforced in my frequent travel to the United States on business,” said O’Sullivan.

His pay package in the year to 31 March 2009 was $2.1 million.

John and James Toohey, Brewers

James Toohey. Image: Supplied.

John Toohey was born in Limerick in 1839 to father Matthew and mother Honora, and moved to Melbourne in 1841 with his family where his brother James was born in 1850.

After moving to Sydney, the brothers began brewing beer in the Darling Brewery on Harbour Street and by the 1880s the brothers’ beer – Toohey’s and Tooth’s – had become widely popular.

James campaigned for the Legislative Assembly seat of South Sydney in 1885 which he won and held until 1893. He died at Pisa, Italy, in September of 1895 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery, Sydney.

John, meanwhile, was a leading Catholic layman, benefactor to numerous Catholic charitable institutions and a financial supporter of the Irish nationalist movement.

A leader in the Home Rule movement, he was prominent in the erection of the monument over the grave of Michael Dwyer in Waverley cemetery in 1898.

In 1902 the brewery became a public company, Toohey’s Ltd, with John as chairman, before he died suddenly in Chicago in May of 1903.

He was also buried at Rookwood cemetery.

Patsy Durack, Farmer

Born at Scarriff, Co Clare in March 1834, Patrick (Patsy) Durack rose from poverty in Ireland to become a wealthy landowner in Australia. The family of tenant farmers moved to NSW in 1853, but within two months his father, Michael, was accidentally killed.

The eldest son of eight children, Patrick settled his mother, Bridget, and family at Goulburn and went to work in Victoria. Eighteen months later he returned with £1000 and bought a smallholding. In July 1862 he married Mary Costello. They had eight children, two of whom died in infancy.

In 1863, with his brother Michael and brother-in-law John Costello, he set out with horses and cattle to establish a property in south-west Queensland. But the cattle died in a drought and the party survived only with the help of local Aboriginals.

Durack was subsequently very successful with land, a butcher shop, hotels and mines. He is said to have maintained a paternal control over the mainly Irish community around Goulburn.

A financial disaster in Queensland left the family with only household possessions, but Durack had already signed many of his interests over to his sons and later helped them to expand further. He is buried beside his wife in the Pioneer cemetery at Goulburn.

Nicholas Fitzgerald, Brewer and Politician

Australians couldn’t give a XXXX for any other beer, but most will be not be aware of their favourite brew’s provenance. The Castlemaine brewery was set up by the Galway-born, Trinity educated Fitzgerald brothers, Nicholas and Edward.

Nicholas joined his brother Edward, who had just started the brewery, in Melbourne in 1859. They expanded rapidly, thanks in no small part to their signature XXX brew (the fourth X was a later addition). In 1878 the Brisbane Courier described it as “a delicious ale of the brightest amber, pleasant to the taste”. After the company went public Nicholas was managing director from 1892 until 1906 when he became a director of the amalgamated Carlton and United Brewery.

Nicholas was a member of the National Australasian Convention in Sydney in 1891 and in 1894 he represented Victoria at the Colonial Conference in Canada. In 1903 he became the Legislative Council’s chairman of committees.

He was also very much involved with the Catholic Church and was awarded the papal knighthood of St Gregory by Pope Leo XIII. He often spoke at public Church gatherings and was an enthusiast for completing St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne. He and his wife Marianne had seven sons.

Mark Foy, Retailer and Hotelier

Born in Bendigo, Victoria to Irish immigrant parents, Foy and his brother Francis moved to Sydney where in 1885 they set up a drapery shop in Oxford Street called Mark Foy’s, in memory of their late father. Business flourished and a new store near Hyde Park was opened in 1908 which featured Sydney’s first escalator.

A keen sportsman, as a young man Foy won several shooting medals in America. In 1890 he founded the Sydney Flying Squadron to brighten up sailing on Port Jackson. His efforts popularised sailing with big prize money and colourful boats which could easily be identified.

In July 1904 Foy opened the Hydro Majestic Hotel in the Blue Mountains as a hydropathic resort, complete with Swiss doctor and spa water from Germany. With characteristic flair Foy provided a wide range of recreation facilities and excellent cuisine and made it one of the most fashionable resorts in Australia.

When he died he was buried in the Catholic section of Sydney’s South Head cemetery. His estate was valued at £68,981 but his family had to be released by court order from a direction in his will that he be reburied in an elaborate tomb costing £32,000 in the Blue Mountains.

Maurice O’Shea, Winemaker

Maurice O’Shea was born in 1897 in North Sydney, to John Augustus O’Shea, an Irish-born wine-and-spirit merchant, and Leontine Frances, who came from France.

The young O’Shea trained as a viticulturist and analytical chemist at the University of Montpellier before returning to New South Wales in 1920.

He began to make wine on the family property at Pokolbin in the Hunter Valley and in 1925 he named the vineyard Mount Pleasant – a brand still well known and respected to this day.

He died of cancer in May of 1956 in his flat at Newcastle.

Danny Hill, Miner

Danny Hill, who made his first fortune in mining in Western Australia during the 1970s nickel boom, moved from his native Belfast with his parents when he was 13.

Estimated by the Business Review Weekly to have a fortune of $350 million, Hill made most of his money in property and investment, particularly on the Sunshine Coast.

The Belfast Telegraph newspaper is not willing to let either Australia or his current domicile of Monaco claim him though, and last year named Hill as Northern Ireland’s third richest person.

Hill is highly regarded for his philanthropy, including his involvement in the $17.5 million Clinical Training and Education Centre at the University of WA in the early 2000s. He has also contributed to the upgrading of electrophysiology equipment in the cardiology department of Princess Grace Hospital in his adopted home town.

Hill has lived in Monte Carlo since 2003, has been married three times and has five children.

Billy Cantwell is editor of The Irish Echo, Australia’s newspaper for the Irish community.

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