Gaia Kowalik is the real name of 'Magda', the Polish woman whom Irish media wrongly accused this week of being a 'welfare tourist'. She tells
Pat O'Mahonywhy, despite the ordeal, she still loves Ireland.
HER NAME IS Gaia Kowalik. She’s 38, originally from Gdansk, in Poland, and now lives in the seaside village of Dunfanaghy, in Co Donegal, about half an hour northwest of Letterkenny.
You might know her as Magda. Her story appeared in Wednesday’s Irish Independent, translated, badly as we were soon to find out, from a Polish newspaper. The story suggested she was a sponging welfare tourist, living the high life at the expense of the Irish social-welfare system, and thought Donegal was a “shithole”.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Irish Independent'sarticle was based on an interview with Kowalik that had been mistranslated into English.
Kowalik is talkative – her accent blends her Polish background and a Donegal lilt – and much of her talk is about how much she loves Ireland. “I’ve always wanted to go to Ireland, since I was about 15 or 16 . . . I love Irish music and I love myths and legends from different parts of the world, including Ireland. Both my parents were teachers, so these were my bedtime stories. The music started with typical, y’know, U2, Sinead O’Connor . . . but then at some point I heard traditional Irish music and I absolutely loved it. I always wanted to go see Ireland, but it didn’t happen until I was thirtysomething. I came for holidays and I said I’m not going back.”
Kowalik left Poland in 2001, and spent five years in Amsterdam. There she met Irish people for the first time and immersed herself in Irish traditional music. In 2006, she came to Ireland for the first time. “A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to join her for a Clannad concert in Letterkenny, and I said of course. And I decided I’d stay for a week’s holiday. When I arrived in Dublin Airport I felt like I should be the pope kissing the ground. I felt home. It was the weirdest thing ever, because I have no Irish connection whatsoever.
“Then we went to Donegal and that was it. We stayed in the hostel near Dunfanaghy, and I said I don’t want to go back to Amsterdam. I had a job, I had an apartment in Amsterdam and I didn’t have anything here.”
Kowalik spent the next few years working at various jobs – waitressing, child-minding, bartending – and began training in massage, travelling back and forth to Poland for her courses because she felt her English wasn’t good enough to do them here. She funded these trips from savings and with support from friends and family.
Two years ago, she went on the dole. “I had been unemployed on and off. Then I came back to Dunfanaghy after the season was over, and it’s very hard to find a job then. I went to social welfare to ask what options I have. I had a conversation with a Fás officer to see what’s possible for me. And then I decided if it is possible to do a course or two and then start my own business straight away, that would be fantastic.”
She signed on as part of a plan to set herself up as a professional, self-employed masseur.
A couple of weeks ago, a Polish journalist friend asked to interview her for a newspaper in Poland. The article would be about the experiences of some Poles in Ireland. The article, in which she was anonymously referred to as Magda, was published last week. On Wednesday, the Irish Independent ran its now-controversial version of it.
“A friend of mine called me about half eleven or 12 . . . I was shocked. I couldn’t believe someone would just change the real article so much. It’s not just translation. It completely changed the context . . .
“I’m doing all possible things to get off [the dole and] to educate myself, because I want to stay where I am. I want to bring business and I want to bring life and money to Dunfanaghy. I’m not giving up on Dunfanaghy, on Donegal, on this absolutely stunning place. This is where I want to be.
“And calling Donegal a shithole? In the Polish article, it’s not even me, it’s the author saying, for some it’s zadupie, ‘arse of nowhere’. So for me reading that, because I love the place, reading that, I was furious . . . My friends started reacting, sending me links. It didn’t take long for them to figure out it was me.”
The media figured it out too. “I was tracked down very fast. I got four or five phone calls Wednesday. Some were really pushy. That was frightening. It added to stress greatly. Yesterday I had to pick up my dole at the post office and go for signing to social welfare. Perfect timing; very ironic.
“There was a journalist and photographer who then met me on the beach. The guy started snapping straight away. I said I don’t want to reveal my name. I don’t want my picture to be published. There was another one when I came back home from town; there was a car in front of my house. I just found it disrespectful. It was really annoying and upsetting.”
Throughout, Kowalik has remained well disposed to Irish people. “It kind of proved that I’m right about [the] Irish, because [of] the amount of positive, amazing comments. And they were not just my friends. Of course, there were angry comments, but they were at the system and at the ‘Magda’ character from the changed article. But when it started to come up that this was not what the article was about . . . it just proved me right.
“I think it’s amazing that the Irish system helps to start your own business. It gives you so many options to learn new skills; you just need to want to do it. There are things to change, but there are things that are really good as well. At least that’s my experience. I don’t want to stay on the dole. I want to work. The more people bring life to small places like Dunfanaghy the better. I love that place. The people who live there love it as well.”
What about going back to Poland? “No. You’re stuck with me for good.”
Timeline How the ‘Magda’ storm unfolded
On Wednesday, the Irish Independentreported on an interview in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, which interviewed Poles about their experiences of living and working in Ireland. Working on a mistranslation, the Irish Independent said a Polish woman named "Magda" had called her home in Donegal a "shithole" and said her life on social welfare was like "a Hawaiian massage".
Even before Morning Ireland carried an interview with the Donegal Labour senator Jimmy Harte, Twitter was already questioning the story. Harte, who offered to pay for Magda’s flight home to Poland, also told RTÉ he did not believe she was typical of the Poles he knew.
Minutes later, on the same radio station, John Murray spoke to a Polish caller who found the original article on the internet, and pointed out several errors. Magda had not called Donegal a “shithole” – this was the opinion of emigrating locals – and far from comparing life to a massage, she was learning massage therapy with Fás, reskilling to re-enter the labour market.
By lunchtime, the Polish ambassador issued a statement on the “danger of an anti-immigrant atmosphere”.
The story took a bizarre turn after George Hook interviewed the Polish ambassador on Newstalk. The Monaghan county councillor Seamus Treanor phoned the show and, ignoring all that had gone before, complained about Poles “flying into this country to collect their dole money”.
Sometime after 1am on Thursday, the @JimmyHarte twitter account, which had previously confined itself mostly to occasional football commentary and links to stories about the Donegal senator, began responding robustly to criticism. One commenter was told he was a “sad person”, another “you are a waste”, and a third to “get a life”.
On Thursday morning, "Magda" spoke, still anonymously, to The John Murray Show. "How is it possible for somebody to publish something that is not true?" she asked him. "It's not just mistranslation."
Harte has since apologised for his Twitter comments. Norma Costello, one of the writers of the original Irish Independentreport, has also apologised for her role in the story. Gerard Cunningham