Prime Minister Julia Gillard paid special tribute today to the ‘countless, nameless’ nation builders of Irish Australia at a packed St Patrick’s Day celebration.
The Welsh-born PM was speaking at the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce (IACC) lunch in Melbourne and she reminded the audience that St Patrick was also a Taff.
Recalling how he was brought to Ireland as a slave but returned once he gained his freedom she said it was, after all, because he had met the Irish people.
She said: “That was the great good fortune in St Patrick’s life and it’s one of the great good fortunes of life of Australia.
“We’ve been so blessed by the contributions of great Irish individuals who’ve made names for themselves and their people.
“We’ve been even more blessed by all the millions who’ve come – their millions of descendants – and the tens of thousands of Irish-born Australians who live with us today: the countless, nameless nation-builders of Irish Australia.
“You’ve come a long way, we’ve come a long way, and we’ve achieved so much together. Today is the perfect day to celebrate it all.
“Because the story of St Patrick, at its human core, is the story of a man who breaks the chains, who works and learns, who dedicates himself to others and who changes a nation. And that, friends, is the story of the Irish in Australia.”
The Prime Minister delivered her speech to 500 members of the Irish Australian community at the event in Federation Square.
She acknowledged the Irish influence throughout Melbourne and said that it was hard to imagine the city without them.
She described St Patrick’s Cathedral as “a triumph of Gothic Revival and of Gaelic pride” and mentioned the famous pub Young and Jackson’s.
And she joked that Irish-born writer Iris Murdoch didn’t know the Yarra when she wrote that “No man who has faced the Liffey can be appalled by the dirt of another river”.
On a lighter note, the Prime Minister announced a special series of measures which she said would be in effect in Victoria this weekend to celebrate St Patrick.
“This weekend, Phillip Island will be renamed ‘Old Ireland’. Every bar and cafe will substitute Vic Bitter with Guinness. Seal Rock will be renamed Selkie Rock. The Nobbies will be re-named the O’Nobbies. The traffic lights on the way through town won’t be red orange and green – they’ll be green, orange and white.
“I’m contemplating naming myself Taoiseach Gillard for a day too, I reckon that’d be fun too. And Laura Smyth [Northern Irish-born MP for La Trobe] is heading straight from here: she’ll be up all night dressing the fairy penguins up as leprechauns.”
This month, Paul Kehoe, the Irish government chief whip and Minister for State at the Department of Defence, is travelling through Australia and New Zealand as part of the government’s ‘Promote Ireland’ programme.
The Wexford deputy spoke about The Gathering and extended an invitation to Prime Minister Gillard. He also invited the Irish, those who feel Irish or those who have an affinity to Ireland to travel and celebrate all that is special about the Emerald Isle.
Referring to the growing numbers of Australian visitors to Ireland – up 35 per cent in the past 12 months – Mr Kehoe said people would find a land of 100,000 welcomes and a land of good value for money, where he joked people could spend their strong Australian dollars.
He acknowledged the new generation of young Irish people emigrating to Australia and said he was grateful for the welcome they had received.
He said: “They bring with them skills and talents that are needed and valued. They make a very important contribution to the economy and the fabric of society here in Australia. In doing so, they are retaining a long-established tradition and we take great pride in them and the contribution they are making to Australia.”
Colin Egan, IACC President, said the Irish in Melbourne and Australia more widely also had a role to play in Ireland’s recovery.
He said: “People are learning new things. A current generation has seen things in Ireland going really well.
“If they see things turning around, I think many will be well disposed to go back, whereby perhaps earlier generations may not have seen that boom/bust type of cycle and see the opportunity for the boom again.”
He said the Chamber also had a role to play.
He continued: “At the moment, Irish government bodies have limited official representation here in Melbourne and I think the chamber has a role to assist in that.
“There are some trade missions coming over later in the year and there are other ones that we’re in consultation with and I think those things are very valuable.”