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Thursday 22 February 2018

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

President Michael D Higgins chats with Governor of Victoria Linda Dessau at Government House in Melbourne, Australia, as part of his state visit. Photo: Maxwells
President Michael D Higgins chats with Governor of Victoria Linda Dessau at Government House in Melbourne, Australia, as part of his state visit. Photo: Maxwells
Kirsty Blake Knox

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.

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

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".

Irish Independent

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