Polish mothers happy to be rearing their children into Irish family life

We talk to three women who are part of the 150,000 Polish-born living in Ireland

Dagmara Dopierala with her two children, Ian (3) and Aidan (4), and her mother Iwona making some Polish food. Photograph: Alan Betson

Dagmara Dopierala: ‘I don’t like being Polish, to be honest’

Dagmara Dopierala intended to stay in Ireland for only a year, to save a deposit for an apartment back home in Poland, when she arrived at the end of 2006 with a now ex-boyfriend.

She soon got a job in Superquinn in Blanchardstown, Dublin, and enjoyed being able to buy things that she couldn’t buy in Poland: “The cameras, the phones, the clothes and everything. You don’t think about the savings, you just spend, spend, spend.”

Agnieszka Grochola: ‘We do want to integrate but we don’t want to lose what we have.’

After a year she hadn’t saved much, “so the plan was to stay another year”. She changed jobs, to a shoe shop, also in Blanchardstown, and has worked there ever since.

Meanwhile she met the Polish father of her two boys, four-year-old Aidan and three-year-old Ian. The 31-year-old says: “I love Irish names. I think they are beautiful.” Dagmara was also very happy to be starting her family here: “I knew I was going to get better care, especially in the hospital. An epidural, for example; there is not a chance you will get it in Poland.”

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She has found people very welcoming, on the whole. “Obviously you have people who don’t like foreigners being here. A year ago I had a customer call me ‘a foreigner b*tch’, which was tough. I try not to let it get to me but it is upsetting a little bit. I work hard. I was never on the dole.”

She likes how Irish people “can be happy with somebody’s happiness”. And we thought we were a nation of begrudgers? Poland is worse, apparently.

“Here people will say ‘Well done’ or ‘You look lovely’; in Poland you will not hear that.” They are much more likely to focus on a detail they can give out about, she explains.

After nine years living here, she hates still being asked where she’s from when people hear her accent. “I don’t like being Polish, to be honest,” she says. “Because there are so many of us here and some people make the reputation very, very low.”

After Dagmara and her partner separated, her mother, Iwona, came to live with her. The boys attend a creche for three hours a day and their grandmother looks after them the rest of time their mother is working.

“She left everything in Poland just to help me. I am so grateful,” says Dagmara, whose father remains in Poland. “They Skype every single day for about two hours.”

But Iwona “absolutely loves Ireland”, she stresses, and travels around, taking photographs and learning about local history.

Does Dagmara herself feel at home here? “I feel a little bit like a nomad,” she replies. “When I go to Poland for holidays I really do miss Ireland and can’t wait to come back. Sometimes I do miss Poland. But I think Ireland would be more my home.”

She says it costs more than €1,000 to get Irish citizenship, and that is the main reason she hasn’t applied for it, but she doesn’t think she will ever leave now.

What does she miss about Poland? “The seasons – a proper summer and a proper winter – and the food. That’s about it.”

Monika and Krzysztof Pawlowska: ‘For the quiet living that we prefer, it’s a great place’

When Monika and Krzysztof Pawlowska were turned down for a mortgage for a bigger flat, even though they were working three jobs between them, they knew it was time to leave Poland.

She had been employed full-time in a private company for 10 years, while her husband drove a taxi by night and ran a mobile-phone shop during the day. They had one child, Kamil, who was two and a half.

“We were refused because we didn’t earn enough, even though he had two jobs and I had one. It was the moment we decided that there was no chance of a better future for us and for our child,” Monika says. “There was no chance of a second child for us because we couldn’t really afford it.

“We decided we needed to move somewhere; to a country that would give us this chance. That is why we really appreciate Ireland.”

Krzysztof came first – to Waterford, initially, where Monika’s cousin lives. After Krzysztof found a job up the coast in Wexford, Monika followed four months later, on April 9th, 2006, with her mother and Kamil.

The plan was always to stay and now they have one Irish citizen in the family – their five-year-old daughter, Nicole, who was born here. Both she and Kamil, who is now 11, attend Kennedy Park National School.

Having the children's grandmother here to mind them while Monika works full-time in Equifax, a credit reference agency, and Krzysztof in Water Technologies as a machine operator, has been a huge help.

“She promised to stay with us until Nicole’s Communion; another three years,” says Monika. “She has her own apartment in Poland and all her friends; she is doing this for her grandchildren.”

They speak Polish at home in Wexford town and have Polish TV – mostly for her mother, who doesn’t speak English – but the children watch it too. However, Kamil prefers to speak English.

“When he is talking to his Polish friends they are all speaking English. All games, all cartoons, all books; everything is in English, so it is easier for them,” she explains.

The day when Monika asked Kamil to text birthday greetings to his grandfather in Poland, and he said he could only do it in English, she realised there was a problem. He could speak Polish but couldn’t read or write it, and was in danger of losing it as a language.

The Polish school in Wexford, which both Kamil and Nicole now attend every Saturday, has been a huge help. Kamil is also a member of the Polish Scout unit in the town. And the Pawlowskas’ dream is to stay in Ireland for ever.

“For the quiet living that we prefer, it’s a great place,” Monika says. “People here live much more slowly than in Poland. Everyone is so helpful, everyone is not stressed – it really is a big thing.”

However, while her children lead totally Irish lives, Monika says she will always be Polish, “because I was born there and this is my first language and I know Polish history and culture”.

“But this was my choice to be Irish as well and I hope I will support it some day with an Irish passport.”

Like Dagmara, the cost of applying for citizenship “is why I am not Irish”, says Monika. As she and Krzysztof are saving for a house, “it is not a good time. In the future; let’s hope.” What does she miss about Poland? “Summer weather.”

Agnieszka Grochola: ‘We do want to integrate but we don’t want to lose what we have’

When Agnieszka Grochola’s son was able to say the months of the year in English but struggled to name them in Polish, she knew his Irish school was doing a good job and it was her mother tongue she needed to worry about.

A secondary school teacher back in Poland, the mother of two had decided to come to Ireland to look for a better life for her family. Her husband, Tomasz, was a manager in the Polish forestry service but still they could not make a living out of their two salaries.

“We struggled to pay basic bills, we’d never been on holidays and we kept borrowing money,” she says.

Within a week of arriving in 2007 with very little English, she found a job.

“It was just a part-time job in a factory canteen and, despite the minimum wage, I was able to start sending money back to Poland, to support my family and start paying back loans.”

Three months later, Tomasz came over with their children – Magdalena, then aged 10, and Artur, who was six – and he works as a tree surgeon with the ESB.

Now living in Tuam, Co Galway, the children settled well into the education system. They had an English-language support teacher at first, which was very helpful, says Agnieszka, and ensured they weren't left behind.

After she became concerned about Artur’s Polish, even though it’s what they speak at home, Agnieszka realised other compatriots here had similar problems. So she decided to set up a Polish school in Galway. It now has 350 pupils attending every Saturday and is one of the biggest in the country. Each year they take part in the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade. “We do want to integrate,” she stresses, “but we don’t want to lose what we already have.”

Between working full-time up to last November, when she was made redundant, and running the school, as well as raising her family, she hasn’t had much time for socialising over the past eight years. But she likes Irish people’s openness.

“I have noticed that immigrant children – not necessarily from the same country – tend to hang out together,” she remarks. “This is certainly the case with my kids. It gives the impression they are different, but they are not intentionally pushed away or bullied because they are foreigners.”

Earlier this year, Agnieszka became an Irish citizen and is now applying for her children's citizenship too. It was very touching, she recalls, when Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald said, at what was the 100th citizenship ceremony on January 23rd, "that we should never forget the country that we came from – Ireland does not require us to erase our memory".

Agnieszka wanted to be able to vote here. “I know that my voice matters if I vote, and I want to be an active citizen in the country that I live and work.”

What does she miss about Poland? “My job as a secondary-school teacher.”

Bogna Griffin: ‘There was nothing I could do to get my daughter to speak Polish’

Unlike most of the Polish community here, Bogna Griffin left her native country some years before it joined the EU. She came to Co Galway in 1999 with an Irishman she had met at work in Warsaw.

“I had a good job; I didn’t leave Poland looking for a job,” she says. “When I came to Galway there were only two Polish people I knew of in Galway and it was quite unusual for a Polish person to be here.”

But when she and her boyfriend split up some years later, she never considered going back.

“I had my life here at that stage,” she says. “I was very much part of the community and I also joined the flying club. The only thing I ever missed about Poland was flying gliders.

“When I joined the flying club in Galway I had everything I needed, and that is where I met my husband.” She and Jimmy Griffin have one daughter, eight-year-old Sophie, and he has two older children from his first marriage.

Bogna wanted to raise Sophie bilingually but, as soon as her daughter was old enough to realise that her mother did not speak Polish to Jimmy’s children, she refused to speak Polish.

“There was nothing I could do to get her to speak Polish,” says Bogna, who decided that the answer was to put her in the company of children back in Poland, where she would have no choice but to speak the language. So, since Sophie was about three, Bogna has been taking her over as often as possible.

She was also glad to come across the Polish School in Galway.

“I was so determined for Sophie to speak Polish. I didn’t want her to be another child who wouldn’t communicate with her grandparents.”

Bogna’s father, who died recently, didn’t speak any English. Although her mother speaks some, “it wouldn’t be a natural way of communication between a grandchild and a grandparent”, she says.

Now Sophie sometimes speaks Polish at home in Barna. Bogna says her daughter, who attends a Gaelscoil, will speak Polish to her when she doesn’t want somebody to understand what she is saying and “will speak to Jimmy in Irish if she doesn’t want me to understand it.”

Bogna keeps up Polish traditions, particularly in the festive seasons. Christmas is the big one, she explains, when they have 12 different dishes at a big Christmas Eve dinner. “We start eating after the first star comes out.”

She tries to spend Easter in Poland, where the celebrations are very traditional. “It is painting boiled eggs and the blessing of the eggs in church.”

Bogna also always returns for the All Saints’ Day celebrations on November 1st, when Polish people go to put flowers on the graves of loved ones.

But she has travelled on her own for the past two years, having had to give in to Sophie who was fed up missing all the Halloween fun here.

Contrasting her own upbringing with that of Sophie, she thinks there is a lack of freedom for children here. “I find it is very hard for a child to become independent.”

Now that Bogna is studying marine biology full-time in the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Sophie walks from school to her father's workplace, about five minutes away, several days a week.

“It is slightly frowned upon. The mummies at the gate are very worried about her and I am worried too,” she says. “But there is a line where you have to give them a little bit of freedom.”

In Poland during the summer, “I can send her to Scout camp for two weeks or horseriding for two weeks – the freedom of becoming independent. Here it is a very controlled environment.”

It was only when Sophie started going to the Polish school that Bogna mixed more in the Polish community. She admits she has been through “an awful identity crisis”.

“At this stage, I’m 37, and I left Poland in my early 20s. Soon I will have lived half my life outside Poland.”

She doesn’t feel at home in Poland, nor does she feel totally at home here. “Galway is a small community and, as the saying goes, when you’re a blow-in, you’re always a blow-in.”

For details of the PolskaÉire 2015 Festival, see polskaeirefestival.com See a gallery of images from the Thank You Ireland exhibition at http://iti.ms/1KVnbp4

swayman@irishtimes.com ]