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Wednesday 16 January 2019

'Australians are like the Irish, they like a drink and a fair go'

A series of alleged scams by Irish visitors have led to some unfortunate reactions in Australia. Simon Caterson canvasses reactions to negative stereotyping from the large Irish-Australian community

Aussie dream: although many Irish are drawn Down Under by the lure of good pay and sunshine, some have experienced anti-Irish sentiment
Aussie dream: although many Irish are drawn Down Under by the lure of good pay and sunshine, some have experienced anti-Irish sentiment

Maybe it is Australia's heritage as the most Irish nation outside Ireland that makes the occasional expression of crude negative stereotypes all the more shocking.

Prejudice and discrimination against minority groups are not unknown in any society, but Australia has, to a remarkable extent, embraced and absorbed generations of Irish people since the first years of European settlement in the late 1700s.

Australians with Irish ancestry tend not to even think of themselves as having a hyphenated identity. There is no high office in Australia that a person of Irish birth or background has not occupied except for head of state, which under the present constitution is reserved exclusively for the reigning British monarch.

Last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released a report on the best and worst-paid migrant groups in Australia which ranked the Irish as the top-paid migrant group, followed by UK arrivals.

For many Irish individuals and families, it seems, the move to Australia has proven to be a good one.

And yet the past few months have been tricky.

Last October, Marlene Kairouz, Consumer Affairs Minister in the State of Victoria, launched a scam awareness campaign with a speech that included this breathtaking statement: "If anybody knocks on your door that has an Irish accent, automatically ask them to leave."

Minister Kairouz quickly apologised via Twitter for what she had said, explaining she had expressed herself "poorly". And that, as far as the Victorian government was concerned, was that.

Clumsy and unfortunate

There was some shock at the time. The Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce labelled the comment extremely disappointing. One commenter online reacted with anger: "Well Minister, I am an Irish community nurse who knocks on many doors every day to provide care for people of all nationalities in this beautiful country. Shame on you for your ignorance and sweeping statement." Another commenter pointed out that her Scottish accent had often been mistaken for Irish.

Billy Cantwell, the founding publisher of The Irish Echo, the national Irish community newspaper based in Sydney since 1988, is more sanguine. He said the statement was a regrettable mistake and nothing more.

"In my opinion, there is no pattern of prejudice against the Irish in Australia. The minister's comments were clumsy and unfortunate and she apologised."

More recently, however, Queensland police were said to be investigating a series of scams by what appeared to be Irish tourists. Last month, the situation was reported by the Mail in Australia in the following terms: 'A group of Irish 'gypsy' tourists are at it again.'

Cantwell remains untroubled. "There was a time when the Irish suffered discrimination, particularly after World War I, but thankfully that time has passed. The Irish are among the highest-earning migrants in Australia.

"Our success in business, sport and the arts points to the fact that there are no prejudicial obstacles for us here."

Among recent arrivals with an impressive level of professional achievement is Caoimhe Buckley, who is chief content and communications officer at energy giant AGL.

Originally from Dublin, Ms Buckley arrived with her husband and young children four years ago to take up a position as head of communications at BHP, Australia's largest company. She says she has felt "warmly welcomed by the Australians. From my personal experience, I have not encountered anti-Irish sentiment. I will say that my first name is a constant source of bewilderment for the Australians but that's about the extent of it."

Ms Buckley says she has noticed that Australians can be like the Irish without knowing it. "Australians, despite having a huge Irish heritage like Americans, aren't as proud of their background - perhaps this is because of how Australia came into existence. Huge numbers of people have surnames like McMahon, Duffy, Murphy, O'Reilly and so on but they are all fully Aussie - they don't claim to be Irish the way Americans do. However, they do identify with the Irish; the passion for footy is similar to the Irish passion for Gaelic, they like a drink and they like to have a fair go. Their 'tall poppy syndrome' bears a close resemblance to Irish begrudgery."

Buckley recognises that it is not always a perfect fit for Irish people newly arrived in Australia. "I have read stories in the news about Irish backpackers and I saw a rather unfortunate cartoon in a Western Australia newspaper about Irish nurses, but it's probably no different to the way some immigrant groups are treated in Ireland." A scholar with a particular research interest in the history of anti-Irish sentiment in Australia is Professor Elizabeth Malcolm of the University of Melbourne, which was founded over 150 years ago largely by Sir Redmond Barry, the Anglo-Irish judge who presided over the trial of bushranger Ned Kelly, the son of a convict from Tipperary.

Professor Malcolm, who is soon to publish a monograph on anti-Irish stereotypes in Australia, said the statement by Minister Kairouz fits into a pattern of prejudice that is well-established.

"This seems to me a classic case of someone overreacting against alleged bad behaviour by a small number of people to demonise a whole community. That's what's called stereotyping. It's the sort of thoughtless reaction that simply fosters prejudice and bigotry. One always hopes that responsible politicians, aware of their power to influence public opinion, will avoid mistakes like this."


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