‘The grass is not always greener on the other side. Australia was never perfect either’

Emigration Now: The Irish update on life in Australia

Lisa and Diarmaid Connolly lived in Sydney for nine years. They bought what they thought was their “forever home”, had great jobs in the city, and their eldest was enrolled in school for January 2022.

But in September, after 17 months of international border closures and not seeing their families in Ireland, they decided to move back to Tramore, Co Waterford, where Lisa's family live.

“For me, it very much felt like, it’s now or never.” But in saying that, Lisa Connolly says the pandemic highlighted how important family was to her, even if the “decision-making process went back and forth an awful lot”.

"If we are going to go home at some stage, why not now? Our kids are young, this is the age where they love having their grandparents around. The grandparents are young enough to have the energy to be running around after them. There's no point in us staying in Australia for another 10 years and then moving home when the kids are more interested in their friends and their grandparents don't really have the same energy."

Of course there are times when you're like 'Oh God, what have we done', but both me and my husband have always said that we'd be happy wherever we were

Australia’s Department of Home Affairs said that between July 2020 and May 2021, 34,200 residents left Australia with the intention to be away for more than a year. For the first time since 1946, net overseas migration to Australia was negative (-95,300) in the year to March 2021, according to figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Meanwhile, Ireland saw positive net migration in both pandemic years, with Irish nationals accounting for almost half of immigrants to Ireland in the year to April 2021, making it the highest number of returning Irish nationals since 2007, according to the Central Statistics Office.

Not long after the Connollys moved back, the New South Wales premier announced that, from November, Australian citizens and permanent residents could travel internationally without an exemption and would no longer need to do two weeks hotel quarantine upon arrival.

Connolly, who now has Australian citizenship, said they’re still delighted with their decision to move home, especially seeing how happy their four-year-old daughter is to be around all her grandparents. She also says there’s a lot more to do now in Tramore compared with when she was growing up there, and that the weather has been surprisingly pleasant since their return.

“Of course there are times when you’re like ‘Oh God, what have we done’, but both me and my husband have always said that we’d be happy wherever we were. You kind of have to just decide and make the most of it,” she says.

'Not being able to get back for [my grandmother's] funeral was devastating. I don't think you ever get over it or grieve properly'

Connolly, who is on maternity leave, says there might be challenges ahead. Having worked as a reinsurance underwriter in Sydney, she’s unsure of what work opportunities there might be in Ireland or what kind of childcare is accessible in Tramore.

She said that while they’re settling back in, they won’t try to compare Ireland and Australia. “We’re not in Australia anymore, we’re in Ireland and it’s not really helpful. The grass is not always greener on the other side. Australia was never perfect either.”

Ciara Newport, from New Ross in Co Wexford, lived in Sydney and then on the Central Coast of New South Wales with her partner and two children for almost 10 years.

She says they had always planned to move back to Ireland but the pandemic made the pull so much stronger. Newport and her family flew home for good on December 6th.

Newport’s grandmother died in July but because of the border closures and exemptions required to travel, she couldn’t get home for the funeral.

“Because of Covid we haven’t been able to get home for the last two years and you miss out on so much. Not being able to get back for her funeral was devastating. I don’t think you ever get over it or grieve properly.”

Although the lifestyle in Australia is much better, she says, they miss family.

“I think the big pull factor for home for us has always been family. I’m really close with my family, I’m really family orientated, so I’ve been dying to get home and see my family and just to have them around for the girls, for them to grow up like we did, with our cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles. And also for support, because raising kids here without family and any support at all is very difficult.”

Newport says there is so much she will miss about Australia –  the weather, the work-life balance, the friends that became family. But she also says she’s glad to leave spiders, snakes and mosquitoes behind.

Getting home in time for Christmas is an extra bonus.

“There’s nothing like an Irish Christmas. Christmas in the sun just doesn’t compare. A barbecue is just not how you’re supposed to spend Christmas day.”

Zoe Johnson from Milltown in Dublin and her husband Daniel from Cabinteely moved to Perth in Western Australia in 2015. They said the plan was to stay for two years, "but three kids later we are still living and loving life in Perth".

'It's been really hard watching everything that's happening at home. I think that was probably the toughest thing initially'

Western Australia, with a population of around 2.6 million, implemented strict internal and international border closures throughout the pandemic. The state did not have large outbreaks like New South Wales and Victoria and has recorded nine deaths of coronavirus to date.

“Life in Perth has been pretty normal, we have a few short lockdowns, but nothing that has a huge impact on day to day life,” she says.

Johnson says the border closures and not being able to visit home have been tough. Her mother came to visit in 2019. “I didn’t think that back then it would be the last time I would hug her for over two years,” she says.

Like the Connollys and Newport, the tough restrictions have made the Johnsons reflect on the distance and their connection to home. “It has made us want to go home for a few years at least to support our extended families.”

She says she has never felt homesick in all the years she’s been in Australia, but that she missed her fix of “Irish brown bread, cold sea swims, long summer evenings catching up with family and friends. I really miss this time at home more than I thought I would. There is really no place quite like Ireland.”

Claire Orford from Portarlington, Co Laois has lived in Brisbane since October 2019. Before that she lived in New Zealand and London.

Queensland, similar to Western Australia, took a hard line when it came to shutting its internal border to neighbouring states. The state has not yet announced when it will reopen the international border either, which makes plans to go back to Ireland difficult.

“It’s just been a waiting game,” Orford says.

Orford says her experience of the pandemic in Brisbane seemed very different to people in Ireland.

“It’s been really hard watching everything that’s happening at home. I think that was probably the toughest thing initially ... it just felt like a completely different world to what was going on in Australia at the time.”

Although she says she had bouts of homesickness and missed her friends and family, she never contemplated moving back to Ireland. However, she said she did make a much bigger effort to get to know the Irish community in Brisbane.

Orford runs events and meet-ups for Irish expat women in Brisbane. She says they’ve had more than  100 events in the past year, especially for people working from home, who might not have the same social connections that existed before the pandemic.

“There were so many people who moved here just before the borders closed and were here and they didn’t really know anyone at all. They were trapped and their families were telling them to stay in Australia because it was seen as being safer. There was a lot of loneliness, I think, for people,” she says.

Like Orford, Maggie Twomey, originally from Cork but who moved to Perth in 2013, relied on the Irish community to get her through the lack of access to friends and family back home.

“Living away from home, we accept we will miss out, that we can’t be there for everything. But prior to the pandemic, we could choose to be there for some things, for whatever was particularly important to us ... To suddenly be in a position where you simply cannot travel and you’re closed off from everyone – that’s a very different challenge, and it takes some adjusting,” she says.

Twomey says she relies more than ever on her networks in Perth. She’s been a member of the Irish Choir Perth since 2017 and says it’s always been her connection to Ireland.

“During the pandemic, that connection became even more important. Our members hail from many countries, not just Ireland, but we share a common love for Irish music and culture,” she says.

The choir grew very quickly during the pandemic, which Twomey puts down to people needing to make a connection and “because our culture is warm and welcoming”.

At their Christmas concert last year, they set up a private Facebook group and streamed the concert to friends and family at home.

“Reading through the comments afterwards, we could see all the special people in our lives in one place and, for a change, we gave them a piece of our world here in Perth and got to share our songs with them. It was unexpectedly emotional and it added exponentially to the night for us. I don’t think there are many other experiences I’ve had during the pandemic quite like that.”

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