Irish workers warm to Warsaw

 

Six years ago, Poles in Ireland vented their anger at the dearth of jobs in their own country. Now with no banking crisis, no bubble, and a growing economy, Poland is attracting ever-greater numbers of Irish migrants – and has its first GAA club, writes  DEREK SCALLYin Poland

IT’S minus 10 degrees on a snowy December evening, and the forbidding concrete structure in Warsaw’s outskirts looks more like a prison than a football stadium. A door swings open in the darkness and light spills into a wood-panelled room where photographs on the wall include two captioned “Ronan O”Gara” and “Paul O”Connel, Kapitan Irlandii”.

Six men and seven women wearing red-and-white jerseys sporting the name Cumann Warszawa are warming up in the sports hall, where paint peels from the walls. It is the last Thursday night training session before Christmas for what is almost certainly Poland’s first GAA club.

In the 10 months since it was set up the club has tripled its membership and won medals in its first amateur competition.

Cumann Warszawa is just one small sign of the small but growing Irish community in Warsaw. “We were amazed it came together so quickly just three days after we bumped into each other in a pub,” says Colm Murphy, a 36-year-old from Malahide. “We got going from nothing with 10 or 12 at our first training session in minus 25 degrees.”

It was all quite different six years ago when new arrivals from Poland vented their frustrations to The Irish Timesat the lack of job opportunities at home and anger with the government there. Now the roles have been reversed.

Steady growth and improving job prospects have lured many Poles back. Many of those sitting beside them on those planes heading east are angry, frustrated, unemployed Irish people.

Some in the GAA club have come to Warsaw to work, though many have come to study veterinary medicine. All agree that Poland is as good a place as any to be at this moment in Irish history. “A lot of my friends have lost their jobs and left Ireland for Norway, France or Germany. So it’s actually easier to see them based here,” says Aoife Cahill, a 25-year-old from Burnfort, in Cork. “I knew Polish people in Ireland, and they encouraged me to come here. It’s worked out really well. There’s a lot more Irish here than you’d think.”

One of the founders of the GAA Cumann Warszawa is Eoin Sheedy, a 35-year-old pig farmer’s son from Ogonnelloe, Co Clare. He came to the city two years ago on contract with a mobile-phone company. Bleak prospects at home mean he is likely to stay on. He’s not the only one.

“I used to go down the pub to watch the Gaelic matches here two years ago, and I’d be on my own,” he says. “Now there’s easily 20 of us at each match. There’s definitely a big influx, and they’re still coming.”

On a mid December day Warsaw fulfils every negative preconception one can have about the Polish capital. A grey, freezing haze hangs around the ugly central train station; the Christmas tree out front is dwarfed by the Palace of Culture, an unwanted and unloved present from Stalin.

Varsovians pick their way along icy pavements, bent over to reduce their exposure to the biting wind. On one broad boulevard an advertisement for instant soup is the only visible, comforting reminder that the cold war is over.

Even 20 years on, at first glance Poland’s capital is not the most welcoming city. Communist-era tower blocks share the skyline with capitalist skyscrapers in the scruffy postwar cityscape.

Young latte-sipping office workers glide down the road oblivious to the elderly street traders selling smoked cheese and slippers.

After a decade of corruption and political instability this central European giant is making up for lost ground in a big way.

While its European neighbours reel from the financial crisis, Poland’s economy has never stopped growing. It will record 3.4 per cent growth this year and an estimated 4 per cent next year. A mixture of skill and luck means Poland had no banking crisis and no property bubble. Its people have low personal debt. Its currency, the zloty, still functions as an economic safety valve.

At 12 per cent, unemployment is stubbornly high, though the figures can be less than half that in big cities such as Warsaw.

New arrivals from Ireland cannot help but notice the whiff of opportunity in the air even if Warsaw’s “wild east” days are behind it, says Kenneth Morgan, a Dublin-born businessman. “Back then the men on the planes over were all what we called A, B, C or D: alcoholic, bankrupt, chancer or divorcee,” he says.

Morgan, who is married with three children, has lived here since 1995. He is director of Trinity Corporate Services, which employs 140 people in Poland, offering consulting and out-sourcing services. From his office near Warsaw’s central station he has seen the first Irish chancers give way to property developers, some of whom are among Poland’s biggest players.

Just three years ago Polish politicians argued on television over whose policies were more likely to reproduce Ireland’s economic miracle in Poland. No one wants to emulate Ireland any more. A week’s worth of Financial Times hang on the wall in Morgan’s office. One lead headline reads: “€85 billion Irish bailout agreed.” Ireland’s economic meltdown has made itself felt here, with Allied Irish Banks forced to sell off its Polish subsidiary to qualify for assistance from the Government.

Irish businessmen here see the forced sale as a retrograde step that has squandered an opportunity to be a big player in central Europe’s largest economy. In a country where only one in three has a bank account, they argue that future revenue potential for Irish taxpayers would have dwarfed the proceeds of the fire sale to Spain’s Santander group.

Morgan says Polish emigration raised awareness at home of this central European country, but many Irish are still surprised by the scale of the place. At about 312,000sq km it is bigger than the UK and has a population of about 40 million. Such size brings opportunities, he says, particularly for small and medium-sized companies.

Irish trade ties with Poland are substantial, with nearly 400 Irish companies registered doing business worth €600 million annually. “The main difference in Warsaw now is that, where 15 years ago it was individuals trying their luck, today it’s companies looking for contracts,” says Morgan, who is also head of Poland’s growing Irish Chamber of Commerce. “It’s clear the country is going to be wealthier in the future, but there’s still a lot to be done.”

That’s where Sisk comes in. The elder statesman of Irish construction companies has made a name for itself in Poland after beating out younger rivals to win three prestigious tenders to build 94km of the A1 motorway.

The contracts are just part of a huge infrastructure spending programme – €40 billion in the next three years – to build or upgrade Poland’s infrastructure for the 2012 European Championships. Poland is now the biggest source of work in a depressed European construction market, and the competition for tenders is fierce. Winning the Polish contract against nine competitors, in a consortium called SRB Civil Engineering with the Roadbridge company, has given Sisk €300 million worth of business. Half of its head-office staff and a third of its site staff are Irish. It has engineers, quantity surveyors, fitters and drivers on contract.

“In Ireland I don’t think the penny has dropped that the industry is dead,” says Paul Sullivan, director of Sisk’s Polish operation for the past two years. “Everything’s built. At most there’ll be individual projects and maintenance work in the coming years. We see the future here. There’s enough work for 30 years.”

Some corners of the Polish capital seem to have provided work for the cranes that vanished from the Dublin skyline. Office blocks and high-end residential projects are a common sight. Football stadiums are being built or refurbished around the country, and the first complete motorway network is finally taking shape – with Irish know-how.

Sullivan’s 35-year career with Sisk, including 15 years in such countries as Germany and South Africa, has given him a sober take on Ireland’s problems. People will have to get used to being paid less, he says, and to become less fussy about taking work, whether it is in Liverpool or Warsaw.

“Wages will come down through tax cuts and pay cuts, and the dole will concentrate minds again on taking a risk, being innovative and getting out of the comfort zone,” he says. “This is where the work is.”

Sitting in the lobby of a Warsaw hotel, it’s impossible to ignore the buzz of business being done around us in Polish, English, German and Russian. Right at home in this world is Séamus Pentony, who has established himself as a corporate headhunter over the past 15 years. His company, Headcount, sources managers from across Europe for Poland’s economic boom.

The number of phone calls from Ireland has increased markedly in recent months, says Pentony. Many of the callers are bankers who have been laid off, or Irishmen married to homesick Polish women. All are looking for work.

Pentony warns that not speaking the language precludes new arrivals from applying for most jobs. Adding to the competition are returned Poles who, as well as local knowledge and language fluency, can offer prospective employers business skills they learned in Ireland. “It’s not necessarily the prospect people would like it to be, because of the linguistic barrier,” he says. The Slavic language, with its strings of near vowel-free words, tends to confound Irish ears.

On the plus side, after a quiet 2009 Polish companies are in the middle of a new hiring wave, he says. He sees an increasing number of new arrivals to Poland on secondment from their employers. “There’s more flexibility now from people,” says Pentony, who helps to run a fundraising ball for the St Patrick’s Foundation. It is one of the city’s leading social events and last year raised 3.1 million zloty (€775,000) to buy equipment for Polish hospices.

The end of Ireland’s economic boom has buried old certainties and created new opportunities. Since the last recession, in the 1980s, the US has all but closed its doors to Irish workers, while new doors have opened in central Europe. “Irish people are coming here with a different attitude: they have to make things work,” he says.

The language barrier means Irish emigration to Poland will never approach in scale the recent wave in the other direction. On the other hand, the positive experiences of relatives in Ireland has brought a formerly distant island into Polish hearts. The concern expressed here for Ireland’s future is genuine.

For Ireland’s new economic migrants, Warsaw might seem like an unlikely new home. The language and the lingering legacy of socialist city planning make the city an unfamiliar, even hostile, place.

But even a 60-year-old sports hall, built for teams of people named Jacek and Jadwiga, can echo with familiar friendly voices, as on this evening: “Well done, Aoife . . . Good man, Finn.”

Colm Murphy, who worked in Warsaw for three years a decade ago, barely recognised it when he returned last year. “Ten years ago it was an outpost. Now you hear English everywhere, and it’s far more international,” he says. “It’s a great experience, and, compared to home, the people aren’t as jaded.”

Declan Horan, a 20-year-old from Cashel, knew little about Poland before, like many team-mates, he came here to study veterinary medicine, two years ago. “But we’re very alike, the Poles and the Irish,” he says. “There’s the Catholic influence and we like a drink. And as soon as you say you’re Irish here, you always get a smile.”