It has been a remarkable fortnight in Irish Australian history.
The St Patrick’s Day celebrations – particularly in Sydney – reached new highs and attracted record crowds.
Australia’s political and business leaders joined in the festivities and no-one captured the celebratory mood better than the Prime Minister Julia Gillard who, for the second consecutive year, attended the Lansdowne Club’s St Patrick’s Day Lunch.
Her warm and witty speech captured the mood of the day, celebrating the unique contribution of the Irish to Australia while also lamenting Ireland’s current economic problems.
She also wandered into the shallow water of Australia’s Anglo-Irish historical inheritance, saying: “If we are more English than we care to admit, well, we are not nearly as Irish as we would like to be”.
Considering that Australia is acknowledged as the most Irish country in the world outside of Ireland, this is an insightful comment indeed and one that will prompt much debate.
The new influx of young (and not so young) Irish workers, families and backpackers was evident in the swarming mass of green-clad revellers.
The Sydney event was a triumph for organisers. The Hyde Park Family Day is a treasured celebration of St Patrick’s Day in Sydney. We hope that pressure from Sydney Town Hall for the event to find a new location will not be successful.
The New South Wales capital may have many more Irish migrants by next St Patrick’s Day if the state government has its way. In a surprise move, the O’Farrell government revealed a plan to attract more skilled migrants.
They may have to look at the affordability issue as many recently-arrived Irish workers are finding the cost of living, particularly in Sydney, hard to reconcile.
NSW is also the only state to charge temporary skilled migrant parents for sending their kids to public schools.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore revealed that Australia had been earmarked for more diplomatic resources, budget constraints notwithstanding. This is welcome news.
We have long argued that Australia is often the poor relation in terms of Ireland’s foreign affairs strategy. More diplomats and a beefed up semi-state sector in Australia makes good economic and political sense.
We heard directly from the Irish government through visiting minister Alan Shatter. His message was one of hope and optimism.
Ireland, he said, was open for business. In an undiluted pitch to investors, expats and Australians alike, he said that there are unique opportunities for foreign investment in Ireland. Yet, even as the Minister delivered the positive message, news emerged from Ireland that his house in Dublin had been burgled.
Days later, the Mahon Tribunal finally handed down its report – a damning exposé of a culture of cronyism and political corruption in Ireland.
Ireland, despite the positivity of the current government, cannot escape bad news.
There was bad news to come for Irish Australia too.
On Tuesday morning, March 20, Sam Stynes announced on Facebook that her husband Jim had died.
He was, she said, “pain free, dignified and peaceful. [Their children] Matisse and Tiernan were present.”
Even though everyone knew this day would come, the news created a tsunami of emotion and grief – particularly in Melbourne – that one observer compared to the reaction to the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
His State funeral in Melbourne was a fitting tribute for a remarkable man who built many bridges between the two countries.