The Irish in Melbourne: ‘I don’t regret coming here, but I wish we hadn’t’

The Irish in Melbourne: ‘I don’t regret coming here, but I wish we hadn’t’

Opening an Irish pub had been a dream of Caroline McDaid’s for years. McDaid, from Shantallow, in Co Derry, moved to the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, more than 20 years ago. She ran a number of businesses before opening her bar, McDaid’s Irish Pub, in the small seaside town of Rosebud, about an hour south of Melbourne, in 2018.

The business thrived, benefitting from a local Irish and British community as well as a steady flow of tourists from Melbourne and farther afield. But when Covid-19 hit, the financial shock of several lockdowns turned McDaid’s dream sour.

Melbourne residents lived under restrictions for almost 270 days and endured six lockdowns, making Victoria’s capital one of the most locked-down cities in the world. Rosebud, part of Melbourne’s metropolitan area, faced the same lockdown restrictions.

We first spoke to McDaid in September 2020, when she was living through her second lockdown. She was questioning whether the business would survive and whether she wanted to even stay in Australia. “It’s so distressing,” she said at the time. “I don’t want to sound like a martyr, there are others a lot worse off … but if my kids weren’t here I would be gone on the first flight back.”

“There goes the Australian dream,” she said.

Caroline McDaid: ‘We’ve created such a happy community around this place, it’s unreal. People are distraught that this place has been closed this long’

Now, after living through four more lockdowns, McDaid’s is still going. Pubs were allowed to reopen after the state’s sixth lockdown, in October 2021, when Victoria hit its 70-per-cent-vaccination target.

Having run several companies in the past, McDaid is no stranger to the ups and downs that owning your own business brings. But she says that going in and out of lockdown so many times, forcing her to close and reopen the business each time, was gruelling both financially and mentally.

Hospitality, she says, has been one of the hardest-hit industries, being the first to close when there is a lockdown and the last to reopen. “It’s been hard financially. Pretty much the hardest part is the financial aspect.”

McDaid says it costs thousands to shut down a pub at short notice and thousands to reopen. Despite grants and some financial support from the Victorian government, she says, it was a drop in the ocean compared to what it cost her.

McDaid was initially supportive of lockdowns and the Victorian government’s handling of the pandemic, but she is now a lot more critical. “I’m not sure how they think we’re going to keep doing it.”

Apart from dealing with financial pressure, McDaid says, there has been a lot of stress around reopening while complying with restrictions. She wants to get it right, but it takes time, she explains. Knowing how much her customers want the pub to reopen adds a certain pressure too.

McDaid’s is not just a pub, she says, it’s a community, a home from home for a lot of her customers. “It’s my life, it’s part of my culture, and I did it because I was homesick in the first place. As the time went on I realised it’s not about me at all, it’s a whole community. We’ve created such a happy community around this place, it’s unreal. It’s a little sanctuary for people. People are distraught that this place has been closed this long.”

Heather King: ‘For me in terms of my career, my set-up here, my lifestyle, I see it as a lot better over here than it would be in Ireland’

Heather King, who is from Mullingar, moved to Australia in 2012 after graduating as a speech-and-language therapist. She says Melbourne feels more like home than Ireland now. Her mother was a “very big part of Ireland” for her, and after she died, in 2019, King’s idea of home changed. “I think when she passed away it changed my perspective of Ireland a lot.”

King had a baby in October 2020; she says she’s very much settled in Melbourne with her husband, who’s from Western Australia. Having his family here helps. “I felt like I had a family over here as well, because we are very close to his family too.”

King still misses her family in Ireland and gets homesick. “I still miss home a lot, and I’ve got a big family back in Ireland, so I definitely miss the people.”

But she wouldn’t consider moving back. Careerwise, she says, she’s been able to progress a lot faster than she would have in Ireland. “The health system over in Ireland is a big sticking point … For me in terms of my career, my set-up here, my lifestyle, I see it as a lot better over here than it would be in Ireland.”

Connecting to other Irish people has been a support to her when she does miss home. “My closest friends over here are Irish. We connect over our sense of humour, we know the same gags from home. It does make a difference.”

Karen Leahy: ‘The only thing I’d be going home for is family. That would be it, because I’m very happy here’

Karen Leahy, from Turners Cross in Cork, is a single parent who’s been living in Melbourne for 10 years.

Leahy’s daughter Freya, who is 2½, has only one family: her family in Cork. Leahy would usually try to visit family in Ireland once or twice a year, but the last time she went back, in 2019, Freya was only seven months old meeting all the family. It’s the last time any of her family saw Freya.

Leahy has one brother, who got married in August after rearranging and pushing it back a few times, hoping his sister could make it back. She and Freya missed the wedding because of the international travel ban, which prohibited Australian citizens and permanent residents from leaving the country without an exemption. “I just told them to go ahead with it, I had no idea when we’d be able to get out.”

Leahy is a kindergarten teacher; she loves her job and her life in Melbourne. But being a single parent and being locked down for such a long time made her really consider moving back to Ireland. “The only thing I’d be going home for is family. That would be it, because I’m very happy here. If it wasn’t for the pandemic I would have been very happy here, and I was very happy here until probably the end of last year.”

The possibility of more lockdowns and travel bans is daunting, she says, and makes her question being so far from Ireland and w

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