Irish Eyes Are on Australia

The Strand Line, Kilkee

IN Kilkee, a sleepy retreat from the stormy Atlantic on Ireland’s remote far west coast, they still talk about the day the West Clare Gaels Ladies Football Club won the 2010 All-Ireland Ladies Intermediate Final.

It was, by all accounts, an incredible victory, a bright moment of glory that briefly illuminated Ireland’s morbid economic gloom. Resplendent in blue and white, the West Clare Gaels triumphed by 10 points over the girls from Laois St Conleth in an imperious display of pluck and skill, the grandest ever success in the village’s sporting history.

Unsurprisingly, tiny Kilkee – population 1,100 – went off after the match. “It was brilliant,” beams club secretary Dierdre Kenny Downes. “There were bonfires all over the place. I’ve never seen anything like it.” The champion team was paraded down Kilkee’s bunting-draped main drag, O’Curry Street, on a float, hailed as the heroes they were by all. “Everyone in the team got up, the cup was shown, and everybody just appeared on the street. We had some celebration, I can tell you!”

Ireland has a proud sporting tradition, but fleeting successes on the playing field doesn’t put food on the table. And Ireland isn’t generating many jobs after the economy collapsed in 2007 and Brussels put the clamps on Dublin’s decade of excess.

Today Ireland is broke and depressed, and the Irish make jokes about doing everything that their “leader”, Angela Merkel, wants. Ireland was the first EU member into recession, and is now painfully emerging from it.

So fast-forward a football season and if there’s any main street the West Clare Gaels might parade down, it’s Parramatta Road in Sydney. That’s because as many as half the members of the victorious 2010 squad are no longer in Kilkee or the team’s feeder towns around it. Even secretary Downes’ sister had left for Australia.

And there are more to follow her. For every West Clare Gaels, there’s the footballing lads from neighbouring Kilmihil, where in the pubs they reminisce about their 1980 footballing glories and the hurlers of Kilrush down the road. Indeed sporting teams (which became the necessary focus of communities across the country as the Catholic Church descended into disgrace) have been decimated, at a time when the nation needs them most.

Irish who’ve grown up entitled, in a booming land of plenty – there were 12 years of the Celtic Tiger economy, roughly half a generation’s time and just enough to feel permanent – are now getting out as quick as they can, hot-footing it to Australia for work. A new Irish arrival is quite likely to be plastering your new bathroom, or answering phones at the local solicitor’s chambers (perhaps not laying your bricks, though; one Perth firm recently advertised on the classifieds site Gumtree, “Bricklayer needed ASAP. $250 a day, no part-time workers and NO IRISH.”)

But it’s not just the youth bailing, and it’s not just Australia they’re bailing to. Tom Byrne, a self-employed architect and a 58-year-old stalwart of Kilkee’s Chamber of Commerce, is heading to Saudi Arabia for work he can’t get at home. Another Kilkee architect, 37-year-old Annette Stanford, is planning to relocate her practice to Sydney. Neither knows when they’ll be back, if at all. Says Stanford: “I’m sick of the whinging and moaning. There’s only one way to fix this problem, and that’s to fix it.” Worse for Kilkee; Stanford volunteers at its ocean rescue service, which will have to train up her replacement. Another one.

Such is the relentless draw abroad, and the impact this loss of people is having on national affairs, the Irish Times last year launched a special section, “Generation Emigration“, with a graphic evoking an airport’s departure board.

About two per cent of Ireland’s population has emigrated since 2008, when the depth of the recession began to impact on the ground. Though booming Australia is the preferred destination, the immigration services even of recession-hit Britain and the US are reporting arrivals from Ireland at near historic highs. Irish families are being divided again in this land famous for its emigrants, as the Emerald Isle loses yet another generation of its best talent.

Indeed as St. Patrick’s Day looms this weekend, this famous celebration will likely be marked by as many as 20 times more people claiming Irish roots than there are Irish living in Ireland, an eloquent statement if ever there was one that Ireland has struggled to adequately support itself.

They are people like 21-year-old Aaron Lineen of Kilmihil, who left for Australia 18 months ago and reckons he’s earned around $150,000 since, working 18-hour days as a plasterer. He lives in central Sydney having paid his visa dues working in dairy country around Victoria’s Timboon, a landscape not unlike Kilmihil. It wasn’t Australia per se that attracted him, Aaron says. It was, brutally, the prospect of fast money. “I checked them all out – Spain, the US, Canada, Holland,” he tells me, back home in Kilmihil for two weeks and “bored shitless”.

“If I could earn this sort of money in Africa, I’d be there,” he says. “But I make no apologies when I say I’m only there for the money. If Australia goes down the tube, I’m off.”

FOR 12 extraordinary years from 1995, Ireland was able to support itself, and then some, even if it was illusory. The Irish got used to the good times. Ireland was transformed virtually overnight from a land of want to a land of want-even-more. It felt a little like Taiwan or Hong Kong here, so much so that an economist named the economic phenomenon after them – the Celtic Tiger – because it was thought this sort of modern boom was of the type in which Asia seems to specialise.

There was a construction roar, and huge foreign investment as the Irish finance sector took off. People like Sean Quinn became billionaires. Quinn, a “simple farmer’s boy”, as he once described himself, was Ireland’s richest man in 2008, his £4 billion fortune built around the venerable Anglo Irish Bank.

Flash cars were bought, and multilane highways built on hock to accommodate them (today, anecdotally, most of the cars on Irish roads seem to be about five or six years old). Irish accents were heard loudly securing spots beside expensive foreign hotel pools and beaches where well-heeled Germans were usually found. And, unlike their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, then they’d go home, back to Dublin, and mint even more money, buy another car, mortgage another new building. Ireland’s economy grew by an average nine per cent annually during the late 1990s and early 2000s and, remarkable this for a country where planes and ships have tended to leave full and arrive empty, there was immigration into the country.

Suddenly Irish streets were full of foreign opportunity-seekers. It became de rigeur to have a plumber from Poland fitting a mortgaged second holiday home, built by a Bulgarian. For instance, Ennis, Clare’s county seat, has a Nigerian community that arrived in 2000, though many of those, too, are thinking of pulling up and moving back home, where Africa at last is showing signs of emerging from neglect.

Today those banks are in ruins or government hands, nursing numbers that make Iceland’s dodgy financiers look like paragons of fiscal rectitude. Flashy entrepreneurs such as Quinn are bankrupt and facing ruin in court. Some 85 per cent of Irish believe that corruption is a major problem in the Republic.

Villages such as Kilkee and Kilmihil soldier on, putting a brave face on the gloom and re-inventing themselves as best they can. But it seems about the only thing booming in West Clare and far-flung outposts like it, are subscriptions to Skype, so separated families can keep in touch with loved ones putting down roots across the other side of the world.

Once a conservative stalwart of Irish society, the Catholic Church is not helping ease Ireland’s burden. This emigration crisis comes at a time when the Church in Ireland has irrevocably retreated from the moral high ground here, where fiddling priests isn’t the name of a jaunty folk band but a national shame.

With national unemployment at 14.5 per cent, youth unemployment as high as 25 per cent, and few jobs being generated, the more desperate are choosing other, tragic options.

Suicide prevention charities predict about 1,000 people will take their own lives in Ireland this year, about 40 per cent more than 2010. In County Clare, 10 times more people suicided than died from fatal road accidents last year, many choosing the county’s spectacular sea cliffs, along which local authorities have erected “community care” signs reminding locals to keep a weather eye out.

It’s all a bit grim, which is why Kevin Dwyer has decided to bail out for Australia.

He’s an Irish politician and proud Soldier of Destiny, as members of the Fianna Fail political party like to style themselves.

Dwyer is the elected Fianna Fail councillor for New Ross, a constituency in the southeastern Irish town of Wexford, population 20,000, a selfless undertaking to public service for which he is paid 4,000 euros a year. “I love Ireland, I love my town,” Councillor Dwyer told The Global Mail.

Elected in 2004 at the tender age of 30, today he’s something of an elder statesman of the council. “In a sense, absolutely,” Councillor Dwyer tells The Global Mail. “I’ve seen 14 councillors come and go around me.”

Councillor Dwyer isn’t one of them. Just before last Christmas, however, he decided Wexford wasn’t for him. A self-employed plasterer and carpenter by trade, things were so bleak that he decided to emigrate to Australia, specifically to his aunt’s house in Sydney’s Lane Cove, where he commutes to work as a carpenter out Blacktown way.

Now one might think Councillor Dwyer would resign his post, to allow someone else to serve the good burghers of Wexford in the flesh, as he begins afresh in Oz. Think again.

Today his constituents in Wexford won’t find Councillor Dwyer manning the phones, deliberating on their rates or making sure their garbage is collected in Wexford. He does all that by Facebook and email. From Lane Cove.

Councillor Dwyer says he works 60 to 80 hours a week as a carpenter in Australia, as well as picking up the monthly allowance Wexford’s New Ross ratepayers pay him for being a councillor there. In Wexford. Even though he’s no longer in Wexford. Because he’s in Lane Cove. Working as a carpenter.

But no matter, says Dwyer, who apparently has no intention of resigning from the council. He believes that though he’s almost 16,000 kilometres and a dozen time zones away, he’s still “very accessible” to his Wexford constituents.

“They can contact me on Facebook or by email,” he said. “I’ve been elected and re-elected with a very strong vote. I have a responsibility to my constituents.”

He says he’s been as busy being a politician as he has been being a carpenter. In Australia. “I have been making representations since I’ve come here. It’s very easy to deal through Facebook and email.”

His Facebook page doesn’t immediately let his constituents know he serves them. It says he likes The Hangover, Michael Buble and Take That, and that he recently told his mate “Hi Mark how u doin r shud I say gday mate lol!!! Im living in Lane Cove with my Aunt at da mo!!!!! Where you at?????.” This is not the soaring oratory of Fianna Fail’s much-revered grandee Eamon de Valera, whose grandson Ruairi ran for Ireland’s national parliament, the Dáil, in Wexford last year.

A politician’s lot can’t be easy when ministering constituents from the Antipodes, particularly when there’s important carpentry to attend to in Sydney. “I’m not able to get to the monthly meetings,” Councillor Dwyer lamented. “It’s not ideal. It’s very expensive here. The streets are not paved with gold in Australia.”

What is perhaps even more revealing about Councillor Dwyer’s councilloring-by-Facebook is what it might say about Irish politics, at a time when politicians aren’t exactly popular in Ireland. When Wexford voters thought it a little rich that their elected official didn’t resign when he left town, it was put to a council vote. Dwyer won, keeping his seat, at least until his wife and family also find their place in the Australian sun.

He’s hurt that he’s been singled out for criticism in Wexford when “billions have been ripped out of my country by corrupt politicians and their business and banking friends”.

He said he was “disappointed” there was an attempt to bounce him from the Wexford council after he’d left town for Australia, and he is pleased he’s now secured an extension to serve New Ross until September 2012, when he’s entitled to seek another one. Which he says he won’t, if he gets settled in Australia.

Indeed, he sees himself a victim.

“Emigration has gripped many people,” he says. “I recently lost my parents to cancer and I find this is a cancer in many ways, emigrating abroad for work.”