At the Cock’n’Bull pub in the heart of Bondi, Irish tricolours were flying and the Guinness was flowing. A fiddler belted out a Celtic tune to revellers soaking up the atmosphere. Such was the happy crush that it seemed a substantial proportion of the tens of thousands of Irish people who have come to Australia to find work in the past year had found their way to the bar.The new migrants may be feeling a little homesick today, thinking of the St Patrick’s Day parties they are missing back in the Republic of Ireland. But there are no regrets.
“Everyone at home says there’s nothing there and tells us not to come back,” said Annette Gallagher, 26, from Belmullet in County Mayo. Gallagher, who works in the hotel industry, arrived in Australia last April on a working holiday visa, allowing her to stay for up to a year. By spending three months working in rural Australia, she has extended her stay for up to another year.
“I spent my three months boxing bananas in Tully [northern Queensland], so now I can stay longer,” she said.
For Gallagher and her friend, Nicola Dobbs, 28, from Wexford, packing fruit for A$20 (£14) an hour in Queensland was a small price to pay to be able to stay longer, notwithstanding the odd encounter with large snakes and alarming spiders. The two women are part of a growing group of Irish nationals on working holiday visas in Australia. Nearly 15,000 working visas were granted to Irish people in 2009-10; two years later, that figure had jumped to almost 26,000.
The new wave of working holidaymakers to Australia are part of Ireland’s biggest emigration since the economic downturn of the late 1980s. In the year to April 2012, 87,000 people left the country, according to Ireland’s central statistics office – nearly 2% of the population.
Of those departing permanently, more than half (46,000) were Irish citizens – a 250% increase on 2009. Many went to the UK or the US, but Australia is now the third most popular destination. That reflects historical ties – in the late 19th century about a third of the population in Australia was Irish and, according to the most recent census, 10% of Australians now claim Irish ancestry. But the trend is also related to the strength of Australia’s resource-driven economy. The unemployment rate is 5%, compared with Ireland’s 14%. Once in Australia, few Irish immigrants have trouble finding a job. Unemployment among the Irish community in Australia is just 2.4%.
The editor of Sydney’s Irish Echo newspaper, Luke O’Neill, says the chat on social media is very much about the opportunities on offer in Australia.
“Ireland is a small country and people keep in touch with their friends and family. People are encouraged when they hear good news and they want to go somewhere that there is a support network already,” said O’Neill.
As well as working holiday visas, long-stay, employer-sponsored visas, known as 457s, which allow people (and their dependents) to stay for up to four years, are increasingly popular. They grew by 74% in the year to July 2012 and have increased by 224% since the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, despite the fact that if you lose your sponsor you must either find another or leave the country within 28 days.Carpenters, joiners and civil engineers are the main occupations on 457s, reflecting the strength of these industries, particularly in Western Australia, which now rivals New South Wales as the preferred destination for Irish arrivals.
“In per capita terms, Irish nationals lead the take-up of the 457 visa programme – they are third overall – which is pretty incredible when you think about some of the other countries who are the chief source of immigration to Australia like the UK, India and China, which have vastly larger populations,” said O’Neill.
At the Cock’n’Bull, Emily Ahern, 27, a speech pathologist from Cork, has been in Australia on a 457 for two-and-a-half years, and has just applied for permanent residency. “My parents are devastated about me wanting to stay here but they know the opportunity for me to progress career-wise is much greater,” she said.
Ahern says the economic situation in Ireland means that, if you are lucky enough to get a full-time job, you have to stick to it, whether or not if fulfils your ambitions. “Here I can build my skills and move in my profession if I want to. I’m not even considering going home,” she said.
Over half of 457 visa holders go on to take up permanent residency.
Over the past two weeks , the Australian government has said it plans to crack down on the 457s, implying that some business sponsors have been abusing the system by not trying hard enough to employ local talent. Last week the Irish government’s chief whip, Paul Kehoe, who is in Australia for St Patrick’s Day, raised the matter with Australia’s immigration minister. Kehoe told the Irish Echo that every person he’d spoken to in Australia raised concerns about the 457 debate.
Yet most Irish nationals celebrating St Patrick’s Day in the Cock’n’Bull are optimistic about their new lives. They’ll be celebrating their national day at a party in Sydney’s Hyde Park and then back at the pub for the evening party.
“We love it here,” says Annette Gallagher. “I’d definitely like to come back for a longer time after my visa runs out.”
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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