Irish celebrate big day - as exiles

By Alison Rourke

With unemployment in Ireland at 14 per cent, thousands are taking working visas and finding jobs in Australia.

O'Donoghue's pub in central Dublin. There were plenty of Irish celebrating St Patrick's Day in Australian Irish pubs. Photo / AP
O'Donoghue's pub in central Dublin. There were plenty of Irish celebrating St Patrick's Day in Australian Irish pubs. Photo / AP

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 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 have been feeling a little homesick yesterday, thinking of the St Patrick's Day parties back in 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 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 ($25) 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 is 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 per cent of the population.

Of those departing permanently, more than half (46,000) were Irish citizens - a 250 per cent increase on 2009. Many went to the UK or the US, but Australia is now the third most popular destination. The unemployment rate is 5 per cent, compared with Ireland's 14 per cent.

Once in Australia, few Irish immigrants have trouble finding a job - unemployment among the Irish community is 2.4 per cent.

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.

As well as working holiday visas, long-stay, employer-sponsored visas, known as 457s, which allow people to stay for up to four years, are increasingly popular. 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.

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."

Over half of 457 visa holders go on to take up permanent residency.

- Observer

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