Interview by Milena Barnes with Dr Kasia Szymanska
Milena Barnes is a student of Middle Eastern, European Language and Culture with Polish who was awarded the Polish Ambassador's Prize for the best student of Polish language and culture at TCD in 2019/2020. The Prize was awarded this year for the first time ever and it will be awarded annually for the best student of Polish in TCD. In her interview with Dr Kasia Szymanska, she asks about Ireland's biggest minority, the second most widely spoken language after English, and the history of Irish-Polish relations.
1. Firstly, I would really appreciate it if you could write a short introduction of yourself and a description of the classes you teach at Trinity!
I am currently Thomas Brown Assistant Professor in the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultural Studies at Trinity. I am new to Trinity as I moved here only in September after working (and previously studying) at the University of Oxford and I still divide my time between Oxford and Dublin. At Trinity, I teach a more general introduction to key aspects in Central and European studies in addition to more focused classes in Polish studies. I also teach on topics in comparative literature and literary translation, for instance, I'll be teaching a postgraduate seminar on "Theory and History of Translation" in year 2020/2021.
2. Despite the fact that Polish is the most commonly spoken language in Ireland other than Irish or English, very few people study it for the Leaving Cert or at third level compared to other European languages such as French, German, and Spanish. Why do you think this the case? Do you think there should there be more opportunities to study the Polish language, given the size of the Polish community in Ireland?
At the moment, Polish is the second most widely spoken language (after English) in both the UK and Ireland; in Ireland, the speakers of Polish have overtaken those speaking Irish. There are a few reasons why Polish is not studied in schools and at the third level.
The first reason would be purely technical or institutional: until recently, Polish has not been taught in Irish schools at all and has not been available at the Leaving Cert exam unless on the native level. There are a few factors which come into play here: the offer of foreign languages taught in Irish schools is quite limited anyway; in fact, foreign languages are not taught in primary schools as children learn both English and Irish. Polish has been available at Leaving Cert exam only as one of 15 "non-curricular EU languages", which could be taken by declared native speakers of respective languages. On average, 700 native speakers of Polish take it at the Leaving Certificate exam yearly, which amounts to more than a half of pupils taking exams in all non-curricular EU languages. They learn Polish from their parents but also in specially designated Polish schools; as of 2019, there existed 57 weekend schools in Ireland (again, the biggest number out of all educational institutions run by migrants) which are on average attended by around 6.500 pupils.
In December 2017, Minister Richard Bruton announced a new strategic policy for post-Brexit Ireland in order to make foreign language learning more accessible to a larger number of pupils as well as diversify the range of languages taught in schools. On the wave of this new reform (planned for the period of 2017-2026), Polish will be introduced as one of the four new foreign languages (besides Lithuanian, Portuguese, and Mandarin Chinese) to be taught in post-primary schools as a curricular language as well as available at Leaving Cert exam as fully-fledged subject. Following the ongoing public consultation, it is expected that the new specifications will be launched this year, in 2020. I think this is a very necessary and long-awaited policy; it will hopefully help Ireland somehow manage its newly gained multilingualism and multiculturalism, a prospect that had been put on the back burner and neglected in the thick of austerity measures.
Whether this option would entice more (non-native) pupils to take up Polish at the post-primary level is a completely different story. This ties in with what I identify the second reason for the absence of Polish compared to Europe's major languages such as French, German, and Spanish, namely, the question of cultural prestige and symbolic capital. As of now, most Irish people probably associate Polish with the language spoken by manual workers and hardly find Poland an attractive destination for work, education, culture or simply holiday. While this is a very misleading and unrepresentative image, especially given Poland's changing economic and socio-political position, it is also difficult to dispel all the prejudice and stereotypes at once. It might also look at first glance that Ireland and Poland are so geographically remote that they have not shared much in terms of history or culture – nothing further from the truth! (See: answer to Q5)
3. There seems to me to be a lack of Polish cultural/language acquisition institutions in Dublin compared to the number that exist for other languages – for the French language, for example, there is the Alliance Française, and for the German language the Goethe-Institut. What Polish language/cultural organizations do exist in Ireland? Do you expect that more organizations will be created as the Polish-speaking community grows?
There exist a few institutions which offer Polish language courses and cultural events in Dublin. The most important one is probably Polski Dom (Polish House) located in an eighteenth-century tenement building at 20 Fitzwilliam Place (Dublin 2). It houses POSK (The Polish Social and Cultural Association), a centre which runs, Polish language classes, a library, and many cultural and social events. The Polish Embassy also organises and funds cultural and academic events in Dublin and other parts of Ireland. Some local institutions work together with Polish organisations to provide similar opportunities: for instance, the IFI (Irish Film Institute) has hosted the Kinopolis Polish Film Festival for 13 years already. And when it comes to language learning, both Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin offer Polish language classes (see: Polish at UCD and Polish evening classes at TCD currently run by our language instructor Justyna Przyszlakowska). Trinity, however, is currently the only academic institution in Ireland which offers a university degree in Polish culture, history, and society, on top of language classes.
Compared to bigger cities such as London or New York, however, there is no Polish Cultural Institute (equivalent of Goethe-Institut) in Dublin. As I've been informed by the Embassy of Poland in Dublin (who, by the way, should be credited for giving me access to materials indispensable for this interview), the Irish capital is at the moment not a priority for a network of PCIs which is instead likely to move eastward.
4. One thing that there is not a lack of is, for example, grocery stores and other such businesses catering to Dublin's Polish population – chains like the Polonez supermarket are prevalent, and even general supermarkets might have a section for Polish cuisine (such as the Supervalu near my house). However, I don't see this necessarily translate into a large number of Polish restaurants, organizations like those discussed in the question above, etc. Why do some supports exist more than others?
You may not realise but there are popular places run by Poles in Dublin which do not display their provenance and do not necessarily serve traditionally Polish food. This is case, for instance, with the celebrated Sova Vegan Butcher owned by Bartek Sowa as well as Cloud Picker Coffee co-run by Peter (Piotr) Sztal and his husband Frank Kavanagh. When it comes to typically Polish cuisine, several restaurants or food stalls with Polish cuisine did exist in Dublin, but most of them had to close. This fate awaited places such as Gospoda Polska (Polish Inn) on Capel Street, the pierogi food stall U Wuja (At Uncle's) in Moore Street's marketplace and, more recently in 2018, what used to be the only Polish restaurant in Dublin: Sopot Restaurant on Mountjoy Square. On the other hand, shops such as Polonez (the first shop with Polish products open in Ireland since 2003) and the Mróz groceries (first open in 2004) have recently mushroomed in Ireland, which could seem like a strange imbalance.
I can't know for sure but my guess would be that similar places are mostly frequented by Polish people whose lifestyle in Ireland would gravitate towards cooking on their own rather than eating out. This could explain the popularity of groceries; Poles who really like their own bread, dairy, and other foods, could stock up on these products for home cooking. On the other hand, the Polish restaurants would have probably survived, had the Irish locals visited them more often; and the question why they did not probably again boils down to the same issue of cultural prestige, lack of knowledge and maybe also prejudice. For instance, in this interview, a manager at Polonez explained that Irish people were "still afraid to come" into Polonez stores; according to him, the shops would only enjoy seasonal peaks of interest after Lidl's quarterly "Polish Taste" promotions. Probably for this reason, the restaurant owners mentioned at the beginning prefer not to highlight their Polish provenance nor risk specialising in Polish cuisine.
5. Obviously, throughout Europe, there's a lot more freedom of movement and migration under the EU than there was before the EU. Do you know if there was a large Polish community in Ireland before the EU?
The community in Ireland before the EU was relatively small. The first attempt to count those who identified themselves as Poles in Ireland took place after Karol Wojtyła was elected the Pope and visited Ireland in 1979. After this visit, which itself included some Polish accents, a Polish activist decided to found the Irish-Polish Society and 400 Poles came forward to join it (see this article). It is interesting that this society, which has promoted the Polish-Irish understanding since that time, has also vocally supported Poland's Solidarity protests as well as organised an Auction for Aid to Poland after the martial law was imposed in 1981-83 (see pictures from the society's archives).
After Poland's accession to the EU in 2004, the Irish labour market immediately opened to Polish workers and thousands of Poles moved to Ireland for economic reasons. According to the 2016 census, 122.515 Polish people reside in Ireland, though some estimate the actual number at 200.000 (e.g. Tomasz Kamusella). This was a new and unprecedented wave of migration to Ireland. While Poles constitute the biggest minority also in the UK, the Polish diaspora has been established there for decades beside other considerable groups, e.g. from India and Pakistan.
Let me also mention one notable member of the Polish community in Ireland from well before the EU, namely from the beginning of twentieth century. It is Kazimierz Markiewicz, also known as Count Casimir Markievicz, who married Constance Markievicz and was in the same artistic circle as W.B. Yeats (see more). While Constance is definitely a more recognisable figure, it is their shared name Markievicz that marks a few places in Dublin and curiously reminds of the long-standing Polish presence in Ireland.
6. A certain popular perception, I think, sees Brexit as a xenophobic response to migration from other EU countries, including Polish immigration. Do you think that similar xenophobia exists in Ireland? Or is there at least a pan-European acceptance here?
Before visiting Ireland for the first time, I had always thought of Polish-Irish relations through the lens of Seamus Heaney who in 1995 commented on his friendship with Polish poet Stanisław Barańczak: "The obligatory fondness should be felt by representatives of the two Catholic nations, wronged by history and consuming large quantities of potatoes (and their products)." I had always thought that Polish and Irish people shared a lot in terms of their nineteenth-century struggle for independence and resistance towards imperial powers: Britain, in the case of Ireland, and Prussia, Austria, and Russia, in the case of Poland. This parallel, as historian Norman Davies pointed out, was drawn already at that time: in 1863, The Times wrote that "the Poles are the Irish of the Continent", after yet another unsuccessful uprising took place in Poland.
The everyday life paints a slightly different picture. Offensive graffiti and attacks were reported in Northern Ireland in 2015 and in Dublin in 2016, the latter following the Brexit referendum. Already in 2006, the phrase "Polish scum" was in use in Dublin graffiti (recorded in Julie Verse's book Undoing Irishness, 2016) and found its way into the Urban Dictionary. These problems lead me to think that the idea of pan-European acceptance is a noble prospect, though it requires a more concrete vision followed by policies. As a country with previously no long-standing and established group of migrants, Ireland has been facing a lot of challenges in embracing such a big and rapid wave of migration. Many Poles have come to call Ireland their home, enjoying the local hospitality, setting up their families and putting down their roots here. A proactive support of the Irish government could create an enduring relationship helping Poles contribute more to the Irish society.