Out of disaster comes opportunity

Migrant stories

The 2011 earthquake forever changed the lives of everyone in Christchurch. But, unexpectedly, it also set Irish engineer Martin Connell’s life on a completely different path – and kept him in New Zealand.

"We certainly weren’t on a holiday for our initial couple of months – we were here to help.”

Martin Connell

From Crookedwood, County Westmeath, Martin finished his studies as a structural engineer in 2010, and quickly sized up New Zealand as a potential destination for a working holiday. “I’m from a country background in Ireland, so I was never a city slicker. I had heard a lot about the Great Walks, I’d heard a lot about your strong sporting background,” he explains. “Also it was a World Cup Rugby year!”

He and a group of friends booked flights to Christchurch and packed their bags. But as they were about to leave, the February 22 quake hit, killing 185 people and causing massive damage.

“It was quite distressing to see from so far away. There was very little information at that stage about how the city had handled it. The news wasn’t great, but ultimately we decided to stick with the plan and come out to Christchurch,” he says.

They flew in four days later. Martin’s qualification meant he got a job straight away with Fletcher EQR; the organisation was set up after the September 2010 quake to repair damaged homes, but the job became much larger after the second quake.

“I passed what was maybe not the most vigorous interview in my life, due to the urgent need for technically skilled staff, and got pretty much into the trenches as soon as I began, carrying out assessments and checking residential houses for earthquake damage,” says Martin.

He felt very welcomed by the residents he dealt with over that time. “Some typical feedback would have been, ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Ireland.’ ‘Thanks for coming.’ So you tend to leave a lot of houses with a smile on your face after what was a pretty intense hour. It was great to feel that connection with local Cantabrians,” he says.

I was quite pleased to find out that Kiwis enjoy a joke, they don’t take themselves so seriously. So there was definitely a great connection between myself and my Irish mates and a lot of our Kiwi colleagues.

At first, settling in wasn’t easy, due to the ongoing aftershocks and getting phone calls from worried family in Ireland.

“Although it wasn’t a massive cultural change, obviously the city was going through a distressing time, so trying to be mindful of the city’s needs at that stage was important. We certainly weren’t on a holiday for our initial couple of months – we were here to help.”

But amid the challenges, Martin hadn’t forgotten about the Rugby World Cup. 

“I had to call in a few favours from my boss at the time to try and get to Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin to see Ireland play,” he laughs. “We got to travel around the country and see quite a bit of the rugby while also taking in the scenery and meeting people.”

New Zealand’s lush, green landscapes are one of many similarities Martin feels the country shares with Ireland. “I think seeing Ireland as a foreign country is strange. We both speak English, predominantly, as a country. We both enjoy the outdoors. We both have the idea of [living on] a lifestyle block,” he says.

“I was quite pleased to find out that Kiwis enjoy a joke, they don’t take themselves so seriously. So there was definitely a great connection between myself and my Irish mates and a lot of our Kiwi colleagues.”

Martin is currently enjoying Christchurch life with his Kiwi girlfriend, who is also an engineer.

“We have our fair share of nerdy conversations, over our coffee or over our spaghetti, about how this building had acted or about how that soil might act in an earthquake event,” he laughs.

Christchurch is currently home to a large number of Irish people, and Martin is among those who play Gaelic football and hurling, two traditional Irish sports, over the summer. He plays for the Christchurch McKenna’s GAA Club, named after Irishman Owen McKenna, who died in the 2011 earthquake.

“It’s great to have a little piece of home over here in New Zealand and it’s been a great social activity as well, to meet new people and also keep fit,” he says.

He found the Immigration New Zealand website www.immigration.govt.nz, easy to understand, and recommends it to potential migrants wanting to explore their options. Martin is now a permanent resident, and recently celebrated his five-year anniversary with Fletcher EQR.

“I think one of the best things about living in New Zealand is the weather. You guys think it rains over here, but it doesn’t. It’s not uncommon for someone to remark about how wet the weekend was, and there might have been a shower maybe for an afternoon on Saturday. When it’s wet in Ireland, it’s wet all weekend,” he laughs.

Martin never expected to stay this long, and the only real downside for him is the expense and time it takes to visit Ireland. “It’s not easy, but that’s what you put up with to have a good job, a great lifestyle and a place that you love living in.”

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