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O’Connor: Irish bestow much on Australia

March 17, 2013 • Irish Australia, Opinion,

Federal Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor.

Federal Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor.

The quip from Barack Obama that he came to Ireland to find his missing apostrophe resonates with millions around the world who seek an Irish connection.

For many Australians, March 17 is an excuse to wear green, drink Guinness and pronounce a similar claim – vague or otherwise – to Irish heritage.

Amid all the celebrations, St Patrick’s Day is an opportunity to reflect on not just the significance of the Emerald Isle, but also the importance of Irish migration to Australia.

Australia is a young nation which has grown because of the opportunities it has provided to migrants who have come here to start a new life.

Other than our first Australians, the cherished custodians of this great land, our shared story is about migrants struggling, and mostly succeeding, in their new life here in Australia, making success possible for their children, grandchildren and beyond.

As they succeed they contribute to our history, character and identity.

The Irish were among the first to arrive in Australia – whether as convicts or by choice – and they helped build the very foundations of our country. This country has had more than 200 years of consistent Irish migration, including a recent wave since the Global Financial Crisis. We are a richer country for it.

My own story has parallels with many Irish-Australians. I was born in 1962 in London to two Irish parents. My mum from Thurles, Tipperary, my dad from Tralee, Kerry, had separately crossed the Irish sea in the 1950s to find work not available at home. They met, married and had three children in London and a fourth later in Australia.

When I was six our family moved to Australia in search of a better life and a better future. When we first arrived, my parents, brother, sister and I lived in a Nissan hut in a migrant hostel in Melbourne’s outer eastern suburbs.

But the pull of the homeland was strong and, again, like many Irish who settled in Australia, we returned to Ireland in 1974.

I spent a year of school in Tralee when I was 12 and returned to Ireland again at 15 and I have fond memories of the formative years I spent in Ireland.

All migrants have an affinity with two countries and that’s particularly easy when the core beliefs of those countries are so alike. In fact, the cultural similarities between Australia and Ireland far surpass any differences.

I believe the values and virtues of the Irish character have had a great influence upon Australia. So much so I’ve come to realise that the biggest gift the Irish have bestowed upon Australia is their egalitarianism, their irreverence and a healthy scepticism of authority.

St Patrick’s Day is more than an opportunity to honour and celebrate the Irish – it is a time to recognise the importance of Irish migration to Australia.

On St Patrick’s Day Australians of Irish descent – and “honorary” Irish descent – celebrate a day marked by peace, friendship and harmony.

As Minister for Immigration and Citizenship and as an Irish-Australian, I wish all Australians a happy St Patrick’s Day.

Brendan O’Connor is the federal Immigration Minister.

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