Interviewer: Siobhán McHugh for National Library of Australia
Between 1951 and 1961 approximately 412,000 men and women, mostly between the ages of 15 and 34, emigrated from the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, an outpouring not seen since the post Famine decades of the 19th century. Among those leaving, effectively forever, was Denis Foley, who grew up in a two-roomed labourer’s cottage in Fieries, out in the country 20 kilometres south of Tralee in the County Kerry. In an Ireland that made little provision, at that time, for secondary education, he left school at 14 and did a bit of work for local farmers. Around him Denis saw people leaving all the time and, at the suggestion of his father, who had already worked in England for many years, he headed off to London and a series of jobs with the big construction companies of the age, Wimpeys and McAlpines.
For the next ten years, and more, Denis Foley led the life of the typical Irish emigrant construction worker. Not finding life particularly attractive in England, he applied for the £10 passage to Australia but being turned down saved his own fare, £155, and went out to New Zealand on a cargo boat with a friend, Tim Moran. The pair ended up on an Auckland wharf with their tool kits and virtually penniless. They did the obvious thing – went and had a pint – and as they stepped out of the pub with no idea what to do they saw local contractor, Harley Jones, coming out of a shop he was renovating, marched up to him and asked right off if he needed a couple of carpenters. It just happened he did and Denis had his first job in the Southern Hemisphere. By 1963 Denis had moved on to Australia and a building industry career that took him from hard laboring contract jobs to managing large projects himself.
Three things probably helped Denis Foley adapt quickly to life in Australia – Irish music, Irish dancing and the playing of Gaelic football. Indeed he met his future wife, Mary Mara, Australian-born but with strong family connections to Counties Clare and Tipperary, at an INA dance. But more significantly he saw lads kicking a ball around on a Sunday at Moore Park and so began his long association with the GAA in Australia. Although initially there were barely enough players to form two sides, by the late 1960s, as more young Irish arrived, the situation improved and soon interstate matches were being arranged. No mean player himself, Denis’ most memorable moment may have been when he captained an Australia GAA football side against All Ireland champions, Meath, when they came to Sydney in 1968. It was, he remembers, the first Gaelic football game played under lights in the country.
What is striking about Denis Foley’s contribution to the growth and development of the GAA in Australia is his strong, practical sense of getting things done. Apart from the administrative tasks he undertook as Vice President of the GAA, he helped at endless fund-raisers, parties, raffles and collections to get the organisation off the ground and keep it solvent. While his playing days may be over, Denis still does what he can to support the GAA by going to watch games and feels he has had a charmed and happy life in Australia.