For those of us lucky enough to be born in Australia, sharing our neighbourhood streets with soldiers in full combat gear is not an everyday occurrence. But for Stephen Nash, born in Derry, in the north of Ireland, daily foot patrols of soldiers were the norm, and guns and explosions formed the soundtrack of his childhood. However, despite all this, Stephen recalls with pleasure ordinary activities such as playing football on the streets.
Stephen, the eldest of six, grew up through the worst of 'the Troubles' and considers himself fortunate not to have become embroiled in the political turmoil of the North. His father was determined to keep his children safe and political discussion was not encouraged in the family home. Even today, Stephen says he is still unsure of the full extent of his father’s political beliefs. Now a father of young children, Stephen appreciates and understands his Dad’s efforts to keep politics out of the family home and thereby keep his children safe.
Fast forward several years and Stephen’s expectations of a life lived in Ireland changed dramatically in late 1999 when he met Emma McGahen, an Australian backpacking in Europe. Emma was living in Belfast and met Stephen on a visit to Derry. When Emma returned to Belfast they kept in contact and as their relationship progressed, Emma relocated to Derry. When it came time to think about returning to Australia to continue her university studies, Emma looked into the possibility of completing her degree in Ireland. However, the costs incurred by an international student were so prohibitive that it was decided she would return to Newcastle and that Stephen would come with her.
They arrived in Newcastle in 2001 and spent a year here before deciding to go back to Ireland for a further twelve months. Just prior to leaving Australia, Stephen asked Emma to marry him and in June 2003 they married in St Joseph’s in Derry, the church where almost all events in Stephen’s family have taken place. Their first child Méabh (pronounced Maeve) now aged 9, was born in Ireland, and their son Liam, 7, was born in Australia. As Stephen points out, their family is now “half and half” - a parent and a child born in Ireland and a parent and a child born in Australia!
The decision to leave your country permanently and move away from family comes at great personal cost but as their relationship progressed, Stephen and Emma had decided for them, and any children they might have, Australia offered more opportunities as well as a better lifestyle. The absence of religious and political tensions was also an important factor for Stephen when considering their future as a family.
Maintaining a connection with his family in Ireland and nurturing his children’s relationships with their Irish family is extremely important to Stephen. He sees it as ‘non-negotiable’ that his children know where they’re from and know their entire family, not just their Australian family. When the time comes for his children to travel the world, he wants his family to really be family, not just some "unknown names on a piece of paper which I might hand to my children at the airport".
Stephen and the children spent seven weeks in Ireland over December and January and they Skype frequently. Ideally, Stephen would like the family to be able to travel to Ireland at least every three years but financial considerations may not always allow this.
An important way of connecting with their Irish heritage in Australia is the annual celebration of St Patrick’s Day. While in Australia it is neither a public holiday nor a 'holy day of obligation' as it is in Ireland, the St Patrick’s Day parade in Sydney is reportedly one of the largest outside Ireland. While Stephen has never been to the Sydney parade, it’s on his bucket list.
Here in Newcastle on 17 March, Stephen and his family will gather with others from the local Irish community to go out for a meal and some Irish music. He can see that once you have moved away from your own country, celebrations such as St Patrick’s Day take on more significance within the 'expat' community.
A coreelement of Stephen’s family’s life was the Catholic faith and over the years Stephen has maintained his commitment to his local parish community. He commenced proclaiming the scripture at St Mary Immaculate, Charlestown, when he arrived with Emma and has maintained that commitment to the present day. Recently, Stephen has begun participating at St Kevin’s, Cardiff, where his daughter Méabh is now an altar server, just as Stephen was when he was young.
While he notices there are fewer Catholics attending Mass in Australia than in Ireland, he believes that those Australians who do participate, "are there because they want to be".
Stephen has always felt welcomed here and he puts that down to being Irish! His accent is an instant talking point and he recognises the strong connection between the two countries, especially as so many Australians can trace their roots back to Ireland. Of course on St Patrick’s Day every Australian has Irish roots! He’s sure that any Australians travelling to Ireland would receive the same welcome that he has received here, or as they say in Ireland, Céad Míle Fáilte - a hundred thousand welcomes!