Ireland’s Poles: ‘rooted in Irish soil’

The tens of thousands of young people coming here from Poland since 2004 to seek work and new horizons have settled into Irish society. But they still face plenty of obstacles

Nine years ago Agnieszka Grochola landed at Shannon Airport with a suitcase, €200 in cash and a plan that seemed at once exhilarating and hopelessly rash: to start a new life in a country she had never even visited.

Left behind in Poland were Grochola's job as a secondary-school teacher, her husband, Tomasz, and their children, 10-year-old Magda and six-year-old Artur. The plan was for the family to join her in Ireland as soon as she found a job. But as she boarded the bus to Galway she couldn't help but think she had made a huge mistake.

“I got on the bus and I couldn’t understand what the driver was saying to me,” Grochola says. “I did English at school. I was shocked. It was like he was speaking Chinese. All I understood was ‘euro’. I think he said something about the weather, but that was my first surprise: I didn’t understand anything.”

It was 2007, three years after Ireland had opened its labour market to citizens of Poland and nine other new EU member states in central and eastern Europe.


Grochola and her husband, a manager for a forestry company, had tried to make a living in the town of Rawa Mazowiecka, in central Poland, but constant financial strain convinced them it was time for a change.

“We were working, we’re well-educated people, but we still struggled to pay basic bills,” she says. “I was quite desperate to change something in our lives.”

So Grochola left with a one-way ticket. Looking back, recalling how she didn’t know when she would see her children again, was the worst moment of her life, she says. Yet she had timed her departure well. When she arrived in Galway, where a friend put her up for the first few weeks, the recession had yet to hit, and jobs were relatively plentiful. She quickly found work as a catering assistant, which paid her four times more than she earned as a teacher in Poland. She immediately began to send money home.

By “pure luck” Grochola then saw in the paper that a forestry company was looking for a tree surgeon. She applied for her husband, who came to Galway for the interview and was immediately offered the job. Four months after Grochola left Poland the family was reunited in Galway.

Today, nine years on, the Grocholas are like so many of the Poles who flocked to Ireland after the EU enlargement round of 2004: settled and anchored in community life yet acutely conscious of needing to hold on to their Polishness in a country that they regard increasingly as their own.

Everyone in the family has an Irish passport. Magda is in first year at the University of Limerick; Artur is at secondary school in Tuam, where the family owns a house.

Grochola is the principal of the Polish School in Galway, which she and some friends set up in 2009. It has grown so rapidly that 400 students, aged from three to 17, now attend its three centres (two in Galway city and one in Tuam) every Saturday. A further 100 are on a waiting list.

Polish schools

That surging demand reflects a broader trend among Ireland’s Poles: many of the tens of thousands of twentysomethings who came here looking for work, adventure and new horizons after 2004 are now settling down and starting families.

In all there are 40 Polish schools across the State, including five that operate under the auspices of the ministry of education in Warsaw. The schools, grouped under the umbrella of the Polish Educational Society in Ireland, offer weekend tuition in the Polish language, history and culture, as well as afterschool activities such as scouts and art classes.

Parents fall into two categories, says Grochola: those who intend to return to Poland, and do not want their children to fall behind; and a larger group who know they probably will never leave Ireland but would like their children to retain a hold on their own culture.

According to the Polish embassy about 150,000 Poles live in Ireland, a figure it says has been stable for a number of years – since what Piotr Rakowski, deputy head of mission, calls a dramatic rate of return after the Irish economy collapsed from 2008.

Official statistics are not available, but those who were working in construction, had the weakest English and had family members at home are thought to have been among the first to leave.

In recent years the Polish government, hoping to harness the skills and qualifications of its talented young emigrants, has run campaigns to try to tempt them home. It has had limited success. “After 12 years we can see that the discussion about whether to go back to Poland pretty soon is mostly just talk,” says Rakowski. “There are too many things that bind them.”

In his years as a Siptu organiser, driving around the country talking to workers, Barnaba Dorda, a lawyer from Tychy, in southern Poland, observes the same phenomenon: Poles who were "increasingly rooted in the Irish soil" and established in their localities.

Dorda, a fan of Irish music while growing up in Poland, came here for the summer in 2005. He doubts he will ever leave. He landed a job with Siptu shortly after his arrival, and today he works in the union’s Workers Rights Centre, or legal department.

In the past year he and his partner have had a child and bought a house in Portmarnock, in north Co Dublin – life events that caused them to make firm decisions about their future. “I love Poland, but I think both countries are home for me now,” he says.

Since settling down Dorda has had a greater stake in the society around him. “Since moving to Portmarnock I’ve started to look around myself and say, ‘Who are my councillors? Who can I talk to about local issues?’ ” He intends to apply for an Irish passport so he can vote in general elections.

Studies of Poles in Ireland point to a community that is overwhelmingly young – 92 per cent were under 44, according to the 2011 census – and well educated compared with the Polish average. It is concentrated in large urban centres, but nearly every Irish town and village has had a Polish presence at some point.

It’s a strikingly mobile population: the ease of travel between the two countries – nine Polish cities are served by direct flights from Ireland – means migrants can make regular trips home relatively cheaply.

A decade ago Poles were disproportionately represented in the services sector. Today the community is spread widely across the economy, with significant numbers in information technology, agrifood and the professions. A decade after Polish shops sprang up overnight across the country the community’s business and social infrastructure is developing steadily as well. Dublin now has two Polish-language law firms and a number of Polish health clinics.

Through organisations such as Forum Polonia, a Polish-led group, initiatives have been launched to encourage Poles to vote in local elections and, last month, to complete the census form. A number of Polish citizens stood as Independents in the 2014 local elections, and members of the community were actively involved in the campaign for marriage equality last year.

For Viola Di Bucchianico, who is studying for a PhD in migration at University College Dublin's school of social policy, social work and social justice, that incipient activism is a sign of "a community that is getting stronger, and deciding to stay here".

Big obstacles

Yet formidable obstacles remain. A political focus on social-integration policy, which was gathering pace as the foreign-born population surged in the mid-2000s, was a casualty of the economic crisis.

Surveys show that migrants of all backgrounds are more likely than Irish-born citizens to face discrimination and to lose their jobs first. Migrants are also acutely affected by the housing crisis.

For Poles, achieving public visibility has also been a challenge.

“We in the Polish community might be big in numbers, but we are still relatively invisible in the decisionmaking process,” says Di Bucchianico, who is also a participant in the Women on Air mentoring programme, which aims to get more women’s voices on to radio and television.

As part of the PolskaEire festival, which runs for the next 10 days, a programme of events will take place across the country to showcase the connections between the two countries.

Still, as conscious as Ireland’s Poles are of those ties, they are also well placed to see where the two countries might learn from one another. Some observations recur: Ireland is less bureaucratic and its weather more depressing, by general consensus. (“I heard there was meant to be a heatwave this week,” Dorda says. “Warm rain doesn’t mean a heatwave.”)

Di Bucchianico, who lives in Dún Laoghaire with her husband and seven-year-old son, says she is struck by the strength of volunteerism in Ireland. “A lot of Polish people have got involved in their community,” she says. “Some of my friends say they probably wouldn’t do that in Poland, but they have noticed here how volunteering is part of the culture.”

Everyday things

She still notices the small things, too. In Poland, in order to encourage people to donate blood, regular donors are given free travel on public transport. She thinks Ireland could do something similar. “And the simple, everyday things. How you have to wave to make the buses stop. It’s so annoying when you’re waiting in the rain and the bus passes you by!”

In Ireland Dorda has a greater appreciation of Poland’s social-protection system, which guarantees better sick leave (paid for by employers and the state), and a health system that, queues notwithstanding, offers free GP care for all. He also wishes that Dublin had more modern theatre.

On the other hand, even after 11 years Dorda still notices how friendly and approachable Irish people are to strangers compared with the “grumpier” Poles. “People in Ireland can be grumpy as well, but at least they’re wearing a mask.”

It can be a good approach to life, he believes, but the trade unionist in him has mixed feelings.

“It’s a problem when you’re trying to prompt people to do something, because instead of expressing their anger, going out on the street to demonstrate and say, ‘Jaysus, this is robbery,’ they just go, ‘Ah, let’s go for a pint.’ ”

The PolskaÉire festival, organised by the Polish embassy and the Department of Justice and Equality, will include a rugby match between a Leinster representative side and Arka Gdynia, the Polish champions, and a concert at Vicar Street featuring Kíla and the Polish singer-songwriter Kayah