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Visas, daring & Australian luck

Joseph’s great-grandfather, Denis, left the Great Famine in Ireland to find a home and work in Australia. Nowadays, under Covid-19 restrictions on foreign workers, he’d have a less welcoming experience. Photo: Joseph O’Donoghue


My job is related to the airline industry, so these are quite uncertain times. Luckily though, I have a helpful professional network that I can reach out to if things turn bad. My written and spoken English are excellent. I understand the cultural nuances of the Australian workplace because I’ve grown up with it and trained in it. My family and close friends all live here in Sydney – I have support.

My great-grandfather, Denis, arrived in this world with no such luck. He was born in a town as poor as a church mouse, when Ireland was still reeling with damage from the Great Famine. There was no decent education. Good jobs and romantic love were scarce. The community relied on booze to numb things and most of his mates wound up marrying their first or second cousins.

Stuck in a bleak present, all Denis could expect was a bleak future. Yet, bogged down in this heavy space, my great-grandad saw light in a brave decision. By selling everything he owned and saying goodbye to everyone he knew (he’d never see most of them ever again) – he rolled the dice for a chance at a better future on the other side of the world in Sydney. He was twenty.

And unless we’re indigenous, most Australians have at least one of these daring souls in their family tree. A forebear who gambled it all for a single shot at something better. I call them the “sacrifice generation”, because that’s what they did. They sacrificed the good years of their own lives for the good fortune of those in their family coming after them.

Today, many of us benefit from these seeds of luck planted in the foundation soils of our families by ancestors like Denis. But where luck is now more abundant for us, for them it was rare. All they could do to get by was to work hard, grit teeth, build resilience, mourn the memories of home while asleep in bed at night and never give up.

In the lifecycle of the Australian family story, forebears like Denis are fundamental. The values these plucky men and women brought with them – ambition and determination for a better future – not only infused the spirit of this country, it seeped deep into its bones. This resolute immigrant ethos is intrinsic to the Australian psyche. Our prosperity today derives from all of these courageous single chances – wrought through sweat, into more.

Vis-à-vis visas
However, had my great-grandfather only arrived in Australia today, he’d be here on a Temporary Skilled visa rather than a passport. Whereas citizenships were basically handed out back then, today they must be competed for by wrestling up a ladder. And if Denis was living here during this Corona crisis, he’d probably be out of a job or worried about losing one – all without any of the support or opportunities that are now available to me.

I have a couple of friends on temporary visas at the moment and when I listen to what they’re going through, it embarrasses me that we’re not helping more. It also often makes me think of Denis. Worrying about next month’s rent or next week’s food would have been a constant torment. The fact that he would have had no access to financial support is impossible to swallow, because I know how much he did for my family and for this country.

Most of those on temporary visas today are simply here to commence that same long road ahead that my great-grandfather took. But that road is a tough one. A long way from families and home, they have none of the networks that we have and often worry if their English is even good enough.

Yet these people offer incredible dowries to a young country like ours. They bring with them the same ingredients that Denis did: guts, drive and a determined dedication to hard work. Priceless lessons for their young children who will one day talk with our accent and call this place home.

This down time has given us space to reflect on what’s important to us and where we came from. For our brave guests, there is room for far more empathy in our welcome. It’s in all of our interests to give them a chance at a better future. And if we can assist them and provide them with a place to sow their seeds of luck, that is something all of us will prosper from.

Joseph is a writer and Co-Founder of the Keep Sydney Open political party. His blogs can be viewed at

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