Since Poland joined the EU in May 2004, two million people have left the country. An estimated 250,000 of them have come to Ireland where they now amount to five percent of the population. In fact, so large is the Polish contingent in Ireland that when the two countries recently met in a soccer match in Croke Park, penalty scorer Stephen Hunt remarked that it was like a home match for the Poles. He compared it to the situation of the Irish flocking to America generations ago.
But who are these Poles? What brought them to Ireland? And what is their experience of a country that was once renowned as the land of one hundred thousand welcomes?
“Many Polish people are in Ireland but thinking about Poland,” says Tadeusz Szumowski, Poland’s ambassador to Ireland. “They live with other Poles and watch Polish television. They don’t speak English and they don’t know any Irish people.”
“There are many misconceptions,” adds Beata Molendowska. “A lot of Irish people think we just take from the country, that we don’t bring anything to it. And a lot of Polish people don’t try to integrate. They gather in certain pubs, shop in Polish shops and remain within the Polish community.”
Beata, now living in Cork where she works in the city library, left Poland six years ago after graduating from university. “There was nothing in Poland for me,” she says, bluntly.
When I met her, Beata was organizing a photography exhibition. Entitled “As I See It,” it was inspired by immigrant experiences of Ireland. Amateur photographers – Polish, Irish and other nationalities -– contributed a varied collection of images ranging from children playing hurling to windswept landscapes.
“I wanted immigrants to take pictures of Irish culture and Irish people to photograph the changes immigrants have brought,” Beata explains.
“I thought if they could see each other in pictures, they might start to think differently. It could be the start of a discussion.”
Beata straddles a midway point between the communities. She has Irish friends yet she also has an insight into a Polish community that has not fully engaged with Irish society. She blames a lack of language skills for this. “Most Poles don’t speak English, and because they stay in their small groups, they don’t see the need to learn it.” Beata herself speaks perfect English and has even begun to develop a Cork accent. “I’m here to stay,” she laughs.
Stella Skowrofska is another young Polish woman living in Cork. Since she arrived in 2005, she has been involved with a support group for the Polish community in the city, www.mycork.org.
The group offers help to Poles settling in Ireland, advises on how to find a job and accommodations, and explains employee rights. It also organizes cultural activities such as drama, soccer clubs and even hurling lessons.
“It’s about helping each other,” says Stella. “From giving English lessons to helping people with serious problems such as homelessness or alcoholism, we deal with everything you would find in any community of people.”
Stella divides the Polish community in Ireland into two groups –- the educated and the uneducated. The latter usually can’t speak English and are involved in manual labor.
The one thing that unites them is the preconception they had of Ireland before they arrived. “We saw Ireland as a place of opportunities,” says Stella.
For her, this has proved to be true. “I’ve been welcomed by the Irish,” she says. “Maybe even more than I have been by the Poles.
“We have lots in common,” she continues. “You had the English. We had the Nazis and the Russians. We’ve both known poverty. We’re Catholic countries. And we both like potatoes!”
Despite these shared similarities, Stella has heard of others encountering problems. “Some employers take advantage,” she says. “Especially if people don’t have good English and can’t stand up for themselves.”
Overall, her experience of Ireland has been positive. “Life is good here,” she says.
Magdalena Wieczorek, a native of Warsaw now living in Dublin, agrees. A trained vocalist, she hoped to break into the Irish music scene. “I thought I’d have the money to realize my dreams in Ireland. I was naïve because it’s not so easy,” she says, laughing. “But you can work and have a good life here, something it is hard to do in Poland.”
Magdalena’s work involves editing a magazine called Polish Neighbour. Bursting with news from Poland as well as stories about the Polish in Ireland, this English-language publication has one main aim.
“Irish people don’t know much about the Polish,” explains Magdalena. “With so many of us here, we thought it was important to inform them about us.”
The magazine, now on its eighth issue, is increasingly popular with readers from both communities, and Magdalena, justifiably proud of this achievement, hopes more of her compatriots will improve their English and engage with the Irish. “Language is vital,” she says. “If you can communicate, you can solve problems — just as we are doing with the magazine.”
And if you can’t communicate? Then you’ll run into serious challenges, according to Kazik Anhalt.
Kazik arrived in Ireland with little English six years ago. With no other option, he spent a few years working in the construction industry, which like the hospitality, transport, wholesale, retail and manufacturing industries, relies on Polish manpower.
Once Kazik learned English he left the building sites, where he says he encountered many inequities. For the past two years, he has been able to draw on his experience as a manual worker in his job with SIPTU, Ireland’s largest trade union.
“I campaign on behalf of all workers in Ireland, including immigrants,” he says.
Immigrants are particularly vulnerable to abuses by employers. Some work long hours without being paid overtime. Others are not registered for income tax or social insurance. Many do not get vacation pay.
“It’s not true of all employers but there are problems,” says Kazik. “A 2006 report revealed that more than thirty percent of cases taken before the Labour Relations Commission were taken by immigrants, yet immigrants only make up thirteen percent of the population.”
In spite of these depressing statistics, Kazik is hopeful for the future. “I love Ireland,” he says. “It’s a good place to live. What we need to remember is that we are human beings first and workers second. Integration is crucial.”
Ewa Rybka and her husband Arek have a suggestion about how integration should be encouraged. Just like the Irish, the Poles have a strong sporting heritage, particularly when it comes to soccer. When Ewa and Arek arrived in Cork in 2003, they immediately became involved in the local league.
“Arek set up a Polish team and they won the league twice,” says Ewa. “Then the Polish decided to play between themselves because — I’m sorry to say this! – the level of Irish soccer wasn’t high enough.”
This Polish league is now in its third season and includes 13 teams. In fact, so many Poles are involved in the league that Ewa and Arek are considering opening it up to Irish teams once again.
“Polish people can be shy, especially if they don’t have good English,” says Ewa. By bringing Irish teams into the competition, they would encourage friendships across the communities.
Such as the romance between Joshia Biegalska from Otwock and Ian Hurley from Tralee. Together for two and a half years, this happy couple met in a traditionally Irish way – during a night out in the pub.
“I was living in Dingle and he was living in Tralee. We got chatting in the pub one night and within a few months, I moved to Tralee to be with him,” remembers Joshia.
In Tralee, she found work in a factory of 1,000 people, where Poles make up 30 percent of the workforce. “I’m constantly surrounded by Polish people as well as Irish people,” she says.
So too is Ian, which is something he enjoys. “I think I find it easier to relate to foreigners because I spent time working in America when I was younger,” he says. “It’s funny to think that we are like the Americans now.”
If he’s correct, are the Poles like the Irish of long ago? When it comes to their devotion to their religion, this might well be the case.
“Irish religious life is weak today,” says Fr. Krzystof Kupczakiewicz, a Dominican priest based in Tralee, Co. Kerry. “We have approximately 2,000 Poles in Tralee and we get around 400 of them at our Polish services. There are 20,000 Irish people and we see less than 400 of them.”
This isn’t the only disparity. The Polish congregation includes children, young people and the elderly. “But Irish congregations are old, mostly in their sixties,” says Fr. Kupczakiewicz.
The Polish congregation is also keen to maintain its religious customs. “We have a tradition of blessing food on Easter Saturday and thousands turned up at the service this year,” says Fr. Kupczakiewicz. “The Irish were astonished to see them come with baskets of food to be blessed and eaten on Easter Sunday.”
Like many of the others interviewed for this article, Fr. Kupczakiewicz is concerned about integration. His main worry is the language issue but he also thinks the Irish have their part to play.
“I don’t know if the Irish are welcoming,” he says. “They are always smiling but what are they thinking inside? So many changes have happened — new houses, jobs and roads. Many of these were brought about by Polish people. I hope the time will come when Irish people appreciate what the Polish have done to develop the country.”
In the meantime, what of Poland itself? With so many of its young people leaving, how will it develop?
Just as the tide of migration turned in Ireland, so too might it turn in Poland. Perhaps it is already happening. As the Irish construction industry goes into a downturn, there have been reports of many Poles returning home with money in their pockets.
Many, however, have decided to stay and they will bring their influence to bear on the Ireland of the future. As Magdalena Wieczorek says, “Integration doesn’t happen from one day to the next. We need time to see who will stay and who will return. It’s not easy to live somewhere that’s not your home. But one thing is for sure: the people who choose to stay will be precious people.”
As a nation that experienced mass emigration, this is something we Irish should understand.