Ireland through the rear window


Polish graduate Magda Jelonkiewiczmoved to Ireland in 2002 to work and broaden her horizons. After six years here, she is joining hundreds of other Poles and returning home

I GREW UP in Kolzbreg, a small Polish seaside resort on the Baltic coast. I graduated with an MA in English from Adam Mickiewicz university in Poznan. I have one older sister and my parents (now retired) had good professional jobs. My dad was a doctor and my mother a teacher.

Job prospects were good for me in Poland. I taught English in a private school during my last year in college and enjoyed the salary, the interaction with people, and the fact the staff were mostly my college friends. Best of all was the fact I was under 26 years old and didn't have to pay taxes!

At the time, the majority of my college friends had already lived and worked abroad in the UK, US and Ireland. The more I listened to their stories the more I felt I would benefit from such an experience too. It would be enriching, open my mind, and eventually I would have better employment opportunities in Poland.

After college in 2001 I went to Germany for six months as I thought having another language in an English-speaking country would be an advantage. While there, I heard about job opportunities in Ireland and applied for and was offered a job in a call centre in Dublin (on the German market). I arrived in Dublin in 2002.

I didn't know much about Ireland prior to my arrival. I knew it was green and rich in Celtic culture. I knew about St Patrick, the Catholic Church and the Northern conflict and that was it. My image of Ireland was very limited, quite stereotypical and rather romantic. Pretty embarrassing. I studied American English in college and was more familiar with American culture.

Throughout my stay in Ireland the two most common questions asked of me were: Where are you from? Which invariably was followed by a curious and somewhat surprised: And why did you pick Ireland? Some time had to pass before I realized these questions were polite and well-meant conversation starters. They were not, it transpired, an invitation to recount my epic life story.

I would explain I was from Poland, just out of college with a degree in English, and I wanted to live in an English-speaking country. I wanted something "local", within a European context. I felt alien in the UK, so, Ireland it was. By this stage in my monologue, a glazed look would overcome my interlocutor. But would I stop talking? No! So thrilled was I to have cleverly picked a country inhabited by such a compassionate, interested folk! In time, with an improved instinct for native social graces, my answer evolved to a simple: "Because I got a job". It was true . . . and much better received.

In my job in the multinational call-centre I found out it was easier to make friends with other nationalities than with the locals. We had one thing in common - all of us experienced the same assimilation difficulties. We had to navigate between our native habits and the Irish reality, trying our best to fit in. This initial comradeship of outsiders usually was short-lived. People came into my life and went their way - to better jobs or moved back home.

To befriend an Irish person is a different story. Coming from my culture, where you say what you think, it was a mighty challenge to understand what was really said in a conversation. Freud was right in claiming it was impossible to psychoanalyze the Irish. That barrier of polite, yet distant, friendliness seemed impregnable. To my delight, I found out that it was actually soluble in alcohol. In that way, I was privileged to enter "an inner circle of trust" and gained a few good Irish friends.

I stayed in Ireland for more than six years and it was fascinating to see Ireland change. In May 2004, with great joy and pride, I exchanged my old, navy blue Polish passport for my first red one - finally, Poland was in the EU! No more interrogations at the customs. No more work permits. Ireland opened its door to the new member states and slowly became "Polonised".

IN THE MATTER OF WEEKS, I couldn't walk down O'Connell Street without hearing my native tongue. Polish waitresses and sales assistants served me. Polish people handed me the free morning papers. Irish banks and mobile networks advertised in Polish. The media took an interest in this rapidly expanding ethnic group, and a new image of the Polish immigrant emerged - highly educated, pursuing a professional career in engineering, finance or architecture.

To my surprise, being a part of this significant minority group worked to my advantage. I had a voice. People were interested in Polish culture and our opinions. The Irish Times and Metro Eireann published my articles - a feat I had considered a mission impossible a few years before.

Similarly, business opportunities were up for grabs for those with a vision and determination. I met a few of my compatriots who successfully established and ran their own businesses - including an online Polish news portal, a newspaper, a dancing school and a shipping company. They all agreed it was easier to start a company in Ireland than in Poland. People were helpful here. Bureaucracy wasn't the quagmire we were accustomed to. And most importantly, there was public demand and a stable economy.

In Ireland, I felt welcome. Was this because Ireland never adopted the mentality of an imperialist country? Because Irish people knew best what it meant to look for work abroad? Or more pragmatically, that the economy boomed and migrant labour was now welcome?

Things were flying for me. I changed jobs, saved money, went backpacking for six months and returned to Dublin. In the era of Ryanair, I could afford frequent flights to Poland. Things couldn't get better. Yet, the more I visited home, the more I missed it. After six years in Ireland, I began to toy with the idea of moving back. On the one hand, I had a lifestyle I wouldn't change, but the Great Unknown was always niggling.

My Irish friends who had once emigrated and came back were very supportive, encouraging me to take the plunge. In hindsight, none of them had regretted their decision. I was warned, though, come-backs are tough. I asked "returned Poles" for their feedback online, too. Stories of doom and gloom followed. Most of the respondents got depressed and eventually, unable to cope with the Polish reality, opted for the immigrant life.

While considering my options, a perfect opportunity came my way - an Irish magazine looking to expand into the Polish market. They needed somebody on site in Poland to help. An ideal position, I thought - I will be based in Poland and keep my Irish links.

I handed in my notice. But a week later, I got an e-mail from my future employer explaining that, due to the credit crunch, my employment could not go ahead. Sugar! is a mild version of the expletives going through my head.

Nevertheless, I decided to proceed with my plan to move home. There would never be a right time. Now is as good as tomorrow or a year. My decision to go back was based on personal reasons. I wonder, though, if the recession in Ireland will influence my Polish friends to take the same course. How will we be received at home? Will we be determined enough to stay and look for employment matching our skills? Will we fit in?

These questions I am hoping to explore in the coming months. I plan to eventually settle in Warsaw, but until I am established I will live 90km away with my parents in the attic of their house in Kozienice, a small town with a population of around 20,000.

I am looking forward to getting to know my country again and to making myself at home.

Migration: The tide is turning

The ESRI quarterly economic commentary published yesterday forecasts net outward emigration of 30,000 in 2009 - compared to the net inflow of 72,000 two years ago.

A Government decision four years ago to open the labour market to workers from 10 of the EUs newer members resulted in an unprecedented influx of eastern and central Europeans.

But the tide is turning. In the first half of 2008, the number of people from the "EU12" (those states that joined since May 2004) who registered to work or access public services here fell by 40 per cent compared to the same period in 2007.

Significant numbers are still coming however - with about 3,200 Poles claiming PPS numbers in August.

The outward flow is trickier to gauge, but as far back as the year ending April 2007,

the Republic's emigration rate was at its highest level since 1990.

The biggest increase was among the young. We don't know their nationalities, but it's a fair assumption that some, like Magda, were Poles returning home. Ruadhán Mac Cormaic