Polish in Ireland: ‘Our community has been invisible even though it’s so large’
They came to Ireland in their tens of thousands from 2004, quickly establishing themselves as the country’s biggest minority.
he Polish community spread across the country, and grocery shops opened in every sizable town or suburb to cater for their desire for smoked meats, pierogi dumplings and the ingredients for a bigos stew.
More people speak Polish in homes across Ireland than any other language other than English or Irish, but despite this huge demographic change, the community may seem something of an enigma to the rest of the population.
In politics and public life generally, the Polish population — 122,000 according to the most recently published census figures — has kept a remarkably low profile.
There has never been a Polish TD or councillor, and there are no prominent Polish broadcasters.
Only three people with a Polish background stood at the last local elections in 2019: all finished well down the field and they mustered only 231 votes between them.
Teresa Buczkowska, integration manager with the Immigrant Council of Ireland, says: “The Polish community has been invisible in Ireland even though we are the largest minority.”
The arrival of the Polish migrants and thousands of others from across eastern Europe has been one of the biggest transformations since Ireland joined the EU 50 years ago this month.
Many of these migrants suffered discrimination in the workplace when they arrived, Buczkowska says. A survey published this month by the Economic and Social Research Institute shows that eastern Europeans from EU states — including significant numbers of Poles — earned, on average, 40pc less than Irish workers in 2011-2018. Even when qualifications and social background were factored in, the gap was 20.5pc.
Almost two decades on from the “big bang” of European migration, how do Poles feel about living in Ireland, and do they intend to stay? Will the next generation make a breakthrough in politics and other spheres of public life?
Joanna Siewierska, now in her mid-20s, is one of the few people with a Polish background to have been successful in an election.
In 2019, the law student was voted president of UCD students’ union. She now works as a paralegal for Goodbody solicitors. Growing up, she described herself as a “Polish girl from Coolock”.
“We need more people from diverse national or ethnic backgrounds to be in positions of power in Ireland,” Siewierska says. “We have to ask if we have a healthy democracy and if we are being representative, when you have such a huge population of migrants in Ireland and that is not reflected in our local government or in the Dáil.”
At UCD, she was involved in encouraging students to register to vote, but she could not do so herself because she was not an Irish citizen. As citizens of another EU country, Poles have the right to live and work here, but they can vote only in European and local elections.
To vote in general elections they would have to pay the substantial fee required to become an Irish citizen. Because they already have the right to work here, most Polish people do not see the need to become Irish citizens.
Siewierska says the cost of becoming an Irish citizen (€950 plus a €175 application fee) should be lowered. “It should really be just an administrative fee,” she says.
Talking to the generation of Polish immigrants who came here after 2004, one is struck by their range of qualifications and experience.
Many were overqualified for the jobs they took on when they arrived, and some were prepared for a dramatic switch of careers. The early migrants came from a country with a youth unemployment rate of up to 40pc but few had the intention of staying for good.
Buczkowska studied social anthropology in a Polish university before moving to Ireland 17 years ago. She found a job as a packer in a warehouse and also worked in a butcher’s shop before working for the Immigrant Council of Ireland. (She is currently on sabbatical).
Sylwester Ochmanski is typical of the large contingent of Polish immigrants with a dizzying variety of experience and skills. In Poland, he trained as a civil engineer. He played the flute in an orchestra, taught in a music school and had a small business driving a minibus. After arriving in Ireland in 2006, he worked as a site engineer in construction at Spencer Dock in Dublin.
He is now a Dublin Bus driver, and also plays the organ in St Audoen’s, the Polish church in the centre of Dublin. “Ireland is a nice country to live in, people are very friendly and things are easier here than in Poland,” he says.
His family lives in Poland, he travels home every five weeks. When he retires at 66, he plans to go back to his home country to live.
Ochmanski believes Polish people will get involved in politics once they feel at home here, but he takes a sceptical view.
“I try to stay as far away from politics as I can. In my view, it’s a scam,” he says. “It’s not about saying the truth — it’s about manipulation.”
Anna Scanlan (née Labud) is another Polish immigrant who has switched careers. She was employed by a mortgage finance company for a decade, now works as a kitchen designer and also co-founded a Polish folk group, Inisowiacy. The band perform folk dances in traditional Polish dress and sing songs and tell stories.
She had planned to stay for just a few months when she arrived in Ennis, Co Clare, to learn English in 2004. Some of her friends in Ireland have returned to Poland recently, attracted by the improved economic situation there. But she is settled here with her Irish husband, Ray, who is also part of the folk group, and they have two children, Robert and Tomas.
She says Polish people are hard-working and resourceful and they know how to save money.
“They need money to pay the bills, but they are also looking for something else to be more satisfied — something to feed the soul.”
As the last census figures for the Polish population were published in 2016, it is hard to gauge how many have returned to their home country.Members of the community report anecdotally that they know of friends and acquaintances who have gone back in recent years.
Figures from the Department of Social Protection, supplied to the Irish Independent, show that the number of Polish families claiming child benefit here has dropped from 33,496 in March 2019 to 29,451 at the end of 2022.
Bryan Fanning, professor of migration at UCD, says the fall might be explained, in part, by children growing up and in part by return migration to Poland.
“Most people who migrate for work as young adults don’t envisage moving permanently away from home. However, many end up remaining,” he says. “During the economic crisis, most Poles remained in Ireland — they did not move back to Poland, where economic conditions were also bad at the time.”
After a wave of Polish emigrants arrived in Dublin during the Celtic Tiger years, St Audoen’s church was chosen as the main venue for Polish masses. Fr Stanislaw Hajkowski, co-ordinator of Polish Chaplains in Ireland and rector of the church, has watched the arrivals and departures of Poles in Ireland.
He said many of those who were most active in his church early on have returned to Poland. They may have had specific goals when they came, such as saving to buy a house, and when they achieved this they went home.
Early on, there could be up to 3,000 worshipers coming to St Audoen’s for masses every Sunday, but these numbers have dwindled to 300. The main reason is that Polish masses are now celebrated at a number of churches across the country. There was also a drop in numbers since the start of the pandemic.
Most Poles in Ireland are Catholic, but Fr Hajkowski says only a small minority attend mass every week. He describes the typical Pole in Ireland as a “cultural Catholic” rather than as a devout churchgoer.
In his book Migration and the Making of Modern Ireland, Fanning points to surveys showing that Polish immigrants reported less discrimination in Ireland than in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.
The Brexit referendum was interpreted as a vote for greater restrictions on immigration in the UK, but there has been no comparable backlash against eastern Europeans in Ireland.
“The experience of Polish immigrants is one of the best among the European countries. It is about the culture,” says Fr Hajkowski. “Irish people were more open [to Poles coming over]. Maybe it was cultural Catholicism, or the history of the two countries. The Irish were oppressed by the British, and the Poles by the Germans and Russians. That created personalities that understand each other. They also like whiskey.
“It’s also about trusting each other. There is a code of behaviour. If you are friendly with someone, you have to be loyal. I have heard from Irish people that the Poles are reliable workers.”
Fanning says the immigrants who arrived here in the Celtic Tiger era tended to be in their 20s and 30s and may not have had any political involvement back home. Immigrants may also have had a historic distrust of politics, a legacy of the communist era, he says.
Aneta Stepien, a Polish lecturer in critical skills at Maynooth University, is confident that the new generation, who came here as children and were educated in Ireland, will be more visible in politics and public life.
“You have to be settled in a community and have a sense of belonging to think about civic engagement and politics,” she says. “It was a bit of a struggle for the early migrants who didn’t know the language and culture. It is easier for the younger generation who grew up in Ireland.”
Stepien says Irish politics can be hard to grasp for the newcomer, particularly the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. She says the lack of involvement of Polish people in politics is more about disengagement than distrust. “Maybe among the Poles, there is an idea that you have to sort things out for yourself. Nobody will do it for you, least of all the politicians.”
She says there are stereotypes about Poles in Ireland and these are mostly positive.
“People think we are hard-working and that we drink a lot, but I don’t think we drink as much as the Irish.”
While the Poles and the Irish share a strong sense of community, Polish people have a reputation for declining to beat about the bush.
“I am known for directness and I make a joke about that, but people find it refreshing that I will say things honestly,” Stepien says.
“In Ireland, when you have a work meeting you first have a chat and have a laugh, and then get down to business. [In Poland] we get down to work first and then if there is time at the end you have a chat. Often I am the person spoiling the craic [at the start].”
Typically, Polish men arriving here worked in construction or as drivers or mechanics, while women worked in shops and hospitality. But many have moved on to other occupations since the first wave of migrants.
Have women been more successful in diversifying? Evidence from the British Labour Force Survey, reported in The Economist, showed that female migrants born in eastern Europe were more likely to hold managerial or professional jobs than men from the same background. Men landed well-paid manual work when they arrived. Women, by contrast, had to learn English to get by in hospitality jobs and often retrained to secure well-paid jobs.
That survey applied to eastern Europeans in Britain, but Buczkowska can see a similar pattern here among some migrants. “Women usually move first when it comes to acquiring language skills and integrating within society,” she says.
“That is because they are more likely to interact with schools and talk to other mothers. If you are a woman working in a shop or a restaurant, you have to learn the language, but if you are a man working in construction and a lot of your colleagues are Polish, there is no requirement to learn English. There are also fewer opportunities for promotion in construction.”
As integration manager of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, Buczkowska says we need to include the Polish community and eastern Europeans when it comes to recognising diversity.
“When we talk about diversity, usually people think about skin colour,” she says. “There are so many programmes focusing on diversity where the Polish or East European communities are not included at all.”
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