The football series known as the International Rules is back in Australia after three years, with the Irish attempting to reclaim the Cormac McAnallen Cup which was won by Australia last year in Ireland.
This is a series which refuses to die. It has been lauded and criticised in equal measures. Spectators crave the physicality of a game that has on many occasions captured the imagination of the public in both Ireland and Australia.
It has also, regrettably, incurred the wrath of many with an element of thuggery over the years. Indeed, after the 2005 series in Ireland it appeared that the series had finally run aground after some unsavoury scenes in Croke Park.
I remember the day well, but as President, diplomacy demanded that any comments had to be made behind closed doors. Harsh words were spoken after that game and even the out-going President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, joined in the condemnation of the Australian tactics.
The series survived, simply because the players wanted it to continue. From a player’s perspective this is a chance to wear an Irish jersey and to enjoy playing in the company of guys who normally complete against each other.
Melbourne, founded in 1835, is the first stop off for this year’s International Rules Series. It is the capital of the state of Victoria and the second most populous city in Australia with over four million inhabitants.
The city is fondly remembered in Ireland as the venue of the 1956 Olympic Games which saw Ronnie Delaney win a Gold medal. His exploits are recorded in the excellent museum at the MCG Stadium, the Olympic Games venue.
Among those four million Melburnians are thousands of Irish and many more who claim Irish ancestry. Sadly the economic situation in Ireland is now seeing many more Irish heading to Australia and this is evident on the streets of Melbourne where one can see GAA County and Club jerseys being worn with pride.
The Irish have been heading to Australia for many years, but the current exodus is now getting greater focus than ever before. The Irish dovetail well into the Australian way of life. A common language and a lifestyle that in many ways is similar to Ireland is a big help. Even the cars are driven on the same side of the road.
During the Celtic Tiger years young Irish back-packers headed to Australia in droves. If they got work well and good, but generally they travelled down under to enjoy a year off. Money did not appear to be a problem.
It is a very different story now. Back-packers are still travelling in large numbers, but now the aeroplanes are also full of highly-qualified Irish professionals hoping to start a new life in Australia for themselves and their families. For the majority returning home to Ireland may never be an option.
Work opportunities abound all over Australia, with Brisbane and especially Western Australia attracting the Irish in large number at this time. Construction and mining jobs, in particular, offer many Irish a fresh start.
In Brisbane, for example, the horrendous floods which Queensland experienced earlier this year has necessitated extensive reconstruction work. The skills and temperament of the Irish are ideally suited to rebuilding this part of Australia.
Tough, demanding work
The work is tough and demanding and any young man or woman intending to travel to Australia should be in no doubt as to what is expected of them. But the rewards are good for anyone willing to work hard to develop a career.
Many Irish wishing to prolong their Australian venture after their yearly visa has expired depend on an employer to sponsor them for an extended period. It is important therefore to grasp any employment opportunity with both hands during the initial year.
The Irish have been travelling to Australia for decades. I spoke with many who have been there for years and their grá for their homeland remains as strong as ever. Paddy Kelly (Tipperary) and Martin Conroy (Galway) are two men who are now enjoying deserved retirement.
Kelly remembers the day he left for Australia very well. “It was the day that Nelson’s Pillar was blown up in 1966”. His adventure, though, was to take a very different turn when he arrived in Australia.
Within a short time the Tipperary man, along with some friends, was conscripted into the Australian army and that meant heading to Vietnam. Those old enough will remember all too well the horrors of that conflict.
Kelly was lucky. His time in Vietnam lasted only days as he was wounded in combat. An exploding land mine shattered his ankle and he was sent back to Australia to rehabilitate. One of his colleagues was not so fortunate. “We sent the flag back home to his mother” was all he could say of his fallen comrade.
Coming from Kilruane in Tipperary, Kelly is a hurling fanatic. We talked hurling for an hour in P.J. O’Brien’s hostelry and he surely knows his sport. He hurled for years in Melbourne (“I regularly toppled over on my dodgy ankle”, he mused) and also refereed many games. Setanta Sports and Irish radio via the Internet keeps him in touch with everything that is happening in Ireland.
Ten years ago Kelly underwent a heart transplant. Since that operation his golf handicap has improved.
Life has been good to Paddy Kelly in Australia, but like all the Irish his rewards were hard earned. Home will always be in Tipperary and it is easy to spot the emotion in his voice and his eyes when he talks of his native place.
It was the same picture when we visited the Celtic Club in downtown Melbourne. A special meeting had just concluded in which the redevelopment of the centre was the main item on the agenda. This project, which is not likely to commence for two years, will be one of the most significant in the city for decades.
The scale of the development is massive, comprising a forty-two storey complex. It is likely to cost in the region of half a billion Australian dollars, but the astuteness of the Celtic Club committee is expected to deliver a cost neutral project for its members.
The project involving a major developer will see the club acquire a number of storeys for its own use and the remainder will be a residential development.
Looking after own
The current Celtic Club committee recognises the need to revamp the current centre to cater for the needs of the new Irish arriving in the city. Yet another example of the Irish looking after its own, just as it does throughout the world!
Among a large Irish contingent promoting the development is Maurice Moore from Kilkenny and Seamus Moloughney from Tipperary. The evening was unquestionably one of the most emotional I have ever spent among a group of Irish Diaspora.
On Friday last Queen Elizabeth paid a four-hour visit to Melbourne. Lest you are wondering I kept well away from Her Majesty. I met an eighty-five year old man from Keady in Armagh who has been domiciled for many years in Melbourne the previous night.
He was not impressed by the Royal visit to her Commonwealth subjects and decided to set up a one-man picket. His protest did not stop the visit, but I suspect he got some satisfaction from his actions.
Given so much emotion surrounding the Irish Diaspora, one almost forgets that the reason for visiting Australia is a football series between two sporting associations. Our first encounter with our hosts is a dinner attended by the two teams. Even then the Irish connection with Australia is evident.
The function is held in the Sir Redmond Barry Room of a high-rise building with breath-taking views of Melbourne. Barry’s descendents came from Ballyclough in County Cork and he was one of the leading lights in the Australian legal hierarchy.
He was also the judge who sent the infamous Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly, to the gallows. Kelly’s grandfather came from Tipperary. Passing sentence on Kelly, Judge Barry decried the actions of the notorious outlaw before sending him to the gallows, to which Kelly replied, “I will see you there when I go”.
Some twelve days later Sir Redmond Barry died with what doctors called ‘congestion of the lungs’. Did Kelly (he of Tipperary connections) get revenge on Barry (he of Cork connections)? Given the occasion (of a joint GAA/AFL function) it was a nice tale to commence an enjoyable evening.
The International Rules series has always struggled to gain media attention in Australia. This past week it had to battle with the Spring Racing Festival in Melbourne (including the Derby & the famous Melbourne Cup); a Rugby League international between Australia and New Zealand and a Netball International between the same counties.
TV Sports pundits refer to the game in a less than complementary manner. The series would certainly not want to be depending on the Australian media for its survival.
The first Test took place in the Etihad Stadium last Friday night. Ireland fielded close to its strongest panel, but it was a new experience for all but four of the Australians. It showed in an inept performance from our hosts.
It is generally felt that the advantage is with the visiting team as the time spent together helps to develop a bond and a rapport among the players. So it was on this occasion also as Ireland dominated the game from the opening moments.
A twenty-two points to four lead after the first quarter hinted at a difficult night for the Australians. They improved in the second quarter, but that was to be a false dawn as the Irish again controlled the game during the final two quarters.
Last Friday night was first occasion that an International Rules tie was held indoors as the roof of the stadium was closed. The predicted heavy rain arrived two hours before the game and was a factor in the disappointing attendance of around 23 thousand.
Traffic congestion took on a whole new meaning for the Irish party on Friday when it took almost an hour and a half to travel the four miles to the stadium. In fact, the Irish team required a police escort and had to travel on the metro track to get to the stadium on time.
The Irish came in good numbers to the game, many wearing their county colours. I spotted a couple of Kilkenny jerseys in the crowd and at the post-match function I took the opportunity to speak to Siobhán Burke (nee McGarry) from Troyswood. Siobhán and a friend whose godfather is Ireland selector Eoin ‘Bomber’ Liston travelled from Perth.
Both ladies were delighted to attend the game and leave their three children in the capable hands of their husbands in Perth.
Ireland’s 80-32 win is the largest victory margin in a Test since the series began. It also equals the highest score in a single game. The Australian performance was hugely disappointing and it will take an extraordinary improvement to overtake the Irish lead in the second Test at the Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast next Friday night.
Fielding a side that contained none of the top twenty AFL players was a risky tactic by new Australian Manager, Rodney Eade, and he paid the price. Next Friday is a chance to atone and we can expect a much improved performance form the Australians.
As we enjoyed some post-match hospitality last Friday night the pitch markings and advertisements were being washed off by the ground staff. Entering the playing arena is a no-no in Australia, but a few Irish boys, perhaps with a little encouragement from friends, decided to test the resolve of the security staff.
The large TV monitors in the stadium regularly display a warning that any unauthorised pitch incursion will incur of six thousand dollar fine.
If the authorities carried out their threat, it would have been a rather expensive evening for the six Irish lads and their foolhardy antics.
Last Friday’s one-sided encounter does the International Rules series no favour. Surely more ammunition for its detractors! It has one more chance of redemption next Friday night on Australia’s Gold Coast.