Tommy Wilkinson Down Under

Dungannon Observer – Saturday 11 January 1958

A young Tyrone man, who has travelled 14,000 miles across land and sea from the vast continent of Australia to visit his family in Ardboe, holds the distinction of being employed as an engineer on the world’s largest hydro-electric scheme, in the Snowy Mountains of Eastern Australia.

He is Mr Tommy Wilkinson, whose home is at Killygonland, Ardboe, and who arrived in Ireland several weeks ago after completing a six-week journey halfway round the world.

Before emigrating to Australia Mr Wilkinson was a mechanic in a Cookstown garage; now he earns £30 a week clear of expenses, working on a project which will take decades to complete. He told an Observer reporter that a person does not necessarily have to be skilled in order to find a good job.  “They don’t bother much with technicalities in Australia,” he said. “If a man has brains and shows initiative he will get his chance.”

The country, according to Mr Wilkinson, is big and the people live and think on similar lines. They have big houses, cars (mostly American), sheep stations, farms and cattle ranches. Because Australia is also a young, underdeveloped country there is little evidence of that curse of modern society – class distinction. The people are broadminded and will do everything in their power to make newcomers feel at home.

Although there are very few Irish in Australia, our fellow countrymen are held in high esteem there. And the Irish themselves are intensely patriotic. Nowhere has Mr Wilkinson heard an Irishman being held up to ridicule or scorn in all his travels throughout the continent.

In such a large country, where the climate varies from state to state, one can choose one’s environment. Australia has only two seasons – winter and summer. Temperatures during the latter vary from 80°F in Melbourne to 110° and 120° further east in Queensland.

Towns are prosperous and well-laid out. The standard of living is high and most people own their own homes. Besides electrical appliances for cooking and cleaning, the average car has a car, radiogram and TV set.

There are surplus jobs and age makes little difference: opportunities await people of all ages. Taken as a whole the cost of living is higher than at home, although such commodities as cigarettes and alcohol are much cheaper. Clothes are expensive however. Australians pay no National Insurance contributions.

The education system is much better than it is here, according to Mr Wilkinson. As in America, every child is given a chance of a high school and college education. Those who live in the Outback, perhaps hundreds of miles from a town, receive tuition by radio and through correspondence courses. So specialised are these courses that many students have successfully taken university examinations without ever going near a school.

Victoria is the only state in which potatoes are grown although this vegetable is widely consumed. As in America, meat forms a staple part of the diet of the people Down Under. “I never saw such people for meat,” said Mr Wilkinson, “they take it at every meal.”

In the Outback, which is brush country, he discovered that a favourite drink after a long hard day is good old-fashioned buttermilk, a homely touch which is enough to send the thoughts of any emigrant winging across the world to the cottage homes of Ireland.

Two other Ardboe men, Michael Dorman and Brendan Scullion, are also resident in Australia and are among the few Tyrone folk whom Mr Wilkinson knows out there. He has this advice to prospective emigrants: “When you land in Australia, work hard, make friends, and you will get a fair go; then it’s a great country. Never make unfavourable comparisons between the country and your own for, although Australians are broadminded, they dislike hearing their country being ridiculed.”

Mr Wilkinson plans to stay in Ireland until the end of January. His 14,000-mile journey home via the Panama Canal was a unique experience. “I travelled out by Suez, so coming home I decided to see the other side of the world.”

En route the luxury liner Southern Cross stopped at an island in the South Seas and there Mr Wilkinson met a French priest whose parish is the whole island and who journeys from place to place on horseback.

One outstanding thing about Australia, in Mr Wilkinson’s opinion, is the scarcity of women. “Except in the cities I hardly ever see a girl,” he said, agreeing that no matter where one travels it is hard to find anyone to compete with the Irish girls.

Black and white photograph of a worker beside a small machine at the Guthega Dam on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme in 1957. Copyright: from the collection of the National Archives of Australia

A group of workers return after their day’s work in June 1957 on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme in Adaminaby

Workers marking the completion of the Tooma-Tumut tunnel during the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electic scheme in November 1958

Multicultural Cooma – the Festival of Snows Street Parade, 1958

Source: National Archives. PhotoSearch: NAA: A12111, 1/1958/17/13

The Snowy Mountains Scheme was added to the National Heritage List in October 2016

The Southern Cross, on which Tommy Wilkinson sailed back to Ireland



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