Home & Away - which would you choose?
BETWEEN Inkgate, property prices and the Jedward apocalypse looming, Ireland's headlines all seem to say one thing: if you're lucky enough to get out, stay away.
Chances are, too, that you've heard that Australia is the holy grail for thousands of young Irish people, desperate to work and willing for a slice of the good life. And, in many ways, you'd be right.
And yet here I was, returning home. Where hundreds of my fellow countrymen were beating a path to the sun, surf and laidback charm of the southern hemisphere, I was moving in the opposite direction. Leaving the beaches and barbies, and returning to real life.
Granted, I had only been in Australia for a few months; a period short enough to not truly miss home, but long enough to register that several changes have been afoot. And long enough for people to believe that you're never coming back. When I told friends about my return date, they seemed genuinely astonished.
Rewind to December 2011. Still punch drunk from my mother's death in October, I felt ... well, depleted. Getting out of bed involved lengthy negotiations with myself that would impress the UN. Writing became a hugely laborious chore.
My family and friends were hugely caring, and I'm truly indebted to them, but I began to feel claustrophobic. The temperatures in Dublin were dropping and the nights getting longer. Christmas in Australia wasn't just a flight of fancy ... it seemed like perfectly good sense.
Christmas came and went in Melbourne and I hatched a plan to stay until my tourist visa expired. I liked my little bubble away from reality just fine. I still had a mortgage in Dublin to pay, so it was very much business as usual ... albeit with possums sitting on the window sill.
As I set up interviews for work, I explained to people that I was working from Australia and to factor in the time difference. Most people laughed; others gave that 'isn't it well for some' cluck. But you know what? It's now the way of the world to be scattered hither and thither.
A quick look at Facebook showed that many of my friends are working for Irish companies or clients from the US, UK, Dubai, Australia, Cambodia and Germany. I'm well aware of my good fortune, but I'd wager that many others could do the same if they wanted to take the leap.
Why Australia? Well, it has become to this decade what Americkay was to the '80s. A bounty of wealth and fortune is seemingly all but assured to those willing to put in the hard yards. But does the reality tally with what you've heard? Well, yes and no.
On the ground in Australia, everything you've heard is true. It is as sunny and laissez-faire in outlook as lore would have you believe.
People have an overwhelming sense of civic pride in Australia. Public events, such as music festivals, beach tournaments or parties in national museums, go without a hitch. Teenagers and octogenarians alike lap up the free outdoor concerts laid on by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. There is an undeniably high quality of life. There is talk of a looming recession, and, by all accounts, retail in Australia has taken a denting in recent weeks, but for now the proverbial party continues apace.
It seems, however, that everyone has an opinion of the Irish in Australia; not all of them pretty. My flatmate appeared surprised that I knew how to work a dishwasher, for a start. A recent current affairs programme depicted us as drunken, coarse, violent blighters who are not much more than a pox on Bondi.
In truth, the Irish people I know in Australia are articulate, educated and, in many cases, desperate to get sponsored by employers and stay. Though most Irish people want to experience life here for a year or two, and return home to Ireland. "You'd miss the craic in Ireland too much if you were away too long," observes one musician from Galway.
They do have a leg-up in one respect, however: it's hard to miss the incongruity between the lean, healthy, tanned Aussies and the green-freckled, farmer-tanned Irish. The biggest irony is that the Irish people I've met that are entitled to work -- those under 30, and in possession of the blessed Working Holiday visa -- are the ones that seem footloose and fancy free. They're available for sun-soaked boozy afternoons and barbies, because they're unemployed. The bounty of jobs promised isn't quite as iron-clad as you might think. I've seen plenty of GAA jerseys around St Kilda Beach (and a few hurling sticks), but the 'Irish Down Under' stereotype of young disenfranchised lads trying their luck in the construction/farming industry for want of something to do ... well, it exists, but by and large it doesn't wash. The Irish people I've encountered in Melbourne are mainly middle-class, possessed of those famous Fade Street style buttery highlights.
I have looked forward to returning to many things, and it's odd the things you miss. The smell of turf and the Guinness factory. A bike ride in the Phoenix Park. Banter in the Stag's Head. The Dublin Flea Market. A bracing walk on Howth Head. The feeling of being part of a family, even if a huge and vital part of that family is no longer around. Maybe it took distance and time away to realise this, but it would take a lot of sunshine and surfies to come close to matching any of them.