WORLD

LUCK OF THE UN-IRISH

Eastern Europeans are finding a better life on the Emerald Isle

MICHAL PETROU September 4 2006
WORLD

LUCK OF THE UN-IRISH

Eastern Europeans are finding a better life on the Emerald Isle

MICHAL PETROU September 4 2006

LUCK OF THE UN-IRISH

WORLD

Eastern Europeans are finding a better life on the Emerald Isle

MICHAL PETROU

If there is a metaphor for Ireland’s past, surely it must be the Mám Clasach, a mountain pass through the Dingle Peninsula in the far southwest of the country. It was once dubbed the “Gap of Tears” by locals, because it was here that generations of families stood to bid farewell forever to their sons and daughters who were leaving Ireland for new lives in America, Canada, Australia and England. Michael Moriarty’s grandfather left this peninsula decades ago, joining the hundreds of thousands of other Irish who were forced out by famine and economic decline. He was found dead many years later on the front steps of the Vancouver stock exchange. “He hadn’t the money to pay for a trip back home, and he was too proud to ask,” Moriarty says. “He told everyone here that he was a lumberjack. But he was 69 years old and couldn’t do that sort of work.”

But Ireland’s future is here also. The Dingle Peninsula is a traditional and rural part of Ireland where Gaelic is still widely spoken. But in the restaurants and cafés of villages scattered below the Gap of Tears, you are just as likely to hear Polish or Latvian spoken by the wait staff. Since the European Union expanded eastward in 2004, giving citizens of the new accession states the right to work in Ireland, some 150,000 people from eastern Europe have moved here. The largest single group is from Poland, but many have also come from the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

In a country with a population of only four million people, this is an enormous influx. It is as if more than a million eastern Europeans had immigrated to Canada in the last two years. But Ireland is a country with virtually no history of immigration. “Jesus, they’re flooding the place,” says one man in Cork, who complains that the Poles are “useless” workers and are driving down wages for native Irish.

Most Irish, however, seem to believe that their booming economy depends on immigrants and are generally welcoming. The Immigration Control Platform, an anti-immigration lobby group, exists only on the extreme fringe of Irish society. And none of

the major political parties have taken a strong stand against immigration. Pat Rabitte, leader of the opposition Labour Party, has only suggested that Ireland should “manage” immigration to prevent a “race to the bottom” in wages and employment standards—and it is true that some new arrivals will work for less than the legal minimum wage.

“They’re good workers,” says Moriarty, whose wife, Val, employs two Lithuanians. He adds that the Poles are similar to the Irish and fit in well. “They had hard times, fierce unemployment, and they have a funny sense of humour.” Pat O’Donovan, a middle-aged man from Cork, also says the new arrivals from eastern Europe “blend in nicely” with the Irish. “I admire them. If I were a younger man, I would do the same.”

Many Irish may accept labour migrants

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from the east in a way that citizens of other countries in continental Europe do not because so many Irish were themselves once forced to leave their homes to seek a life elsewhere. “You will often hear it said, especially by older people, ‘Look, I understand their situation, because that was our situation,’ ” says Piaras Mac Einrí, a lecturer at University College Cork and the former director of the Irish Centre for Migration Studies. “There is a sort of residual empathy with labour migrants for that reason.”

Michael Neary, the archbishop of Tuam, recently likened new immigrants and refugees in Ireland with the Irish emigrants of the past, and he urged that they be welcomed. “We are a sad people if we think that the limits of human behaviour have been reached within our own borders or that the only songs are our songs and that the only culture is our culture,” he said. “That line of thought would have put Patrick back to Britain and left us to our Celtic pagan ways.”

However, such a rapidly changing demographic in Ireland is forcing its citizens to reexamine what it means to be Irish. “We’re a country that always saw identity in terms of blood and soil—where you were born or who your parents were, and that’s being challenged now,” Mac Éinrí says. “There is now a confidence there among under-35s that you certainly didn’t see among my generation. I’m 52.1 grew up in a generation that took it for granted that a certain number of people were going to have to leave. It was a country that had a lack of self-confidence, and I think that’s entirely gone. Young people in Ireland are now sure of themselves.”

But if immigration from the EU’s eastern frontier is good for Ireland, it is also draining countries like Poland and Latvia of their

youth and vitality. An estimated one to two million Poles have recently immigrated to countries in western Europe, including some 5,000 doctors and countless other skilled workers. The situation is so bad that the mayor of the Polish city of Wroclaw has launched an advertising campaign to lure Poles home. The campaign’s slogan-“Wroc loves you”—has the pleading tone of a mother hoping to guilt her wayward sons into returning to where they belong.

But Ireland’s newest arrivals are unlikely to be moved by such sentimentality. They’re driven by cold, hard economics. Poland’s unemployment rate is around 16 per cent; Ireland’s is under five. And salaries in Ireland dwarf

anything a young person could hope to earn in the east. Patryk Gapik, a Polish immigrant, says he made one euro an hour in the Polish city of Poznan and now earns 10 times that amount working in a Dublin warehouse.

Elvis Kash, 22, moved from Latvia to Ireland in 2004, as soon as he was legally allowed to work here, and hasn’t left. “I make more money in a week than I do in a month at home,” he says over glasses of lager at an outdoor patio in Cork. Kash works in a supermarket and lives with four other recent immigrants

in a three-bedroom house. It’s crowded, but it could be worse. His friend and drinking partner, Einars Abelitis, 23, shares a house with 10 people, most of whom are crammed two to a room.

They don’t mind the lack of space, but it’s difficult to have a party because someone is always working in the morning. So Kash and Abelitis spend many evenings in Cork’s bars and pubs. Irish food is terrible, Abelitis says, but at least in the city’s pubs they have a chance to meet and talk to Irish girls. Kash admits these encounters don’t always end well. “You see a girl, an Irish girl, at a pub, and the first question she asks is, ‘Where are you from?’ And if you say Latvia or Poland, she just turns

around. Irish people earn more money than us because they don’t want to do the jobs that we do, and the Irish girls want money.” There are other girls Kash and Abelitis can talk to. Kash leans back in his chair and points out all the Estonians, Lithuanians and Poles sitting at nearby tables or serving beer. They make up at least half the people at the bar. They’re young and good-looking, but Kash doesn’t seem happy. “That’s what I hate,” he says, and sighs. “I didn’t come here to be with other non-Irish.” M