Tortillas and pints all round in Polish capital


WARSAW LETTER:Of all the constituent groups of Ireland’s newfound multiculturalism, none has had more of an impact than the Poles.

Poland also hosts a small but highly organised Irish community, concentrated in Warsaw, which has been flying the Tricolour with gusto for years.

Unlike their compatriots in Australia, Britain, Canada and the US, most of Poland’s Irish have been here since long before the recession and the community remains largely unaffected by the economic turmoil at home.

Mixed Irish-Polish marriages are common and many an Irishman or woman have wound up in central Europe chasing after a Polish lover. Others have spotted business opportunities in the robust and steadily growing Polish economy, while others still have come to teach English or study.

The community is supplemented by Poles who, having spent many years in Ireland, feel a longing akin to homesickness for the Emerald Isle.

The focal point of Warsaw’s Irish community is undoubtedly the Cumann Warszawa GAA club. The recession at home has unleashed on the globe a mass of hand-passing, hurley-wielding Irish youths who have discovered that leaving home doesn’t necessarily mean the end of aspiring GAA careers.

The Cumann Warszawa boasts men’s and women’s football teams of quality. Competition at international GAA tournaments is stiffer than many at home might imagine.

Ancient rivalries

Tipperary man Paddy Prendergast, a lynchpin of the Warsaw men’s team, insists that the fierce rivalries between various European teams are bred by familiarity, much like with the parish system at home.

No one likes losing to their neighbours; nothing short of victory is acceptable against Vienna/Bratislava/Prague/Paris – their version of our “ancient enemy”.

The cumann was founded by Wicklow woman Aisling O’Loughlin, who made the bold move to Warsaw in 2007 to enrol in the veterinary faculty at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences.

Having stumbled across details of the course online, O’Loughlin was initially a lone pioneer. However, in the coming years she was followed by a wave of Irish students keen to use their EU options to circumnavigate competition for places on courses at home.

Now numbering 37, the Irish vet students form the nucleus of the club. The cumann has also been remarkably successful in attracting players from other nations.

The books of both squads are littered with English, French, Scandinavian, Polish, Israeli, Spanish and even Mauritian names. The club also receives considerable moral, financial and logistic support from both the Irish Embassy and the Irish business community in the city.

The pursuit of this sport, hitherto unseen in these parts, has become something of a cause célèbre for the Irish community who have also made a significant contribution to Warsaw’s expat rugby team, the Frogs, which is ably led by Irish player-coach Paul McDonnell.

A decent pint

While proudly competitive on the field, the Gaelic and rugby teams are very much seen as social mechanisms. With the large overlap of players in both clubs, the social evenings often coincide.

The venue, more often than not, marks out Warsaw’s Irish community as somewhat unique. As with most cities around the world, Warsaw has its fair share of “Irish” pubs. However, your chances of getting a decent pint in any of them, let alone catching a championship match, are slim.

In a bizarre quirk of happenstance, the best Irish pub in Warsaw is actually a Mexican restaurant.

Run by Dubliner Niall Leonard, the Tortilla Factory on Wilcza has provided an unlikely home for Warsaw’s Irish. Along with hosting regular live music sessions, quiz nights and GAA and Frogs social events, the Tortilla Factory also shows all major sporting events, including GAA fixtures.

There can hardly be a more surreal expression of the circumstances of the Irish abroad in this new decade than sitting down to watch an All-Ireland Hurling final with a pint of (properly poured) Guinness surrounded by Moldovans, Poles, Swedes and Americans . . . in a Mexican restaurant . . . in Warsaw.

While every effort has been made to create and maintain a close-knit community, the Irish have also been conscious of the need to integrate with their hosts.

A number of prominent members of the community, including Leonard, run the Fundacja im. sw. Patryka which hosts an annual St Patrick’s Day ball of considerable renown.

Over the last eight years the foundation has raised huge sums for Polish charitable causes, particularly children’s charities.

The ball is a major highlight of the Warsaw social calendar and the contributions of the foundation have brought the Irish considerable prestige in Poland’s capital.

The admirable conduct of our soccer supporters at last summer’s European championship, despite Roy Keane’s malcontent grumblings, has also caused our stock to rise considerably across Poland.