Loud and proud
Polish migrants share culture with Dubliners

Flamenco musicians warm the atmosphere at Monika Sapielak's Centre for Creative Practices.

Young Polish migrants are loud and proud about sharing Polish arts and culture with Dubliners.

In the basement unit of a small row home the air is warm, the lights are dim and the rhythms of Spanish flamenco musicians woo the ears of a room of calm listeners.

It’s hard to say what’s more unlikely about the situation: the fact that this cosy Spanish performance is happening in the heart of Dublin, or the fact that it was organized by Monika Sapielak, a Polish migrant now living in Dublin.

Sapielak says she made the move to Dublin after she finished her studies to experience life in an English-speaking country. Now, the 40-year-old spearheads two city-sponsored cultural groups: Art Polonia and the Centre for Cultural Practices, where she hosted the flamenco evening.

But when you walk through the busy streets of Dublin’s core, you would never guess that Sapielak is one of what Trinity College researchers estimate as 40,000 Polish migrants now living in the city. With only a few Polish grocers and churches speckled here and there, it’s hard to believe that the group still makes up one of Dublin’s largest migrant communities.

A Wave of Migration

Peter Muhlau, a researcher of Polish migrant communities with Trinity College, says unlike other migrant communities, the Poles’ living situations aren’t concentrated to one part of the city, either. “You don’t get the impression they are seeking each other,” he says, but at the same time their presence has “changed the mono-culture of the city.”

Nikola Sekowska, Culture, Press and Information representative at the Polish Embassy in Dublin, says just because they’re

The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Dublin is involved in supporting Polish culture sharing projects.

outspoken about their culture, they don’t necessarily have to form tight-knit, Polish circles. “Polish people feel good in Ireland, they feel very confident … that’s why they don’t need to look for acceptance within their own national group, but they can go out into the world and mingle with Irish people and other migrants,” says Sekowska.

While many riding the wave between 2004 and 2007, after Poland’s ascension to the European Union, came to Dublin only to work, a good portion also came to explore their horizons, says Sekowska. While most of the working class Polish migrants have left due to the economic crisis, Sekowska says most of the young, educated and thriving migrants like Sapielak still remain.

“They are the people that proved they are not here for the money because there is no money anymore,” she joked.

Creating a Cultural Dialogue

Sapielak says the young migrants now living in Dublin want to “do something of value,” so many are involved in not only Polish cultural organizations, but Irish and cross-cultural organizations. That’s why she created Art Polonia in 2006 and the Centre for Creative Practices in 2009.

With Art Polonia, Sapielak says her goal was to create a cultural exchange between Irish and Polish people living in the city and ease the process of integration. To do this, she organizes events like Polish film screenings and concerts featuring Polish musicians, where people can learn about Polish culture. Sapielak says her goal is to create a dialogue between Polish and Irish people so they can make contacts and work together in the arts community.

After realizing how successful Art Polonia was, Sapielak says she wanted to expand the initiative so that it could focus on not just Polish culture, but other cultures in the city. She says that’s why she started the Centre for Creative Practices, which hosts the same kind of events but from an international angle.

“As you see, there are overlaps because there will always be Polish people coming here the same way as tonight,” says Sapielak, referring to the flamenco performance. “It’s not about nationality what the arts represent, it’s about representing some ideas and some values and I think they are much more universal,” she says.

Sapielak is just one of several Polish migrants working to share and exchange their culture with Dubliners. Other initiatives include the annual Kinopolis film festival, which started in 2006 and plays a selection of imported Polish films, and the up and coming Irish Polish Film Project, which will focus on incorporating Polish and Irish artists. The Irish Polish Society in Dublin also organizes Polish art events and panel discussions on important issues in the Polish community – even more importantly, its chair members are an Irish and Polish mix.

“[The Poles] feel morally obliged to promote their culture,” says Sekowska. “And the Irish feel they should incorporate them.”

But not only the Poles are excited about Polish arts. Sekowska says that over the last few years, many of Dublin’s art and culture festivals have featured Polish sections in their events. For example, she says last year’s Dublin Theatre Festival included a Polish theatre group, and this year’s Dublin Dance Festival will feature performances by Polish dance group Koncentrat.

In order to make Polish events more accessible to Dubliners, the Embassy has been working with Polish festival and event organizers to pick themes that match Irish interests, or simply make sure the subject matter has been made available in English.

From Monoculture to Multiculture: The City’s Response

Polish grocery stores are dotted across the city, and are the only obvious sign of the large Polish community in Dublin.

Although policy always follows slowly behind the actual situation, Sapielak says the Polish have had relatively little problems fitting in with the Irish culture. In fact, she says in her opinion Ireland has addressed integration much more quickly than other European countries with a longer history of immigration.

Declan Hayden, a representative from the city’s Office for Integration, says integrating such a large wave of migrants was a challenge for the city, but the Polish got quite a head start on integrating themselves. “The community came in very quickly, but they established very quickly to meet their needs,” says Hayden.

Irish businesses followed suit by providing Polish products and services and Irish Catholic churches even responded by offering sermons in Polish. He says it also helped that many of the migrants who remained in the city have a good command of English.

Hayden also gives credit to organizations like Art Polonia, who made the integration process go more smoothly. He says even though the recession has brought many problems for the city, it has helped in terms of smoothing out wrinkles in the city’s integration policy.

“Dublin has adapted and seen that being open culturally, that being a multicultural and intercultural city is really good for business, it’s good for tourism, it’s good on a worldwide level,” he says.

Sekowska: Young Polish migrants are brave and eager to explore

Even though much of the community now seems rooted in the city, Sekowska says these young individuals are part of a “mobility movement” and will go wherever their next adventure might take them.

“Their final destination is not Ireland, really,” she says. “It might end up being Ireland but they are not really determined to stay here, they are staying here because that’s what’s happening in their lives at the moment – it’s not determined, it’s not final, it’s kind of in the process of creation at the moment.”

In the meantime, Sekowska says she thinks young Polish individuals will continue to stay active in perpetuating and exchanging culture no matter where their journey takes them.

About Kayla Redstone

Kayla is in her third year of her Bachelor of Journalism at Carleton University in Canada. When she isn’t writing for the school paper, searching for internships, or grovelling at the feet of editors for a summer job, she enjoys watching films, baking cupcakes and planning future vacations. → About us