'I love you like Ireland" (Kocham cie jak Irlandie) is a title of a 1990 song by the Polish band Kobranocka, while the lesser-known Kowalski sings about the Green Island: "for her tender whispers and white arms, I would give up my dull life". These examples show Ireland holds a special place in the Polish imagination and in Polish hearts. With its famous green, picturesque landscapes and traditional music, it is perceived as a kind of mythical but also a happy place, even for those who have never visited Ireland. For two such geographically distant countries, Poland and Ireland have a lot in common, and nearly 150,000 Poles, who made this country their home, are gradually discovering those similarities.
The most obvious experience shared by both nations is that of emigration. Even though the reasons for emigrating may be different in the two countries, having an understanding of what is involved in the process of leaving one’s own country behind and adapting to a new place, appears significant for Polish-Irish integration.
Histories of struggle
The history of resistance and fighting for independence in Ireland is a familiar subject for Poland, which itself had been oppressed for almost two centuries by different powers in Europe.
The proud manifestation of Irish national symbols, plaques commemorating soldiers fighting in the uprising and the greatest nationalists on their pedestals, all these landmarks make Ireland feel like home. And there is also the rich Irish folk tradition, with its lively music, attractive to Poles not only because we appreciate the beauty and uniqueness of the sound of the bodhrán or the Irish fiddle, but also because Poland has a great tradition of folk music and culture of its own, which is an important part of our national and cultural identity.
While appreciating Irish culture and hospitality, Polish people have a strong desire to demonstrate the diversity of Polish traditions and invite Irish people to discover those connections and similarities between both nations.
The PolskaÉire 2015 festival (which runs until March 29th) provides a great opportunity for Poles and Irish people to come together and learn about each other through events across Ireland, such as exhibitions, lectures, workshops and concerts.
Even though the Polish and Irish institutions are doing a great job by finding events and historic figures, such as Edmund Strzelecki or Casimir Markiewicz, which directly link both countries, it would be too simplistic to say that Polish and Irish cultures are synonymous. We should not be afraid to celebrate the diversity and distinctive character of our traditions. For instance, from the linguistic point of view, the Polish and Irish languages have nothing in common and there is a very little evidence of the presence of Irish in Polish.
The only words of Irish origin, chuligan (hooligan) and bojkot (boycott) travelled to Polish through English, which has been the most influential language from the beginning of the 20th century onwards.
However, we cannot underestimate the importance of literature in shaping national identity, as evidenced by the Irish poet WB Yeats and the Polish bard Adam Mickiewicz, who both grew to be icons, capable of lifting the spirits of the whole nation.
Openness and curiosity
Polish people seem very well integrated into the Irish community and generally speak about its members in brotherly terms. When recounting their experience of Ireland, Poles stress the extreme friendliness of Irish people, but also, and importantly for us trying to make our lives here, your openness and curiosity to learn about us. The Irish and Polish are proud and protective of their national treasures.
I am reminded of that every time I say Polish potatoes taste better than Irish, having then to face the warning looks of my Irish friends. The fact remains we have a great love for potatoes and that is surely a good subject for a conversation about our respective cultures.
Dr Aneta Stepien is assistant professor in Polish studies at Trinity College Dublin. As a part of the PolskaÉire festival, she will be giving a lecture, Polglish? English Words in the Contemporary Polish, tomorrow (Friday) at 6pm, Polish House, 20 Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin 2