For four years, I have been having the same conversation with taxi drivers for two reasons. One is that I’m an adult who doesn’t drive. The second is that I’m an Australian who immigrated to Ireland.
“But if we’re all moving over there, what are you doing here?” they ask me, slowly.
I used to have all kinds of answers, depending on who was asking. If they were following an anti-immigration line of enquiry, then my response was simply: “To take all your jobs, steal your welfare and ride all your men.”
If they wanted to know out of friendly curiosity why I’ve gone against the usual flow of Ireland-Australia, I would happily tell them: “It’s friendly, it’s safe, it’s good craic, and life has a gentleness I can’t describe here.”
But in the past year or so, my answer has become a mumbled “I dunno” as I stare off out the window, questioning my life choices on the trip home from the Big Tesco.
I am contacted about twice a week by young and not so young Irish people, asking me if they should emigrate to Australia. I hate that almost always the answer is yes, and it has nothing to do with the weather.
It’s about hope. Hope you’ll be able to afford a house, and get a job with good wages and better conditions. Hope your kids will have it easier than you. Hope you’ll be able to advance based on hard work and merit, not who you know or where your family is from.
These aren’t dreams of palm trees and mansions and jetskis. This is about just getting by
Lack of hope is the reason my family left for Australia. They were inner-city Dubs with no education. My grandfather knew the odds were stacked against him in a way he didn’t want his children to live with, so he packed up my mum and her siblings to risk it all on a country he’d only ever seen on a map.
Decades on, people are still leaving because their home country has failed to give them confidence in a viable future. One where they can rent or God forbid buy a house, pay for childcare, work in a well-staffed hospital and get the medical treatment they need without waitlists. These aren’t dreams of palm trees and mansions and jetskis. This is about just getting by.
I’ll be honest. Australia isn’t a utopia. It prioritises its citizens over foreign nationals. It’s a country built on stolen land and indigenous pain. It’s 24 hours away on a plane if something goes wrong. There is crime, and a methamphetamine crisis. Alcohol is extremely expensive. There are many reasons not to move there.
But if I was a 23-year-old Irish person struggling to land a €30,000 entry level job after years of university, unable to find a room to rent for less than €1,000 in a poorly-built Dublin apartment block, I would be off like a shot. I would paddle my way to Australia on an upturned umbrella if I had to.
Before Christmas, Leo Varadkar said the grass isn’t always greener in Sydney. But as someone who took Australia for granted for 28 years, I can say the grass is so much greener there than in Ireland for young people that you can roll it up and smoke it. Which is legal if you live in the Australian Capital Territory subject to certain conditions.
People look at me like I am a demented old hag spinning tales of a magical land when I talk about what I used to have in Australia. “In the old country,” I say with a blanket over my head in my freezing lounge room, “my employer used to pay 14 per cent of wage ON TOP OF my salary into my pension, and I got paid extra for taking annual leave.”
“No, it can’t be!” cry my friends.
“I had continuous hot water all day. There are no electric showers or immersions, but we never had a high energy bill, even with running air conditioning all summer.”
“My medications were less than one quarter of the price here, and I even paid LESS TAX.”
As I pass a hot water bottle back and forth between my partner and myself, I concede I’m finding it harder to stay in this country I now call home.
Australia is not friendlier. There is less community. Less kindness. Ireland wins on the intangibles: the chats with strangers, the hospitality. But these are things you can’t live on. They don’t pay mortgages. They don’t provide pensions. They don’t shorten operation waitlists.
But there is a price for emigration. You have to leave people behind, and they aren’t always there when you return. Last year, my nephew passed away suddenly. He was very young when I left, and I’d always reasoned I would move back when he was older and make it up to him. I learned the hard way that you don’t always get that time back.
Which is another reason why we need to stop lying to ourselves that our people are leaving for a “lifestyle”, and not because they’re out of hope.