Amid economic downturn, Poles in Ireland face tough choice

DUBLIN — There are so many Poles in Ireland that the Irish police have begun taking basic lessons in Polish. At least now they will not make the mistake of recording the name of errant Polish drivers as “Prawo Jazdy.” Some 50 summonses in that name were issued for driving offenses before it dawned on them that the words were Polish for "driving license."

Irish people have become used to the fact that the mechanic at the local car repair shop or the assistant in the coffee shop speaks with a Polish accent. During the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, up to half a million immigrants arrived in Ireland to find a better life, and they now make up one in 10 of the population born outside the country. The largest single group consists of Polish nationals, whose westward trek to Ireland in the last two decades has been a phenomenon of post-Cold War Europe.

Now, with the Irish economy shrinking at an unprecedented rate, many Poles are trickling back home on the cut-price airlines that brought them here, and the rate of new arrivals has slowed dramatically.

The 2006 census recorded 63,000 resident Poles in Ireland, but that number has more than doubled in some estimates since then. Up to 250,000 Poles registered for work in Ireland during the last four years alone, according to Nikola Sekowska of the Polish embassy in Dublin, though many of these have come and gone.

Those who remain face a dilemma, particularly the skilled workers who found jobs in the construction industry, which has collapsed. Unemployment has soared to 10 percent and is predicted to reach 16 percent by the end of this year. The near impossibility of finding new work was underlined on Monday when 4,000 applicants, including many Poles, queued for hours at Ballymun Civic Centre in Dublin to apply for 280 positions at a new Ikea furniture store that will open in July.

The Poles must decide whether to stay in their adopted country or return to Poland, where jobs are also scarce. “Not all are still here, but most are opting to stay,” according to Alicja Bobek of the Trinity Immigration Initiative at Trinity College Dublin, who is tracking the experience of Polish nationals in Ireland.

“The assumption that migrants will return home when times are tough is misplaced,” she says. “They get involved in social networks, make friends, and they also have the option of social welfare.”

The Polish community has become so well-established that their language and culture is flourishing on the rain-swept island between Britain and the Atlantic (see map below). Ireland has two Polish language newspapers and a glossy magazine. The largest newspaper, Polska Gazeta, organizes musical concerts and stand-up comedy cabarets.

There are Polish shops or skleps in Irish towns, and several in Dublin, where 80 percent of Poles in this country live. Polish people can have a social life in the Irish capital little different from that in Warsaw.

Others have put down roots in Irish soil, with their children learning Irish and playing Gaelic football and hurling. In part because of their religion and coloring they can assimilate more readily — and thus experience less discrimination — than other immigrant groups.

The arrival of the mostly Catholic Poles has helped halt the decline in some Irish parishes, where the saint most commonly invoked is not St. Patrick but St. Casimir, patron saint of Poland and Lithuania.

At St. Audoen’s Catholic Church in Dublin’s medieval center, there are five services in Polish every Sunday, and only one in English. It was packed to the doors on Feb. 15 when President Mary McAleese arrived for Mass, to make the point to the congregation that Irish and Poles in Dublin form not two communities but one, and that they would get through the crisis together.

But, as The Irish Times reported, Father Jaroslaw Maszkiewicz acknowledged to his parishioners, “Polish people don’t know what to do — stay here or go back to Poland. It’s a difficult time for everybody, but all of us pray to God.”

While not yet declining noticeably, the Polish community has ceased to grow at the same rapid rate of recent years. The number of Polish nationals registering for work fell from 94,000 in 2006 to 41,000 last year, and dropped by a further 62 percent in the first three months of 2009, according to the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

There are other reasons besides the recession for this decline, says Alicja Bobek. In Poland the pool of potential emigrants has diminished, as many young people — the most mobile section of Polish society — have already left the country. Also the labor market in Poland has improved.

The Irish employment agency FAS predicts that this year, for the first time since the early 1990s, net emigration will return to Ireland. Among those leaving will not only be Polish nationals, but Irish citizens — themselves no strangers to the need to seek a new life abroad.

More GlobalPost dispatches from Ireland:

Ireland returns to an old love: the potato

The disappearing philanthropists

The ground truth from Belfast 


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