Belfast Telegraph

Keeping up connections with our friends on other side of the world

By Margaret Canning

From the Kilkeel-born ferry master enjoying views of Sydney Harbour at work every day, to the Cookstown backpacker who "forgot to come home," many Northern Ireland people have carved out fascinating lives after moving to Australia.

And Northern Ireland Connections - an organisation which encourages people from the province now living overseas to maintain their links with home - is tapping into the potential for business networks through our old friends Down Under.

Last month it held two packed-out events in Melbourne and Sydney to encourage the Northern Irish to keep up their home connections.

Andrew Cowan, the chief executive of NI Connections, said: "We have always had a strong migration to Australia over the years.

"The desire to make a difference for their home place was very evident in recently reconnecting with some of these expats."

Carlos Collins from Kilkeel moved to Australia in 2003 - "in search of a life-changing experience".

"I had spent 15 years in the fishing industry out of Kilkeel and felt that the industry had become more about survival than lifestyle due to quota pressures and raising costs," he said.

A friend who had moved over to Australia encouraged him to give it a try. He's now the outer harbour ferry master for Harbour City Ferries at Sydney Harbour - and in his own words, "fully settled in Sydney, and love the climate and lifestyle". He's married to Lini, who's Australian, and they have a three-year-old daughter.

His ferry carries business commuters and tourists between Circular Quay and Manly so views of Sydney Harbour are his bread and butter.

"I manage the everyday running of my ferry with a crew of six. We maintain the vessel and provide a safe reliable means of transport to the public in varying weather conditions and navigational hazards such as yacht races, special events and bad weather."

He added: "I am also involved with residential and commercial property market, when I see the right opportunity to purchase properties and I renovate them to suit a certain market or industry requirements."

Keeping up the contact with home is vital, but he said: "I also love meeting people from home and learning from their experiences after making the move to Australia.

"I do believe there is a natural affinity between Northern Ireland and Australia, similar to the Irish and US mainly because the Northern Irish have been able to come to Australia more easily due to being part of the Commonwealth.

"Since getting connected with NI Connections I have learned that Northern Ireland has so much to offer, from the many engineering contracts overseas to creations of new jobs in diverse areas. These are encouraging and great to hear."

Eamon Eastwood, the Cookstown-born head of Taste Ireland, attended the recent NI Connections event in Sydney.

Such organisations are growing in importance. "The modern economy is about soft power, connections, collaborations and global networking," he said.

"Bodies like NI Connections do a fantastic and vital role in facilitating these connections - breaking down geographical barriers and accelerating trade and ideas to make things happen."

Eamon arrived in Sydney as a "fresh" backpacker in 2000. "My goal was to experience and work at the Sydney Olympic Games," he said. "I did that, fell in love with the place and forgot to go home."

Eamon is now living in Sydney's Eastern Beach suburbs.

He founded Taste Ireland around 10 years ago, with the tagline "sharing the taste of Ireland with the world". "We import and distribute Ireland's leading food brands. Our distribution is in grocery in over 1,000 Woolworths and Coles stores, pubs, cafes and convenience stores in the independent retail channel and via our online store."

Eamon goes home every year, and can visit suppliers - as well as family -in Tyrone. Eamon believes there are similarities between the Irish and Australian, with their shared "larrikin spirit and banter".

"In a profound way the early Irish settlers have shaped the modern day Aussie character."

But there are shades of difference in how the Irish have adapted to living in Australia, compared to the Irish in America.

Eamon said: "I think the Irish who have settled here over the decades regard themselves as Australian-Irish first as opposed to Irish-Australian. In America the Irish-Americans are a sub-culture within themselves. In my opinion the early Irish settlers seem to have assimilated quickly. Perhaps this was because they were the first to arrive here."

He said NI Connections had helped reinforce links with home, and provide "a ready-made network for both business and social interaction here in Sydney, and other places where NI Connections is supported".

Michael Cummings is originally from Northern Ireland and settled in New Zealand before making the move to Australia.

He has used an organisation called Kea to maintain links with New Zealand, and agrees with Eamon that such bodies are increasingly important. "These types of organisations recognise that with the advancements of social media and the like, that there is a wealth of knowledge, experience and goodwill that can be tapped into, which can help with the growth and prosperity of the home country," he said.

"And from a political point of view it's often a large cohort that is ignored. I see New Zealand as a world leader in this space - but there is no reason why NI Connections can't also be a leader too."

He added: "On a more personal level, I found the recipe for good old soda bread on the NI Connections website, and it worked a treat. I just wish there were more - especially for Veda bread as we all miss it heaps."

He said that attending the NI Connections event in Sydney had introduced him to a friendly pub with a Belfast landlord - and to Eamon's food importing business. "I have made a couple of useful business connections," he added.

"I have lived in Australia for over eight years now. We had in fact settled in NZ in the late 1990s shortly after having our daughters, and had no real plans to move. However whether it was turning 40, or kids becoming teenagers, or just because, an opportunity arose to move to Sydney in 2008, and we jumped at it."

He and his family are now living in the Sydney beach suburb of Coogee. "Both my wife and I, and our two daughters are all involved with the Coogee Surf Club which not only involves patrolling the beaches, but has been an awesome way to get ensconced in the local community."

He now works for AMP Capital, which manages investments for Australian and other global pension funds. "I'm responsible for our Australian and New Zealand infrastructure investments - like airports, roads, ports and energy companies," he said.

"As we are a global company we also have investments in Northern Ireland including some wind turbines, and in the south including the Dublin Convention Centre."

One daughter is now in her third year at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, while his younger child will finish school next year.

"There is definitely an affinity between the Irish and the Aussies - they both love an underdog - and can be very competitive when they set their minds to things.

"Like many places around the world however, the 'subtleties' of being Irish or Northern Irish is lost as soon as the plane leaves the George Best International Airport."

Belfast Telegraph