Higgins says many who fled recent economic crisis found work in region’s mining boom
President Michael D Higgins thanked the Irish communities of Western Australia for “extending the hand of friendship” to the new waves of emigrants who left Ireland for the area during the economic crisis.
In a speech at a conferral ceremony at the University of Western Australia, Mr Higgins noted that Irish people who lost their jobs in the building industry at home after the property crash emigrated and were drawn to Western Australia because of the recent boom in its mining and construction industries.
“As our economy contracted, feeling the impact of a property bubble and a bank-induced crisis, which demanded great cost to the Irish public and as the economy faced contraction, it was to Western Australia again that very many young people… sought jobs and new opportunities,” said Mr Higgins.
The President was conferred with an honorary degree by the university late on Tuesday, the second day of formal engagements on his State visit to Australia. In attendance were members of the Irish community.
Mr Higgins paid tribute to the university’s first chancellor, John Winthrop Hackett, who was born in Bray, Co Wicklow and graduated from Trinity College Dublin before emigrating to Australia in 1876.
Hackett, a journalist and lawyer, was editor and proprietor of The West Australian newspaper and bequeathed the university its first major financial contribution after it was established in 1911.
Speaking in the university’s Winthrop Hall, Mr Higgins highlighted the long historical links between Ireland and Western Australia. Irish prisoners made up about one fifth of the total convicts transported to Australia in the 19th century, he said.
He applauded the university’s achievement in being the first in the British Empire to offer free third-level education and spoke of the importance of promoting equal access to education for all social classes.
“We are not served well if such opportunities of education are ever shrunk back to being narrowly defined as simply the enhancement of the value units of labour,” he said.
Among the party greeting Mr Higgins at the university was Barry McGuire, an Aboriginal man of Irish descent. He performed a “welcome to country” ceremony for the President.
“Yes, my name is Barry McGuire and I do have a tan,” he joked, drawing laughs from the audience.
He recalled how his grandmother, Matilda Ryder, a half-Irish and half-Nyoongar (the native Aboriginal people of Western Australia) woman, sang Irish ballads when he was younger.
A native Balladong Whadjuk Nyoongar man, Mr McGuire performed an Aboriginal song, “The Song of the Spider’s Dream.” He explained afterwards that the song has been sung for thousands of years.
“Through that song they ask for the spider to come use the web to make us strong as a nation,” he said. “It binds us together in song. It is quite fitting to be able to sing it for the President.”
Mr McGuire said he can trace his Irish heritage back to Kilkenny and that there are many Irish names in his family’s bloodline including McHenry, McMahon and Mooney.
Not all new Irish arrivals have been welcome in Western Australia in recent years.
Paul North, owner of JB O’Reilly’s Irish bar in Perth, said that some Irish arrivals who came at the peak of Western Australia’s boom four or five years ago caused problems for long-standing Irish residents.
“There were a lot of idiots came and really wrecked - and I mean wrecked - the situation for people that had lived here for a long time,” he said.
“They were just blaggards, with drinking and trouble and drugs. They have all gone. It is really good at the moment.”
Mr Higgins had no engagements on Wednesday as he and his 20-plus strong delegation travelled on to Melbourne for business-related events on Thursday.