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Column: Here’s what it’s really like being Polish in Ireland

Are the Irish racists? No – but there is an undercurrent of xenophobia in everyday life, writes Polish-born Dubliner Anna Pas.

Anna Pas

This week, an article that purported to describe the life of Polish woman ‘Magda’ on the dole in Ireland sparked a storm of controversy – and accusations that her situation had been misrepresented.

Here Anna Pas, a Polish journalist living in Dublin, describes the complex attitudes she encounters – and how things have changed since the recession.

MAGDA, HAVE YOU got your boarding card yet?

From ‘hardworking people’ to ‘welfare tourists’ – it only took us one recession, two years, and a few badly-researched articles to change the perception of Poles living in Ireland.

How does it feel when a complete stranger compliments you on your “decent English”, and inquires about your personal life, marital status, your wages and where do you do your grocery shopping? Or how about that deeply concerned job facilitator in your local Social Welfare Office who suggests a one-way ticket back home instead of an upskilling course? And let’s not forget about all these insightful conversations with your work colleague about that lovely cleaning lady who used to work for them and has never been in a pub because she is saving up, poor thing.

After having lived here for seven years now, I have had endless conversations like this. And no, I am not going home any time soon, thank you very much. Being Polish in Ireland doesn’t mean I have some sort of a Ryanair loyalty card to fly there on a monthly basis. Home is here, and hopefully so it will be for my family and kids, if they ever happen.

Why then, if we only make a remark on some bad weather, a poorly-staffed health system or yet another tax, we hear ‘Go back to Poland if you don’t like it in here.’ Some more generous people would even offer to pay for our plane ticket.

Sadly, a bad mix of inaccurate journalism, a pinch of sensationalism, and a few irresponsible comments from the Irish politicians accompanying the story of ‘Magda’, an unemployed Polish waitress who was said to be abusing the social welfare system, provoked an avalanche of reactions towards the Polish community in Ireland earlier this week.

From being a nation of ‘hard-working people’, we became poster children for the unskilled labour force

Suddenly, from being a nation of ‘hard-working people’, ‘highly-skilled professionals’, and ‘a pool of new talent’, we became poster-children for the ‘unskilled labour force’, ‘migrants sending millions of euro back home’, and the masterminds of welfare scams. As no one can imagine a politician or a publicist using that sort of language towards the African or Asian community for fear of being accused of racism, it is acceptable to illustrate every story about migrants in Ireland with a quote from some ‘Polish worker’. An example of a Polish professional appearing on prime-time TV to discuss some general issue concerning today’s multi-ethnic Irish society is yet to be witnessed. Some day.

So are the Irish racists? No. Not in general. But there is a level of veiled, indirect xenophobia and racism present in everyday life. In all these small chats about going back home often, and unspoken expectations on migrant workers to make room for young Irish people who are being forced to join the emigration story as their fathers and grandfathers did in the past.

These are challenging times we are living in, and fighting to get Ireland working again is our common agenda here. Blaming foreigners for the Irish crisis is only adding to the existing social tensions and may backfire badly. The distance from the society of a hundred thousand welcomes to the nation driven by populist propaganda is probably less than that from my Polish home town to my Dublin home here. It all starts in your head.

Anna Pas is a Polish journalist based in Dublin.

More: Full coverage of the ‘Magda’ controversy on TheJournal.ie>

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