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Donegal people share their tales from Down Under

Members of the Donegal Association in Christchurch, New Zealand, enjoying a barbecue. Photo courtesy of Damien Gallagher.

Members of the Donegal Association in Christchurch, New Zealand, enjoying a barbecue. Photo courtesy of Damien Gallagher.

This Christmas Day many Irish families will not be celebrating together this year.

According to European Commission statistics, every six minutes somebody leaves Ireland to start a life in another country. The commission’s statistics show that in the 12 months to April this year 90,000 people emigrated - about 250 every day of the year. Of those, 15,400 ended up in Australia.

In the lead-up to the holiday season, people from Donegal who live Down Under have shared with the Donegal Democrat some of their experiences since leaving Donegal. In written exchanges via Facebook, Donegal men and women spoke of what it means to be away at this time of year, and how they have found life in Australia and New Zealand.

Pearse McLaughlin from Carndonagh lives in Sydney:

“I left Ireland in 2005 to come to Australia on a working holiday visa. It was either go travelling or buy a house. So glad I didn’t do the latter,” he said. Pearse came out with four other lads but the others went home after a year.

“I managed to get sponsored by a bank and have been working there since,” he said. “The quality of life out here is amazing. You have good weather all year round and I love being outdoors, so it suits me.”

Still, he said he was home in Carndonagh at the end of July, “and it was brilliant, too”.

He said the one downside about Sydney are the house prices. “They’re unreal,” he said. “Can’t get a foot in the door at all.”

Pearse misses the Donegal scenery, playing golf in Ballyliffin and his family, though he gets to see family through Skype.

He married an Australian woman and said she is too accustomed to city life -- “no way she would move to Donegal,” he said.

“I think back about how easy it was growing up in Carn, nothing to worry about,” Pearse said. “Here it’s all about what private school your kid goes to. I have a good wee circle of Irish friends but also Asian mates from work and Aussies I hang around with from the local golf club.

“All in all it’s hard to beat Australia, but if Ireland had same climate I reckon I’d go back in a flash,” he said.

Ross Hannigan from Newtowncunningham lives in Melbourne, Victoria:

Ross started university in 1988 and “pretty much stayed in Belright up until I left Ireland.” His then-fiancé graduated as an architect and could not find work, so she decided to go to Australia to gain experience.

“Naively we both thought that things would be better in a year and as I had a safe job as a civil engineer we decided that I wouldn’t emigrate,” Ross said. “Things didn’t improve on the job front at home and after visiting Australia for a month I decided to make the move out myself in February 2011.

“Leaving my parents at the airport was the hardest thing I have thing I have ever had to do but as I had been here on holiday I had an idea of what to expect,” he said. “My fiancé had also done all the groundwork of setting up a circle of friends, as she had moved out on her own and had to start from scratch.”

Ross feels grateful to Australia for the opportunities the country has offered him and for the welcome people there gave him. He said his engineering career has developed a great deal through the experience he gained there.

“I think a lot of people at home, especially my friends, were under the impression that people would be lining up to offer you jobs as soon as you stepped off the plane, but the reality has been very different for a lot of people I have met here,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to be offered a job a month after I arrived, but that was still a long month and Australia is an expensive place to live.”

Because of that, he said, if an Irish person hears of an Irish friend of a friend who is looking for work they always try to help them out.

“The thing I miss most about home and the hardest thing to deal with are being so far away from my family,” he said. Ross tends to Skype weekly on Sundays, “but you still find yourself missing out on a lot of the news that is happening”.

When close relatives passed away this year, “it was particularly hard then,” he said. “You feel quite useless being so far away from home while the rest of your family are grieving.”

He and his fiancé have built up a substantial group of friends in Australia, most of them Irish.

“We are at an age now where our friends are starting families and it is especially important then to have a good support base around you, when you are so far from home,” he said. “I would like to return home all right, but seeing as my wife and I are both employed in the construction trade I think that may be a while off yet. In saying that, I am happy enough in Australia for the foreseeable future, too.”

Chloe McGettigan from Kilmacrennan lives in Cairns, Queensland:

Chloe left on New Year’s Eve 2012 and first went to stay with a family she had met in Ireland.

“Their father was born in my area and they are good friends of the family,” she said. “They introduced me to a lot of their friends who were majority Australian and one of them helped me get a full time job in Brisbane city.”

Chloe loves it in Australia, “not only the weather but just the all-around feel of constantly being on holiday even when you have to get up for work most days. It’s just such a beautiful place.”

At first, when she lived in Brisbane she lived in a house of Donegal people and they introduced her to quite a few Irish people. She now lives in a hostel in Cairns, where she works, and said, “I only ever meet Irish who are passing through to see the reef, really.”

Chloe admitted to having days of being homesick but said she has no plans to return until at least 2014.

“The way I see it, the way things are back home right now with a lot of people jobless and the economy at such a low, even on my days of being bored I’d rather be bored in Australia than bored at home, if that makes sense,” she said.

Pat O’Donnell from Kincasslagh lives in Brisbane, Queensland:

Pat went to Australia for work after working in Belgium for two years.

“I miss everything about home, sometimes even the cold rain,” he said. “I don’t think there are too many days I don’t think of home.”

Still, he said, he has always been up for seeing new places

“I am having the best time,” he said, saying he has seen and done much.

“But it’s not all greener on the other side,” he said. “I got lucky. I had friends to get me at the airport when I landed I got work right away.” He is working on the gas fields.

“But it’s all hit or miss,” he said. “So many people coming over and not finding work -- it can be like hell for them.”

Lisa Drum from Raphoe lives in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales:

It’s been almost six years since Lisa left her Raphoe hometown.

“It was a little bit different for me as I am married to Australian and we were coming here to a place that my husband knew and where we have family,” she said. “All that aside - I still felt isolated as it was so far from home.

“I thought: What am I doing?” she said. But she thought she would try it out.

“Australia is a great country and we are living in Regional Australia, a large country town of just over 60,000 people. It’s a great place to bring up a family with the weather being on our side allowing lots of sports and outdoor living.”

She said living in Australia is different than being on holiday there.

“I think for anyone who comes on a working visa - know that sooner or later they will go home,” she said.

The main things Lisa misses about home are her mother and her family and “all my great friends”. She misses the beautiful countryside and “just the familiar faces when I go into my local shop or pub.

“I suppose I miss all that is Irish,” she said, adding that she hopes to get back in 2014 for a visit.

“But I cannot see us moving back in the foreseeable future,” Lisa said.

She is a receptionist for a hotel group called Quest Apartments, where she has worked part-time for five years. The cost of living is high and she works so that she can return to Donegal on holidays every couple of years. She and her husband have two sons, Ethan, 7, who was born in Donegal, and Riley, almost 4.

“It is a good place for to raise a family and even though I know that, home is where the heart is,” she said.

Stuart Stevenson from Killygordon lives in Perth, western Australia:

Stuart and his now-fiancée Lesley Ann Goudie left Donegal in July 2010. Lesley Ann had just graduated from university and wanted to experience what another country had to offer and Stuart had his own construction business and thought it was a good chance to travel, “as things were slowing down, work-wise”.

They decided on Perth as Stuart had a friend here and the work was plentiful. “I started working with an earth-moving company within the first week,” he said. Sam Graham, the owner of the company, is originally from St Johnston. It took Lesley Ann a bit longer but they are now both in permanent jobs, Stuart in construction and Lesley Ann working for a recruitment company.

“Probably the first thing we noticed when we arrived (and still!) was the cost of everything -- rent, food, alcohol, cinema,” he said. Rent is about 300-350 euro per week for a basic two or three-bedroom house, a pint of beer can cost as much as 8 euro, spirits are 7 euro and cinema tickets are 15 euro.

“Although these costs are high, salaries are higher as well which balances it out a bit,” he said.

“Australia is great, it’s not Ireland but I have been happy to call it home for this past three years,” Stuart said. He said there is a great Irish community, with a large percentage from Donegal.

“It’s the weather that makes it,” he said. “It has been 30 days since we have had rain. It’s a different way of life with everything outdoors and being able to plan ahead for barbecues, beach and sports without having to worry about the weather.”

He misses his family and friends from home. “Also the Sunday roast and calling into family and friends for a cup of tea at any hour of the day or night. Also my family’s home baking, football banter, Chinese food, but I have to say I don’t miss the rain at all.”

Australia has lived up to their expectations.

“It it is good if you put in the effort,” Stuart said. “You have to put in the hours for it to work, it’s not a holiday. I wish there were more hours spent on the beach rather than at work. As long as you have realistic expectations, it’s not a matter of coming to Perth on a Monday and going to the mines on Tuesday, it doesn’t work like that, but I would still encourage anyone to give it a go.

“There is nothing to lose, there is a big world out there with so much to do and see and it’s great to see so many young people taking the opportunity to experience this,” he said.

Stuart said their plan is to return to Donegal within the next two years. “We are getting married in 2015 and it’s Donegal where our future is, back with our family and friends,” he said.

Aine McLean from Ballybofey lives in Brisbane, Queensland:

Aine left Ballybofey in September 2008 to do some travelling.

“It was a kind of a whim,” she recalled. “I booked my flights and left two weeks later. There was not to much talk of recession at that stage and I had only planned to be away for a year or less.” After some time in Asia, she landed in Brisbane.

And she was in the country for just a few hours when she met the man she called the love of her life, Niall, a carpenter from Galway. “Mine is a love story,” she said.

Aine enjoys the lifestyle, “relaxed and easy going. Plenty to do in way of performances, exhibitions, music festivals, I love all the fresh foods and quirky markets. So I was happy for my plans to change and settle here with Niall.”

She was also hearing “shocking recession stories from home and most people were of the opinion to stay here if you can until things pick up at home”.

Aine admitted to often feeling very homesick, missing family and friends.

“Missing out on all the fun watching my little nieces and nephew grow,” she said. “I am however very lucky to have my wonderful sister Aoife here with me as well as a large group of close friends, many from Donegal, who are like family so far from home.”

Aine and her sister have a great, great grand-uncle who left Donegal for Australia in the 1860s. She and her sister found his grave; he is buried just 10 minutes from where Aine lives, and he died 100 years ago last month.

Aine is now a permanent resident after a long visa process and hopes to take her citizenship exam after Christmas. She has her own business, Scarlett’s Delight, and makes custom bridal wear, fascinators and gemstone jewellery. She sells her pieces in select art galleries and has an online shop on Etsy. Aine has also set up a vintage tea party hire company.

Still, she said, “As much as we enjoy living here, it will never be home and I do plan to eventually return.” Her baby girl, Nancy Mae, is a little more than a month old and Aine would like her to grow up in Ireland with their family around.

“It’s sad so many of the thousands of people who have left the Ireland in this new wave of emigration will never return to live,” she said.

AJ Deschanel from Carndonagh lives in Sydney:

After studying at University College Dublin, AJ went to Australia to be a groomsman in a friend’s wedding in November 2007. He loved the three weeks he spent there.

After returning to Dublin he decided over Christmas to move to Australia.

“I convinced my friend to come with me and we booked our tickets in January to leave in June 2008,” he said. They travelled for three months in south-east Asia on their way over. AJ already knew quite a few people in Sydney so he made the city his base, and never left.

He said rent is very expensive -- he pays $480 a week for a one-bedroom.

“Friends tend to come and go which can be sad, as they move home or go on somewhere new,” he said. And AJ said being away from family can be hard, though he added, “most of my friends have ended up over here anyway”.

It is also expensive to travel back to Ireland and difficult to get the holiday time off work, “so when you’re told you have to come home for a wedding it can be tough. A week or two can mean the difference of $1000 to $1500 on a ticket, he said.

Because Australia is so far from “anywhere, you are a little isolated and though it’s cheap to get to Asia, it’s time-expensive, so eats your holidays up in airports”.

But he said Australia is a stunning country with a great outdoor lifestyle and a pretty good work/life balance. He is an account manager for Hilti and did the same job in Dublin.

“Wages are pretty good but as mentioned rent is crazy as are house prices, unless you live in the middle of nowhere,” he said.

He said Sydney is very green, “with parks and trees everywhere, which is great”. He also likes the city’s multicultural nature.

“You meet loads of different nationalities and make good friends really quickly, as we are all in the same boat,” he said.

“So my expectations, it’s definitely delivered. Pretty happy here,” he said. Next year he can get an Australian passport, which he sees as an investment.

“I don’t think I will live here forever, but definitely for the next few years,” he said. He misses his parents and misses seeing his nephews and nieces growing up.

AJ also misses pints, live music in local pubs, his family, the selection of Irish ice cream, and “football being on at the correct time”.

He said he has loads of friends from home who live in Australia and he goes out with them but tries to meet new people – “What’s the point of sticking with Irish?” he asked. “I can do that at home.” AJ’s girlfriend is a Sardinian woman.

He said he will return to Ireland some day but is not sure whether he will return to Donegal.

“It will always be home, but the jobs just aren’t available, so if I do go home it will have to be Dublin, Galway or somewhere,” AJ said, adding, “I’d also miss the sun, I think, but I’m sure I’d get used to it again.”

Damien Gallagher from Ballybofey lives in Christchurch, New Zealand:

Damien graduated from Napier University, Edinburgh, with a degree in quantity surveying in July 2011. He knew he would have to move abroad to find work because of his construction-related degree.

Initially he considered Canada and Australia, because he had friends who had moved there. But when he started to browse the internet looking for jobs he came across an article about opportunities in Christchurch, New Zealand, stemming from the devastating earthquakes in February of that year.

“I did more research into Christchurch and the more I did, the more it appealed to me,” Damien said. “I convinced my friend it was a good move and we had flights booked within a week.”

When they first arrived, he recalled, “We were shocked by the total destruction of the city. We had no idea the extent of the damage and that there was daily continuing aftershocks.”

They both secured quantity surveying jobs within two weeks, “and haven’t looked back since”.

“New Zealand is very similar to home in a lot of ways, such as the food, and the people are very friendly,” he said. “There are definite advantages to living in Christchurch, such as the great weather in the summer, and ski fields only a 90-minute drive from your back door during the winter.”

But what he misses most are his family and friends. “Although we do keep in great contact with Facebook and phone calls, it can be hard being so far away sometimes and missing out, but I am fortunate enough to have many good friends from back home with me here in Christchurch.”

He said there is a strong sense of Irish community in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand.

“It always impresses me how closely Irish people stick together when away from home, and how willing they are to help one and other in a foreign country,” he said.

As well as that, he said, Facebook and Skype make it much easier to stay in touch. The “Irish Living in Australia” Facebook page now has 22,382 subscribers and “Irish living in New Zealand” has 6,496 subscribers. “Displaying news from home, laughs about missing Tayto crisps and Barry’s tea, it’s also used for organising social gathering and just keeping in touch Down Under,” he said.

“Community ties come across very strongly in all the stories and it has shown that we in Donegal look after each other, even when far from home,” Damien said.

 

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