‘Polish people behave in a different way to the Irish. We’re not so open’
New to the Parish: Marcin Piotrowski arrived from Poland in 2004, left Ireland in 2017
Marcin and Marina Piotrowski with their three children. Photograph: Karolina Migurska & Mariusz Purta
It took Marcin Piotrowski seven days to hitchhike from eastern Poland to Dublin. The 21-year-old student had €50 in his pocket and had arranged a lift to England with a truck driver. However, the summer heatwave creeping across Europe cut the journey short and he was left stranded in Germany.
“I needed a way to earn money during the summer. My friend Robert was one of the first Poles to come to Ireland during that summer and he called me to say there were plenty of jobs. He said I could earn enough money to see me through the college year.
“My parents gave me €50, a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of vodka. I spoke no English, all I could say was my name, that was from Poland and that I was looking for a job. It was my first trip outside Poland, I hadn’t been anywhere before.”
The truck Piotrowski was travelling in was forced to turn back in Holland due to the scorching temperatures. He caught a lift with a second truck driver to France and then a third driver brought him through the channel tunnel to England. He arrived in Liverpool where he tried to book a ferry ticket to Ireland.”
When you come to a new place as an adult it can be very difficult to meet people, especially when you have a language barrier.”
“I was told you have to pay in pounds and that I could exchange my euros in the bank the next day. I had no place to sleep and it was raining so I went to the police station. I only had €25 and needed it for the ferry. They found me a cheap hotel and the next day they brought me to the port. I was so surprised because in Poland the police are not friendly. Usually in Eastern Europe the police are the last people you ask for help.”
Piotrowski made his way straight to Ennis where his friend helped him find a place to live and a job as a night-porter. Soon after, he found a second job in a shop. “I only spent three months in Ireland that time but tried to make as much money as possible to survive through university. I went back the next summer and brought more people with me.”
Piotrowski spent three summers working in Ennis before moving to Ireland full time in 2007. The following year his girlfriend Marina, who he met at university and is from Estonia, followed him to Ireland. The couple were married later that year in Piotrowski’s home village of Gorajec near the Polish border with Ukraine.
The couple settled in Ennis and Piotrowski began working two jobs – behind the counter in Lidl during the day and in a factory at night. He planned to save enough money to refurbish an abandoned building back home in Gorajec and turn it into a B&B. As the numbers of Polish people arriving in Ireland continued to rise, Piotrowski decided to dedicate his free time to building common ground between his Polish friends and the Irish locals.
“I felt worried that Poles were not integrating well and worked hard with the Irish Polish Association and co-created the Polska Éire festival to try and offer Polish culture to Ireland while also learning about Irish culture.
“Polish people behave in a different way to the Irish. We’re not so open and our social life is more related to the family. Also, when you come to a new place as an adult it can be very difficult to meet people, especially when you have a language barrier.”
Coming back to Poland is not easy but moving to Ireland wasn’t easy either
In 2016 Piotrowski was named the Polish young person of the year for his work in “building bridges” between the Polish and Irish communities. After a decade living in Co Clare, and now with three children attending the local school, Piotrowski and his wife had fully settled into life in Ireland. By this time, he was dividing his time between Poland and Ireland, working on the B&B back in Gorajec while also co-ordinating an annual folklore festival in the village. Travelling between the two countries, he began to worry that his children were losing interest in their Polish background.
“It was much easier for them to speak English than Polish; it was so strong in their lives. They were in school in Ennis and it was a great school, but we decided to move back to Poland because we thought they were losing contact with their culture. We wanted to see what it would be like to live in Poland for a few months. After 11 years abroad we missed our family. It was difficult to raise kids in Ireland without family support. I also lost my dad two years ago and my kids rarely saw him. We thought it would be better for the kids to see their grandparents every weekend.”
The family are now living in and running the refurbished B&B in eastern Poland on a trial basis to see how the children adjust to the local school and speaking Polish full-time. Piotrowski says a number of his friends have also returned to Poland recently. “It’s just a small group but Poles my age are faced with that decision of whether to stay or go. It feels like the last chance to go back before the kids get too old. My plan was always to come back to Poland. I went to Ireland to learn English, earn money and learn about the culture and meet people. But I do miss friends from Ireland. All my adult life was spent in Ireland, I grew up in Ennis. I’ve left behind people I’ve known for 10 years and speaking on the phone is not the same as daily contact.”
He says life in the tiny village of Gorajec is “a big mystery” for his three children. “For sure they miss Ireland and we hope to spend time in the summer there. They miss hurling and ask if I can play with them. They grew up in Irish schools and are finding it difficult to learn through Polish.
“It’s too early to say whether we’ll stay here because we’re only in Poland three months, we haven’t even unpacked all our bags. Coming back to Poland is not easy but moving to Ireland wasn’t easy either. It’s a new environment for us all, we’ll see how we go.”