Dublin | Qantas CEO Alan Joyce usually returns to his roots in Ireland twice a year, but he’s never had a homecoming quite like this one.
The boy from Dublin’s suburban boondocks, whose dad worked three jobs and whose mother left the house at dawn each day to work as a cleaner, is now one of Australia’s highest-paid corporate bosses – a classic Irish rags-to-riches tale.
So on his trip back this week, 22 years after he first packed his bags for Australia, his homeland decided the time had come to fete him.
On Thursday, his mother and brothers, along with more than 100 members of the Irish and Australian business elite, watched as Dublin’s deputy lord mayor presented him with the Scroll of Dublin.
Nobody was quite sure what it was, but the framed document looked impressively and anciently Celtic.
“As a Dubliner, I think it’s fantastic,” Joyce told the crowd. “I’ll give it to my mother.”
Then on Friday, he was invited to take his proud mum to meet the Leprechaun-like Irish President, Michael Higgins, and the youthful Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar.
The media weren’t privy to the discussions, but maybe they urged him to start a direct flight from Perth to Dublin, to rival the new 17-hour Qantas long hop to London. Joyce, though, would not be one to let misty Gaelic sentiment cloud his business acumen.
A lot has happened to Ireland in the two decades he’s been away. The farming country on the edge of Dublin where he grew up has been paved over with suburban sprawl.
The economy has been up, down and then back up again. And the country he left in part because it was illegal to be a gay man, now has a gay prime minister.
This last fact inspires particular pride. He recalls the 2015 referendum on same-sex marriage in Ireland: “I was very emotional when I saw the vote, the fact that it had massive support, and seeing it resonate around the world. It made me very proud of Ireland.”
He was also pleased with the result of Australia’s own vote on same-sex marriage last year, but that didn’t obscure his disappointment that a vote was felt necessary at all, since – unlike Ireland – Australia wasn’t changing its constitution.
Long-term expats and exiles can suffer from chronic nostalgia but if Joyce feels any, he isn’t confessing. “Ireland is a phenomenal place, but I love Australia, and I’m an Australian citizen. I love Sydney, and my partner is there and my life is there. But I do still love Ireland.”
His visit this week took place the day after “Storm Ali” swept the island, and with the traditional Irish drizzle settling in, so it’s probably safe to say he doesn’t miss the weather. But Joyce says his partner, who has been with him to Ireland five times, has actually never seen a drop of rain here.
“He thinks we lie about the rain, and that Irish people tell everyone the weather’s bad to avoid having foreigners come to the country. He literally believes that.”
So is there anything he pines for?
The most The Australian Financial Review could get him to admit to was a yearning for a particular kind of potato chip, the Tayto (don’t ask); and of course, the Guinness – “I will not touch it in Australia, but here … you can taste the difference.” And on this visit, there was no shortage of locals willing to stand him a congratulatory pint.