A father, mother and daughter were huddled together at the departure gate in Terminal One. The girl had two suitcases and a camogie stick.
I was going to Australia for a fortnight to cover the International Rules Test. Evidently, the girl’s visit was going to be much longer.
Her parents had come to see her off. The father was doing his best to keep his emotions in check. But he was tense, awkward and clearly distraught. When the mother and the daughter hugged each other, the tears flowed down their cheeks. Two hours later, the girl’s face was still crimson red when she boarded the flight and walked down the aisle towards her seat.
Unable to find work at home, Ireland’s young people are again leaving the country in their thousands. At the post match press conference in Patersons Stadium, Michael Murphy revealed that himself and Neil McGee had spent the week meeting friends who had been forced to move abroad.
Even Murphy, a self-confessed home bird, must wonder what might have been if he had accepted an offer from one of the AFL clubs that wanted to sign him. Pearce Hanley, his Irish team-mate, is believed to on an estimated salary of AUS$600,000 (€409,000).
Australia is the land of opportunity. It’s the new America. In Australia, the average wage before tax for full-time workers is A$78,701 (€53,632). In the Republic of Ireland, it’s €37,727.
Australia is a wealthy country. A study by the investment bank Credit Suisse recently judged Australians to be the richest people in the world. The median Australian adult is worth more than A$258,000 (€175,779), most of that is due to high property values.
Research by the Economist Intelligence Unit listed Australia as the second best country in the world to be born. Switzerland was first.
Australian cities are constant fixtures in lists of top 10 places to live. Melbourne, Sydney, Perth and Adelaide all made it into the business end of the Economist’s latest liveability index.
Australia has now enjoyed 23 years of uninterrupted economic growth. Unlike the Celtic Tiger, where the financial boom was built on a credit bubble, there is real substance to Australia’s prosperity. The country has got vast stocks of coal, iron ore, copper and uranium.
But what is it like to live in Australia? Well, for starters, it’s expensive. Sydney and Melbourne are ranked as the fifth and sixth most expensive cities in the world. Perth, listed at 21st, isn’t exactly cheap either.
The cost of beer and coffee is usually a decent barometer. In the Irish bar across from our hotel in Perth, a pint of beer cost A$12 (€8). In cafes, a ‘flat white’ (the Australian for coffee with milk) usually cost around A$4.50 (€3).
But as was the case in Ireland during the boom, if people weren’t willing to stump up that sort of money, the bars and cafes wouldn’t get away with charging those prices.
Paul Kernan moved to Melbourne last year. A recurring shoulder injury meant he was going to be out of football for a full season so Paul took the chance to move Down Under. He intended to go for a year. But the shoulder problem still hasn’t been resolved and the Crossmaglen full-back needs another operation. That year has now turned into 14 months.
Paul is probably a fairly typical example of an Irish emigrant. He works for an American property management company. On a typical day, he’s at his desk for 8am. From Monday to Thursday, he’ll work to around 6 or 7pm. On Fridays, the office comes to a standstill at 3.30pm. Beers are served and the weekend starts.
Paul’s girlfriend, Maebh Moriarty works even longer hours. A personal trainer, she runs boot camps and exercise classes in the various parks dotted around Melbourne city centre. Her first class is at 5.30am.
Paul enjoys life in Melbourne, but he admits it’s different. Australians have zealously copied America’s business culture. Work is everything. Employees work together and socialise together.
While Paul admits that the financial rewards are better than at home, he still misses the camaraderie of the Crossmaglen changing room.
When he played for Crossmaglen, Paul worked in Belfast, but he socialised with his team-mates. They weren’t just team-mates. They were friends.
In Australia, the corporate culture extends into the weekends. On Saturday, Paul took part in a 60-mile charity bike ride. It was essentially a networking event as all 120 participants worked in the property business. The following day, he was in GAA Park playing soccer in The Corporate Games.
Unable to engage in contact sport, (Crossmaglen men don’t consider soccer to be a contact sport) Kernan has taken up cycling. Being an ultra-competitive sportsman, he has immediately leaped into the racing scene.
And for anyone who likes sport, Australia is a veritable paradise. I went on a bike ride with Paul and his friend, Joel Byrnes. We went to Beach Road, a coastal artery that stretches out of Melbourne. It was an unforgettable experience.
Every Saturday and Sunday morning, thousands of locals make their way to St Kilda where the road starts. It’s completely informal. Random groups form pelotons of 50 to 100 cyclists and the ride begins. It’s a cyclist’s nirvana.
Whether you are into running, swimming, triathlons, surfing or just keeping fit, Australia is teaming with parks, bike paths and events.
It shouldn’t take long for the girl with the camogie sticks to get settled in. The emotional wrench of leaving home could soon be replaced with the joy of discovering life in a warm, wealthy country.
Admittedly, the corporate culture of company events is a poor substitute for the genuine friendships which are forged in the GAA.
But once people get acclimatised to sunshine and big wages, the craic of the changing room mightn’t be enough to draw them back home.