Exiled on the Emerald Isle

During and after the Second World War, a small community of Polish people developed in Ireland. The two peoples shared religion and a history of oppression, while marriage brought them closer together.

Although few think of Ireland as an asylum place for Polish refugees, there are a number of Poles who settled in Ireland during and after the Second World War. They did not all come as refugees seeking asylum, however. The Irish were neutral during the War. Eamonn De Valera, Taoiseach [Prime Minister] of Ireland and Foreign Minister at the time, was supportive of the Allies, but also kept good relations with the German Ambassador.

War refugees - asylum seekers - certainly did not land up in droves. Joe Walsh, Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, did not encourage refugees to take asylum in Ireland, and he strongly encouraged De Valera to put strict limitations on immigration. Very few refugees were granted asylum, but there were some exceptions. The ways and reasons for Poles landing up in Ireland were varied and, in many cases, accidental.

The Polish refugees that came to Ireland did not arrive directly from Poland. Many came over from England where they had taken refuge during the war, or where they had worked with the Polish Government-in-Exile. A number of Polish men had performed heroically in the Battle of Britain in Squadron 303 of the RAF (Royal Air Force), stayed on in England after the war and settled in London and Bournemouth.

Mixed marriages

Henryk Lebioda, one of these RAF pilots, came to Ireland for the wedding of a war comrade who was marrying an Irish girl. There he met his own wife-to-be and never left. A Polish sailor, Ryszard Piskorski, from a town near Lviv, was imprisoned in Siberia, escaped, and later trained in the British Navy. He sailed the world for thirty years until he anchored in Dublin where he married and never set foot on a ship again. He settled in Dundrum, near Dublin, and had one son, who later took a post at the Catholic University in Lublin (KUL), Poland, where he met a Polish woman whom he brought back to Ireland! This woman's interest in Ireland, strangely enough, came from her maternal grandmother (her mother's mother), a young Belfast girl of seventeen who had been swept off her feet by a Polish RAF pilot stationed in Belfast. Back in Poland, she had settled with him and endured the communist years, but she had never forgotten Ireland.

A Polish Baron, Jacek Rajsky, lived in Bray, Co. Wicklow. He came from Rajsko, a town near Oświęcim. His manor home had been occupied by the SS and was later seized by the Soviets. He had come to Ireland during Martial Law in the 1980s and settled with his Polish wife. He has never returned to his town, but frequently visits Kraków.


Free spirits

Jan Kaminski, a travel agent and entrepreneur in Dublin, is a resilient survivor of the Warsaw Uprising. The Wejcherts, who settled in Ireland during the communist years, contributed much to Irish architecture and sculpture. Aleksandra Wejchert's Wings, a fifteen-foot set of steel wings symbolising the freedom that she and her husband had sought, grace the outside of Allied Irish Banks (AIB) Headquarters in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Ironically, since the sculptor died two years ago, AIB banks have bought out WBK and Bank Zachodni in Poland.

Most of the Polish settlers assimilated in Ireland, but they still maintain their Polishness. There were only about 150 settled Poles that arrived during the war and post-war years. Most have established themselves in Irish society, and feel a natural affiliation with Irish culture due to common histories of oppression and liberation and of course, the devotion each had to the Catholic Church.

In more recent times, Polish gypsies have been seeking asylum in Ireland. Their success in finding asylum is limited, since Poland is now a fully democratic country. Statistically they constitute 99 per cent of Polish people seeking asylum today. Apart from this, there are many more Polish people working in Ireland since the onslaught of the Celtic Tiger (the Irish economic boom). A meat-processing factory in Co. Longford recruited their staff directly from Poland, since there were no longer any such skilled workers available in Ireland. Such procedures are becoming more frequent due to the chronic shortage of workers, especially manual and menial, that has arisen in the last ten years.

The story of Malinski

But the old stock of Polish settlers, those who came to Ireland during the Second World War and the communist years, can be found in the Irish-Polish Society at 20 Fitzwilliam Place in Dublin. There you can hear tales of the Katyń Forest and the Ghetto Uprising, things that are unfamiliar to Irish ears. It was there that I found the inspiration for the character of Henry in my novel, Malinski.

Malinski is the story of two brothers, Henryk and Stanislav, who get separated during the Nazi occupation of the Eastern territories. Henryk flees to Ireland with his mother, while Stanislav gets left behind in Kraków with his aunt, where he endures the communist years. After fifty years, they meet again in Kraków.

There are many similar stories. Polish people were scattered all over the world as a result of the violence of the war. But prior to the writing of Malinski I had had little knowledge of the Polish people that lived in Ireland. It is yet another thread that links Ireland and Poland together.

by Siofra O'Donovan