Pres­i­dent meets kind Ir­ish em­i­grants who cre­ated a ‘hearth’ for those fac­ing bru­tal iso­la­tion in Aus­tralia

Irish Independent - - News - in Mel­bourne Kirsty Blake Knox

WE’RE all fa­mil­iar with glow­ing re­ports about the suc­cess of the waves of Ir­ish em­i­grants to Aus­tralia.

The typ­i­cal story in­volves a tough start for them, but ends hap­pily with their new fam­i­lies, big houses and well-paid jobs.

But not ev­ery­one is so lucky – there are al­ways go­ing to be those who don’t find their foot­ing in a strange land, and drift into iso­la­tion.

The death of two such Ir­ish­men in the late 1970s res­onated deeply with the Ir­ish com­mu­nity in Mel­bourne at the time. Th­ese two el­derly Ir­ish­men were re­tired labour­ers. They died within a month of each other, and with no fam­ily in Aus­tralia and lit­tle money, they were buried in the same desolate plot in Bulla.

When five Ir­ish em­i­grants heard this, they de­cided to do some­thing.

Phyl­lis McGrath, Johnny Dodds, Tom Hop­kins, Steve Cush­na­han and John Fla­herty founded the Ir­ish Aus­tralian Sup­port and Re­source Bu­reau in 1978.

Its pur­pose was to cre­ate “a hearth” where th­ese men and women could seek sanc­tu­ary. At the very least, it was de­signed to en­sure they would re­ceive a proper burial.

“We buried thou­sands, they came over here – just old peo­ple left on their own,” Ms McGrath said. She moved to Aus­tralia from Ire­land via New Zealand in 1962. She set­tled in Mel­bourne, and soon be­gan vol­un­teer­ing and work­ing with the el­derly.

“I would just go to the food bank and get food of a Wed­nes­day. I would col­lect sheets. Then, I would go to the flats with food, and I’d check the beds for the old men and women and that’s what I did.

“There was a need there, and I went in and did it.”

In the 1970s, one of the men she cared for died, and left her his en­tire es­tate.

“Peo­ple told me to put it in my pocket and walk,” she said. In­stead, she bought a house in the sub­urb of North­cote for the bu­reau, which be­came a cen­tre for the Ir­ish in Mel­bourne. It now re­ceives fund­ing of €107,000 from the Depart­ment of For­eign Af­fairs.

Anne Toner is one of the bu­reau’s mem­bers. She moved to Aus­tralia al­most 70 years ago – on April 14, 1950 – part of the wave of em­i­grants dubbed the ‘Ten Pound Poms’. Tick­ets to Aus­tralia cost just £10 back then, and mi­grants were re­quired to stay in Aus­tralia for a min­i­mum of two years. They had to sur­ren­der their pass­ports on ar­rival, and were only able to re­turn to Bri­tain or Ire­land if they paid back their out­ward fare in full, in ad­di­tion to pay­ing for their jour­ney home.

“You were con­sid­ered lucky if you had that money,” she says. Against that back­ground, many em­i­grants lost con­tact with friends and rel­a­tives in Ire­land. But, at that time, Aus­tralian politi­cians saw im­mi­gra­tion as the only way for­ward, if the coun­try was to pros­per.

“We had to pop­u­late or per­ish,” Ms Toner said. “That’s what the prime min­is­ter said. There were only eight mil­lion peo­ple in Aus­tralia back in 1950. I now have four chil­dren, 10 grand­chil­dren and 14 great grand­chil­dren,” she adds.

The pop­u­la­tion now stands at more than 24 mil­lion so the pol­icy was clearly a suc­cess.

Yes­ter­day, Pres­i­dent Michael D Higgins vis­ited the bu­reau as he con­tin­ued his ex­haus­tive state visit to Aus­tralia.

He said the bu­reau had be­come a safe place where young fam­i­lies, miss­ing their par­ents, could con­nect with their home­land.

It has kept to and con­tin­ues its orig­i­nal mis­sion: to be­come “a hearth” where some of the Ir­ish in Aus­tralia could es­cape “the tyranny of iso­la­tion”.

Pres­i­dent Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins meet bu­reau mem­bers, from left, Cathy Mortell, Esme Friel and Anne Toner. Photo: Maxwells

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