Ireland’s Poles: Coming from Baltic to settle in Galway
Moving to Atlantic seaboard has brought opportunities – and plenty of rain
Artist Joanna Kasinska. “I was 21 and I just came for a bit of a break, a bit of adventure.” Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Katarzyna Kielbasa, who loves Ireland for its landscape, with daughter Molly and partner Bartosz Wozny.
Knowing that Galway is the State’s most multicultural city, it comes as no surprise to find a little bit of Baltic on the Atlantic seaboard. Almost one in five people in the unofficial “creative capital” are “non-Irish nationals” or “new Irish”, according to the last census.
One might as easily hear snatches of Polish, Russian, Uruba or Lingala, along with Connemara Irish, in Shop Street on a Saturday morning.
Polish-born ceramicist Joanna Kasinksa (31) had not thought of herself as an artist when she first crossed the river Shannon, but she is now very much a part of the city’s arts community.
“I was 21 and I just came for a bit of a break, a bit of adventure, as I was studying biotechnology and not enjoying it,”she says. “I was very depressed at first as it was winter, it rained a lot, and the buses never came on time . . . But there was something about the smell of the air when I got off the plane at Dublin airport that made me think I was going to stay.”
Kasinksa is from Lubin, about 80km from Wroclaw. Her brother had come to Ireland a year before her. After a brief stay in Dublin, where she worked in a cafe on Leeson Street, she moved west with friends. “I found the interesting, eccentric, crazy people I met in Galway really suited me,”she says.
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Fertility was one of her specialisations, and she has more than a passing interest in the sexually explicit medieval stone carvings known as sheela-na-gigs.
She graduated in 2013, and became part of an artists’ collective named Carbon Assembly in her first year out of college.
“We worked with clients of Cope, the agency for the homeless in Galway, and we pulled together an exhibition as a result of that,”she says. “We also ran workshops, and then I got more involved with the Forge Clay Studios on New Street.”
She now runs art therapy sessions with people with mental health issues at Lá Nua in Ballybane, and Céim Eile day centre, and she co-ordinated an exhibition last year of some of this work at the Secret Garden tea room in Galway’s “West” district. As a result of work experience in the One World Centre, she became involved in running Galway’s annual African Film Festival, which takes place from May 27th to 29th.
Kasinska adores dandelion in her salads, says that rats are her favourite animals, and feels she has “blended in” to the rhythm of life on the west coast. She has no plans to return home.
“Sometimes the rain gets to me, and there is far too big a focus on drinking to excess here,”she says.
“You would rarely if ever see a woman drunk and out of her mind in Poland, and yet it seem s to be something people almost want to do here, and in Britain, and it’s not something I understand.
“Places don’t matter so much as the people that you meet – it is all about the people – and most of my friends here are of many nationalities,” she says.
“I arrived in 2007, just before the recession here, and I intended to practise my English,” Kielbasa, who is from Poznan, says. Her boyfriend, Bartosz Wozny, had travelled over several months before her.
“I first went to London for six months, where I was working as an au pair,”she says. “I got a job just four or five days after I arrived in Galway as a receptionist in an electrical repair company.”
Kielbasa has a passion for languages, and had studied English philology at university in Wroclaw. Her second job was in Dunnes Stores, and she says it opened many doors.
“It is a great place to work when you are young and you don’t mind those flexi-hours so much,”she says. “I was rostered every weekend, but I didn’t mind as I could practise my English and I had a really great time. I still meet people from there in town and they are my friends.”
Her mother has visited many times, but the lack of an extended family close by is still difficult.
“Childcare is a big issue, and it is more so when you don’t have family to fall back on,” she says. In Poland, childcare is more flexible and more attuned to working parents than it is in Ireland, she says.
“The system is expensive, and then when you have both high rent and childcare costs you have very little left money left.”
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Kielbasa believes learning a second language from primary school is imperative, and can’t understand why it is not part of the system here.
“I know children learn Irish, but it is like Latin, a dead language, and in Poland a second language is compulsory from the age of six,”she says. “From 2017, children in kindergarten will also have to start a second language there.”
Her decision to choose a non-denominational school for her daughter is the exception, rather than the rule, in a city where Polish families are an integral part of the Catholic parish and school community.
About 150 regularly attend a weekly Polish Mass in the Dominican church on the Claddagh, while Doughiska church on the city’s eastern boundary also caters for a large Polish congregation – even blessing food baskets filled with babka and decorated cooked eggs known as pisanki at Easter.
“In Poland, we do have Catholic schools, but most schools are state run, so I do find it strange that religion is so involved with education here in Ireland,” Kielbasa says.
“I like Educate Together because it connects children with different religions, and does not divide them,”she says.
Kielbasa says she loves Ireland for its landscape and has no immediate plans to return home, though she knows couples that have, with mixed results.
“I think you can have a good life here in Ireland, though I know things are improving at home,”she says.
“In Poland, we have the Baltic in the north, the mountains in the south, lakes in between, but here you have mountains, and lakes and sea together.”
However, the weather is a bit of a downer at times, she says. “In Poland, we have four seasons, but here it feels like there is just a long winter, and a short summer.
“You need three umbrellas, not one, in Galway if you are to make sure you don’t get soaked,”she laughs.