On leaving again: a Northern Irishman reflects on his life in Melbourne and Ireland from afar.

By Hugh Vaughan

‘One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.’ André Gide

In 1989, I bought a book in Sydney for my father called Spycatcher, by Peter Wright, a MI5 officer. The British government fought to prevent its publication, but thanks to a young lawyer, Wright was able to publish in Australia. Peter Wright worked for my father, who was a senior Imperial Civil Servant in Northern Ireland. The young lawyer was Malcolm Turnbull. It was in that year I moved to Sydney, after emigrating to Wellington, New Zealand, a few years previously.

My father always maintained that Northern Ireland was used as a testing ground for up-and-coming British civil servants. He saw a revolving door of such personnel, much like the revolving door of Australian prime ministers. After the second world war, there was a shortage of administrators in the British Empire, and my father was offered work in any part of his choosing. He declined. Unlike his son, he was not a traveller. Unfortunately, he never read my book set in Derry about the true story of a back channel between MI5/6 officers and a Derry pacifist attempting to arrange a ceasefire in the 1970s.

The sudden death of my mother in Ireland while I lived in Sydney necessitated my return home, but my passport was in the immigration office as I was updating my visa and thus I could not leave the country. Luckily, a civil servant in the Immigration Office, never having worked on a Saturday in her 20 years of employment there, arranged to give it to me that weekend morning. But, with a broken visa application, there was no return down under.

So why did I, with six siblings, five with homes in Ireland, one in Scotland, and that doesn’t count, emigrate down under twice? Together with my wife, also with six siblings, all living within shouting distance in Derry, we moved with our two children to Melbourne 20 years ago. With the aid of my wife’s employer, we returned to Australia, which has proved to be a mostly positive experience. Within days of arrival, a winter storm sent us scurrying to purchase overcoats. Like many who moved from the UK and Ireland our expectations of warmer climes were quickly confounded.


People with Irish ancestry as a percentage of the population in Australia divided geographically by statistical local area, as of the 2011 census – Wikipedia

Trish O’Connor found in her PhD research on Irish emigration of the 1980s that most did it for adventure, as I did. Now with retirement and cognisant of untimely deaths of family members and wishing to travel, we up-sticks again for another adventure.

Recently I read a list of barely amusing anecdotes that reflect that you may be from Melbourne. For instance, when you mention ‘Bougainville’, you think of Northland. Or you don’t get jokes about Melbourne weather. I do get the jokes about Melbourne weather which is why I am writing this in a sunny street called Bougainville in the hinterland of Byron Bay.

For the past 20 years, like the song celebrates, I call Australia home – Melbourne, to be precise. Excluding time spent overseas, Ireland being central to those journeys, I spent extended periods in France, beside the canal basin of the Canal du Midi and in Spain, on the Mediterranean. Now following the sale of our home, and joining a house-sitters’ website, we find ourselves wintering in sunny and warm Queensland and Northern NSW. I am currently enquiring about cat-sitting in a 1899 mansion on a Greek island.

Over the past few years I wrote two books and essays that reflected my early life in Northern Ireland, and my life in Melbourne and Ireland from afar, and indeed the whole emigration process. Before we left Northern Ireland in 1986 for New Zealand, the Troubles was exploding all around us. I was schooled by the Christian Brothers in Derry’s Bogside and Creggan during the 1970s. Many of my class-mates were ‘involved’, and that period was reflected in my book, Cillefoyle Park. Gun battles outside my school and IRA checkpoints, bombs, shootings and riots were commonplace. Those manning the checkpoints turned up for afternoon class.

ira creggan

IRA training outside my school in Derry during the 1970s. Photo courtesy of Neil Thornton.

Living and working in Ballymena, County Antrim, we felt reasonably safe. Although, travelling at night, if we were stopped at a security checkpoint we preferred it was the police or the British Army and not the locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment. With a name like Vaughan and an address in Ballymena, it helped to speed the process. However, the Troubles came to my front door when during anti-Anglo Irish Agreement demonstrations, a member of Paisley’s Third Force, and my neighbour strode up to my living room window on that day of loyalist insurrection, as his armed colleagues in combat gear looked on. We had been thinking about moving somewhere new and this scary episode was the catalyst.  Initial plans of moving to England were put aside when a recruitment campaign for New Zealand took me to Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.


Peter Robinson, ex First Minister of NI with the Third Force.

The freedom experienced down under made me realise that while living in Northern Ireland I was always aware of one’s location and who I was talking to. Encounters with the Irish community in New Zealand were limited, though a fellow Irish teacher came from Cork to teach in my college. It was a time when distance meant infrequent communication with home and limited phone calls. Even our ability to get information about NZ before we left Ireland was inadequate.

Wellington, remote and picturesque, had a sense of life lived in earlier decades, and very pleasant it was too. Tokens for milk deliveries were placed in the glass bottles at the gate: it was not purchased at the supermarket. Years later, upon arrival in Melbourne in the late 90s I got that similar sense, that it too was a city from an earlier decade. It was impossible to find a corner shop for milk when living in the city centre, no 7-Elevens, the ubiquitous corner store selling satisfactory one-dollar coffees (but I don’t tell anyone I buy them). These past 20 years have brought a huge change to city life and the cityscape – it has become a cosmopolitan metropolis.

Seamus O’Hanlon, Monash’s urban historian, researches the effects of globalisation, the resurgences of inner city suburbs and the CBD for places to work, live and play. In his most recent book, City Life, he traces that transformation that has taken place in my lifetime here.

The city has also seen a huge change in the type of Irish immigrant, educated, experienced and mobile. As my children attended Catholic schools in Ireland, they initially went to Catholic schools here and I immediately saw the difference in academic rigor; schools here were all about ‘sticky stuff’. They both ended up in reputable state schools. I saw a similar difference in higher education, having taught at university level here and in Derry. Interestingly, my son’s school celebrated St Patrick’s Day, and many years later, with the aid of a few colleagues, we had a departmental bring-a-plate at Deakin University to celebrate all things Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. However, my wife and I met few colleagues from Ireland. While working in the multicultural university sector, I saw a huge increase in Asian colleagues, as did my wife in her consultancy firms. Despite work and school providing few Irish connections, I feel this society makes it relatively easy for Irish immigrants to settle, as one Irish President noted.

My daughter played fiddle with Comhaltas in Derry and it was natural to continue that experience. Melbourne Comhaltas took my family into the heart of the Irish community — an interesting and welcoming group of musicians, dancers and other assorted characters, many having emigrated decades earlier. Friends were made immediately. They became a second family. One long-established member, Steve and his wife Pat, became surrogate grandparents. Steve helped me pick my new home, one that he maintained over the years. Comhaltas has been a driving force for Irish music and culture for many decades, attracting the many waves of Irish immigrants from the early twentieth century, but now reflecting multicultural Melbourne itself, with a wide variety of members interested in Irish culture, dancing and kinship. Over my time here I have seen Irish groups follow this pattern.

While I was working at the University of Melbourne, a new Chair of Irish Studies was set up, financed by an Irish businessman, Gerry Higgins. My engagement with the Irish in Melbourne and further afield came closer to home when my daughter Jill, for her PhD researched the acquisition of the Irish language by adults across the Irish Diaspora.  As both my children have spent most of their lives here, they are Australian Irish.  A grandchild born recently is the first Australian in the Vaughan clan that I know of. My Great Great Aunt Maggie McMahon O’Connell emigrated but despite extensive research I could not find her. I did find a Great Uncle, though.

maggie mc M

Maggie McMahon O’Connell somewhere in Australia.

The waves of Irish immigrants around the 1950s reflected the emigration rate of 15% of the Republic’s population. They often attached themselves to Irish groups and to the Catholic church in their new homeland. Educated Irish tended to integrate into Melbourne’s middle class, but they often emerged to attend many of the major Irish functions. Today, as pointed out before, the more mobile, educated and experienced Irish migrants come and go. It seems to me, this current wave does not need a cohesive Irish community for contact to home, as they often return for Christmas or just a few days for weddings or funerals. Still, many of them settle and start new families here and return regularly to visit their Irish grandparents. The American wake is dead. Indeed, with the Trump Presidency they say the traditional Irish emigration route to the USA is also dead.

A recently appointed Chair of Irish Studies is Ronan McDonald, who may take his role forward into extra-curricular activities; for instance, engaging recently with the professional body, The Irish Chamber of Commerce in a delightful Irish Bar, Buck Mulligans, that reflects the changing dynamic of Irish Australia. It caters to a diverse clientele, with many local hipsters dropping in for its wide selection of cocktails and whiskies.

Those Irish that do choose Irish groups, do so for purely interest/hobby reasons, James Joyce, or dancing at Comhaltas, not simply for being Irish. Leaders like Ronan, can play a greater role that crosses these interests.

The Drunken Poet, ‘Irish Bohemian’ as someone called it, caters to another section of Melbourne’s population – music lovers, not just the Irish but including them, and it is known for its variety of music, not just Irish. The Brother’s Public House, due to its accomplished owner and resident balladeer Pat, tends towards more traditional Irish entertainment. Paddy Fitzgerald, a genius of Irish musicianship provides a decades-long continuity in the Corkman Session at the Last Jar on a Wednesday night. Sadly, the unlawful demolition of the Corkman reflects the chaotic building development of Melbourne over the recent years.


The Age cartoon acknowledging the demise of the Irish session at the Corkman.

Perhaps, what all these houses of refuge have in common are genuine and welcoming Irish hosts, that perhaps only Irish bar-keepers can provide.

Still going strong, Eugene O’Rourke OAM provides a community-based Irish radio program of events, music and chat. Aine McAlister provides her weekly Irish music show on 3CR. The Melbourne Irish festival is a favourite for established and new Irish families. Val Noone, a renowned historian, in his notable Hidden Ireland in Victoria, demonstrates ‘the existing traces of Gaelic Culture’ in his in-depth review of Irish language and culture in Victoria and Melbourne. He talks about the fragments that remain of the Irish, the ghosts of Irish Australian connections. He was editor of Táin, an Irish-Australian publication, or is it Australian-Irish? Still continuing online, in the form of a collective, Tinteán, is edited by Frances Devlin-Glass, Frank O’Shea, Dymphna Lonergan and Shona Stanley. Another collective of academics (Di Hall, Elizabeth Malcolm, Frances Devlin-Glass, Philip Bull, and more recently Ronan McDonald) organises Melbourne-based seminars for fellow Irish Studies enthusiasts. And Frances Devlin-Glass runs Bloomsday and courses for Joyce enthusiasts, me included.

So, what of the country and city where I worked and raised a family? Melbourne, famous for its liveability for business expats, has creaking infrastructure, huge housing debt, under-employment and predicted to become bigger than Sydney in population. Geoff Achison, a local Melbournian and renowned blues singer, calls it the little country in the state of Victoria. Melbourne like most great cities, is a city state. Events in Canberra shows us we are not immune to the rise of populism and the Alt-right. Yet a recent survey of younger Australians demonstrated a satisfaction with life.


Illustration from The Age, Matt G (after John Brack)

There have been many groups and societies maintaining sporting, cultural and musical connections with Ireland, but today building coherence and solidarity within the Irish community is challenging as their interests are as varied as the groups themselves. Today’s mobility and cheap airfares attest to this movement. The tyranny of distance no more. There exists in Australia a rich and varied breeding ground for many things Irish, but are they supported as they were once before? The BBC production ‘Bringing it all Back Home’, recognized the contribution of Irish musicians in Australia, the Fitzgerald family, Billy Moran and Kathleen Harte. Ex-Irish President Mary Robinson said Australia was the most Irish outside the island of Ireland. Where and what is home today for the Irish immigrants? But O’Hanlon also poses the same question for Australians in the twenty-first century, what is home for today’s Melburnrian?

Ireland from a distance has a booming economy, centred around Dublin, the fastest-growing in Europe, employment higher than at height of the previous boom, a surge of returning emigrants, the biggest in years, that is causing Dublin house prices to spiral upwards. Yet, my place of birth in the North-West of Ireland struggles with economic and social underdevelopment. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union and did not blame its membership for its economic or political woes. Yet many of the stagnating economies of Northern England and other Brexit-voting regions, (with a total population of 16 million, according to the Guardian) have blamed Europe for their economic issues and its Immigration policies.

In the last few years, Ireland has experienced freezing Irish winters and hot summers, the like of which was never experienced in my Irish childhood. Brexit and its uncertainty constitute a touchy nerve for many, especially in the border towns, where I grew up. Of course, finding the border is another problem, slightly easier where I come from – River Foyle – not so easy, along the southern boundary.


An RTE reporter at one of the informal 77 border crossings, unused cattle crossing but could be used again smuggling should a hard border eventuate.

Jobs, products and services flow back and forth across the 310-mile border, so what is to become of livelihoods dependent on that flow? Peter Robinson, the ex-First Minister provides a seemingly Remainer-view (on the RTE website) of the potential crises for NI of a hard border. He found, like John Hume before him, for all its faults, the corridors of the EEC provided opportunities for the betterment of Ireland as a whole. The current Secretary of State, Karen Bradley sent incredulous waves of shock through NI by displaying, in an interview, her lack of knowledge of tribal politics.

Then, there is the scenario of no deal at all. Tariffs fall back onto the World Trade Organisation schedules and of course could be negotiated, but harder than it sounds. As Robinson points out, the UK has placed themselves outside the club and opportunities for goodwill could be non-existent. Or a ‘sensible’ deal, where the leaders will abandon the European Commission’s legalistic approach, urged on by the carmakers of Germany, the winemakers of France and the Prosecco producers of Italy, the leaders will then strike a deal based on May’s Chequers proposal. Ireland will be told to get its backstop deal out of the way while wheelers and dealers (Big Business?) are at work on more important matters. Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, has said Brexit is the biggest challenge to Ireland since Independence. Today, the newspapers are full of the Brexit debate and the Irish border seems to be the biggest challenge. Today, each side wants the other to ‘evolve’ a solution.

Even UK expats in France and Spain are concerned about their UK pensions and access to health care.


The RTE reporter straddling 3 counties – Monaghan, Tyrone and Armagh while on a stool.

The Derry Journal reports 60 incidents on the River Foyle in the month of July, pulling 11 from the water, and assisting many at the river’s edge. The suicide rate surely must be addressed. I read recently that even though a generation has not witnessed the Troubles, its shadow is long and still affecting the mental health of many there, and the Stormont impasse is preventing funds being released to help this tragic social problem. Declan Morgan, my childhood next-door neighbour in Derry, and now Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, bemoans the fact that victims of institutional abuse are not being recompensed due to this impasse. He said, “The provision of political direction to the machinery of government is a requirement of a functioning democracy,” By sheer coincidence, at Comhaltas one night, I was asked by my friend Steve to contact a visiting Irish woman in a hospice where her brother, one of a few priests from Derry recruited to Victoria in the 1950s, had only a few days to live. That lady turned out to be Declan’s aunt.

Some say people grow old because they stop dreaming. Gabriel Marquez says in his book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom. That is my intention to stay youthful and vigorous, and I have always liked Blake’s observation that we have three stages in life – innocence, experience and creative innocence. Not only discovering new lands and new places but also new things to write about, a creative innocence. It’s still the same old bugbear though, as Colum McCann advises the writer, arse on the seat, arse on the seat, only for me in new lands and places, maybe with cats at my feet, looking over the Aegean Sea.

Hugh Vaughan