Who lives in the shadows of the quiet city of Armagh? Eastern Europeans may not look different to an outsider, but local residents recognize the mannerisms and accents characterizing the growing population of ethnic minorities from Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, and Romania. The number of minority workers and their families in Armagh is rising, changing the traditional Irish city, which is no stranger to the challenges of integration.
But what will the future hold for these ethnic communities? And how will all the communities of Armagh, local and multinational, adapt?
Shining the light on the Polish community and its efforts to create a multicultural future are two Polish residents. Yolanda Kulinska and Mariusz Liberek both left their families behind in Poland three years ago to come to Northern Ireland, where they found jobs in Armagh. Settling into the town, they decided to remain and bring their families over. They say they have emigrated for a better life, yet they, among other members of the Eastern European community, continue to face the challenges of learning English, adapting to Irish culture, and finding employment.
“When I first arrived in Armagh three years ago, you could count the number of foreign people on your hands,” Kulinska, the Polish community organizer, said. “Now we are slowly taking over this country.” She laughed at the idea.
The city, she believes, is beginning to embrace the Polish community, which has attracted the services of a Polish doctor, a Polish priest, and Polish translators. The Armagh government is using cultural initiatives to promote their integration and acceptance. Moreover, the Polish community is actively strengthening its cultural identity within Armagh while participating in the Irish community.
Not every Armagh resident welcomes the Poles with open arms. Many Armagh residents group the Poles with other ethnic minorities. Community forums conducted by the government have found that some local residents view the minorities as outsiders. Interviews of local Armagh residents indicate that while some residents are open and tolerant of the Polish, others are quite upset, saying, “They are taking the work away from the rest of us.”
Economically, the Polish community plays an important role in sustaining small businesses and working many of the factory and seasonal jobs that Northern Irish citizens do not want. Roger Mallon, the Irish owner of the Bagel Bean, a popular Armagh eatery, struggled to find hardworking employees during the first year of his business. Currently his full-time staff is Polish.
Known to be hard workers, the Polish have excelled in Armagh, and Mariusz Liberek is no exception. He now supervises Irish employees in the bakery where he has worked since arriving in Armagh two years ago.
Out on the street, one can hear foreign languages and accents as people pass by the quaint Irish shops now interspersed with European food stores. Increasingly, the traditional Irish culture of Armagh is being influenced by the ethnic minorities who live and work here. While the Polish community is the most vocal and visible, other ethnic minorities are also changing the mix of cultures in Armagh neighborhoods.
Ironically, traditional Northern Irish life is also affecting the Polish community. Children are learning the English language and Irish customs in school and on the football field. They are also teaching each other the language and customs of the region, creating a hybrid of acceptance. The presence of multinational English speakers will surely give birth to a new Armagh, creating new community and bridging cross-cultural divides.
|Meet Yolanda Kulinska
||Meet Mariusz Liberek
Yolanda first came to Armagh to work as a mushroom picker. Educated in Poland, she understood English, though she struggled the first few months to understand Northern Irish speech. Her adjustment since then has been quick. When asked whether she will go back to Poland, she shakes her head. She has brought her sister and mother to Armagh, and she is pleased that everybody in Armagh knows everyone else and that she feels safe when she walks the streets. The local residents no longer see her as a foreigner.
When asked whether she wanted British citizenship, she explained that with a residency permit, she had the same rights and benefits as citizens. “I am definitely Polish; I don’t think I could be Irish,” she says. She believes that the Polish are often doing the jobs that the Irish don’t want to do.
She says that the pressing issues in the Polish community are learning English and learning to read and write in Polish. She is an avid supporter of Father Kevin Donaghy’s Saturday school.
Mariusz Liberek and his wife and three children attend one of the Polish masses held twice a month in the chapel of St. Patrick’s Grammar School. There Mariusz explains that he came to Armagh alone three years ago. He started working at Linwoods Bakery, where he now supervises Irish employees. Two years ago, he moved his wife and children from Poland to Armagh.
Since his arrival here, he has taught himself English by reading books and talking to people. His children learn English at school, and his wife is taking classes at St. Patrick’s Grammar School. At home, his children watch Polish television by satellite, and he takes the family to Poland every 6-10 months. Still he worries that his children are losing their culture. Will he eventually change his citizenship?
“I don’t think I want to be Irish. I am Polish. I cannot change this,” he says. His neighbors still ask him a lot of questions about Poland, and, in gestures of friendship, his family exchanges gifts with them and invites them to Polish celebrations. This kind of neighbor-to-neighbor diplomacy helps the family settle in.