What it’s like to be me
This is a series shining a light on the people of Southland. Reporter PETRINA WRIGHT found out what it is like to be Leon Hartnett, an Irish immigrant living and working in Invercargill.
WE have Irishman Leon Hartnett to thank for introducing the shenanigans that are St Patrick’s Day to families in Invercargill.
On moving to the city, he was surprised there were no family-oriented events organised for St Patrick’s Day, so for the past two years he and his wife have been organising the celebration, sharing some of the richness of Leon’s Irish culture with locals.
Leon and his New Zealand-born wife Tania moved their family from Auckland to Invercargill in 2011.
“I miss home [in Dublin, Ireland] massively, but I am very happy to be living here.
“I don’t regret for one second the chain of events that ended up having me go Sydney, Auckland to Invercargill. It feels like home.”
Leon moved from Dublin to Sydney at age 25 where he worked for a New Zealand company. He met a lot of Kiwis through his work, he said, many of whom told him to go to New Zealand because it was better than Australia.
In 2004, he relocated to Auckland, “attracted to the adventure of coming here”, he said.
And had he found it better than Australia? “For me, it is.”
He arrived on the day of his future wife’s birthday, who he met a month after setting foot in the country.
“I think it was meant to be. I was her birthday present.”
An accountant by profession, Leon said he had no trouble finding work in an accountancy firm, which sponsored him to gain his residency in 2005.
Later he and Tania were married, having daughter Niah in 2006 and son Finn in 2009. A third child Aodhan was born in 2013.
Although Leon was an accountant and Tania a newly-qualified pharmacist, they found it difficult to sustain the family in Auckland, so they decided to move.
Tania finding a job in Invercargill was the reason the family moved to the city.
Leon’s first impression of Invercargill was how much like Dublin it was with its “greenness” and “fields in the distance”, he said.
“It looked like home.”
His wife, on the other hand, experienced more of a culture shock as the mindset of Southlanders was closer to the Irish mindset than an Auckland mindset, he said, due to the “interconnectedness” of people in Southland.
It took the couple a couple of years to “break through” and get to know people in the city.
“I did find it really difficult at the start to find common ground with people.
“They were genuinely friendly, but not enough to invite you into their life.”
Everyone in Invercargill was interconnected and if you didn’t know the people they were talking about and if you were not interested in rugby, that was two topics of conversation you could not join in on, he said.
Southlanders were interested in finding out about other people though, he said.
“Quite like Irish people in that sense, trying to find out your connection and where you are from… and it is from a good place because they want to know how they can relate to you.”
However, coming from big cities, he and his wife had initially found that interest could be somewhat “inquisitive” at times, he said.
Although he had not experienced prejudice directly from the locals, Leon said he had experienced some “insensitivity” of comments.
“I feel [racism/prejudice] comes from just not knowing. People just need to be more open to encountering other cultures.”
It was in 2013 when his son Finn became seriously ill and was in intensive care for several days that the community reached out to his family and they began to make connections.
People went out of their way to offer support and provide meals for the family, he said.
“That was when we felt connected to here. It made a massive difference knowing that people cared.”
Soon after, the couple bought a home in Invercargill and began actively getting involved in the community.
Leon joined the Southland Multicultural and Invercargill Irish societies, and helped set up the New Rotary Generation (NRG) Rotary Club, becoming its first president.
Since then he and his wife had initiated numerous community projects, including organising the city’s annual St Patrick’s Day festival, Free Comic Book Day at the Invercargill Public Library and Pavluber, a dessert delivery project to raise funds for disability training organisation Koha Kai.
His strong commitment to community service in his adopted home has been recognised. Leon was awarded Rotary International’s Paul Harris Fellowship in 2016 and the Southland Kiwibank Local Hero Award last year.
He and his family intended to remain in Invercargill, in part because of the friendships they had made, he said.
“I like the amount of really wonderful people we have met.
“[And] there are more opportunities to make things happen here than in big cities.”
They were setting up their own charity Greenlight Innovations on a zero budget simply through their connections with people, he said.
“I don’t think you could do that in a big city.”
His advice for newcomers to the region was to find points of connections with the locals.
“Find something you love doing and find people who share that passion.”
Despite all he had achieved, all the friendships he had made and his children growing up in the region, Leon said he still didn’t feel like a Southlander.
“…but I feel massively connected to here and I care massively for the well-being of the city and its people.