- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2006

DUBLIN — First-time visitors to Ireland may be surprised to find that the comely colleen serving Guinness in the local pub is, in fact, Polish.

After several centuries of a hardscrabble life that has seen Irish men and women emigrating around the world, taking their culture and legends with them, a decade of rapid economic growth has made the land of shamrocks a primary destination for hordes of immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe.

Foreign nationals now account for 10 percent of the population, twice as many as just two years ago, forcing the government for the first time to begin drafting a formal immigration policy to deal with the influx.

“Make no mistake, we are in competition with other economies for go-ahead people with experience or qualifications that are in short supply at home,” said Michael McDowell, the minister for justice, who must find a way to balance the nation’s deep-seated traditions with the “Celtic Tiger’s” growing demand for skilled labor.

“Immigration policies are first and foremost about what is best for Irish society.”

But recognition of the economic need for foreign workers has done nothing to ease the shock experienced by one woman on a visit to Dublin from rural Ireland. “I asked three people for directions, and not one of them spoke English,” she complained.

Similar anecdotes about pubs where all the staff speak Polish are borne out by recent figures from the Central Office of Statistics.

More than 80 percent of the new immigrants are under age 44, and almost half come from states that joined the European Union in 2004. Large numbers are employed in the retail, agriculture and construction sectors, helping to fuel one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe.

The ethnic and linguistic mixing, confined a few years ago to the capital, now reaches into even the smallest and most remote towns and villages. Amid the wild scenery of Connemara in the far west of Ireland — where John Ford filmed “The Quiet Man” — is the Killary Adventure Center. All the bar staff and kitchen staff are Polish.

“It’s good to be able to talk to each other in Polish,” said Anna, who has been in Ireland for two years and intends to return to Poland “when I’ve saved some money.” She asked that her last name not be used.

In the southeast of Ireland in Dungarvan, population 15,000, there is now a Polish Advisory Center, located just down the road from the Polskie Sklepy — the Polish Grocer. The local movie theater recently hosted a Polish film festival.

The nation’s main Internet service provider, Eircom, now provides its services in Polish, as do many large companies.

By far the largest bloc of new immigrants come from Poland and Lithuania, having received an automatic right to work in Ireland when their countries joined the European Union in 2004.

Stunned by the unexpected influx, Ireland has followed Britain in imposing tougher restrictions on citizens of Romania and Bulgaria when their nations join the EU in January.

Michael Martin, the minister for enterprise, trade and employment, has said it is time “to take stock, be cautious and concentrate on addressing the integration needs of those who have already come to live and work in Ireland.”

It is not clear how the new legislation will affect the handful of Bulgarians and Romanians already living in Ireland — people like Chris, a Bulgarian who overstayed a student visa, works in a supermarket while studying accounting, and has married an Irishman.

“It is very strange, is it not?” said Chris, who spoke only on the condition that her real name not be used. “In most countries in the world, the men chase the women, but in Ireland it is the women who chase the men.”


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