Immigrants, Migrants the New Irish

Ireland's stable economy and English-speaking population has attracted many tens of thousands of EU accession-state citizens. These in turn have helped Ireland's economy and are now an integral part of Ireland's demographic make-up. As a generation of new bi-lingual Irish children enter the Irish schooling system, there needs to be an all-encompassing discussion on the language issues facing Ireland's new multi-lingual families. By Dr Tomasz Kamusella.


Following the 2004 enlargement of the European Union (EU), Ireland, along with the UK and Sweden, were the sole old member states who immediately opened their job markets to the new member states' citizens. In the wake of this decision the estimated 200,000 Polish citizens have arrived in the Republic, and further 50,000 in the North. They have been joined by numerous Lithuanians, Russian-speakers from the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Slovaks, and Romas from Slovakia.

This influx of newcomers took Ireland by surprise, though it was easily predictable. In the 1990s, Ireland's economy grew massively making the Republic one of the best developed countries in the world. Furthermore, the ‘Troubles' finished in the North, which improved the stability and overall attraction of the entire island.

Another attraction is English. Moving to Sweden, Finland, or the Netherlands required mastering local languages of little utility outside these states. (Germany and Austria may have been ‘natural' destinations for immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe from a geographic standpoint, but these will keep their job markets closed until the latest date possible – 2011.) Not so in the case of English, which apart from Ireland and the UK, is also an official language in two other EU polities: Cyprus and Malta.

Moreover, English is now the global lingua franca,  functioning as the global language of commerce, telecommunications, transportation, science, and tourism in many countries across the world.

This attraction of English is increased by the continued popularity of the US among the newcomers from the new member states. During the communist period, America appeared as the beacon of freedom and the land of unlimited possibilities to people in Central and Eastern Europe, whose polities the Kremlin had corralled into the Soviet bloc, or incorporated directly into the Soviet Union, as in the case of the Baltic republics. Soviet domination meant the imposition of Russian as the bloc's lingua franca (with the exception of Romania). Learning English against such unfavourable odds, in a cultural environment devoid of English-language publications (at that time satellite TV or the Internet did not exist), often amounted to an act of quiet opposition against the oppressive communist system. Obtaining a passport and permission to travel to Western Europe or Northern America was next to impossible for an average citizen of a Soviet bloc country.

This negative attitude to Russian and the positive one to English were passed onto new generations who have entered adulthood or been born after the fall of communism 18 years ago. (They have had a better chance to acquire English, as it became the most popular foreign language taught in all postcommunist states.) It was they who, after graduating from universities in the fast developing economies of Poland, Slovakia, and Lithuania, were faced with the mortifying prospect of permanent unemployment. In 2004, unemployment was the fate suffered by one-fifth of the workforce in Poland, while the corresponding rate of unemployment for recent university graduates stood at 40 per cent.

No surprise that when given a reasonable chance, they streamed to Ireland and the UK (mind you, not Sweden) in search of gainful employment. Having attained a modicum of economic stability (still unavailable to their peers who stayed back in their home countries), they buy houses and apartments, marry, and have more children per couple than their counterparts in Poland or Lithuania. They can afford these simple things of life, for which young people yearn around the world.

These immigrants' children, born already in Ireland, will begin to enter Irish elementary schools in September 2008. A year later (unless Irish citizenship law changes, as recently there has been a discussion urging such an alteration), I assume that at least one-third of the Polish immigrants will apply for Irish citizenship. The institution of dual citizenship is a well-established tradition among the Poles. It is so, because in their own ‘times of troubles' (be it World War II, the communist regime, or martial law in the early 1980s), they sought to gain citizenship of a Western democracy, as an insurance of personal security allowing them to exit Poland, when life there became unbearable.

Hence, in the early 2010s, there will make an appearance in Ireland a sizeable group of Polish-, Lithuanian-, Slovak-, Russian, and Romani-speaking Irish. Many of them will have been born on Irish soil, and they may account for as many as five to eight per cent of the Republic's population.

I emphasize the issue of language, because unlike in the case of classical immigration these newcomers will not lose command of their community languages in the coming generations. Why so? First of all, I believe it to be a misnomer to classify the newcomers as ‘immigrants.' All of them, like the Irish, are EU citizens. In this respect, they migrated from one place in the EU to another, as people do, for instance, in the US, though such a move may entail a travel of several thousand kilometres. When it comes to the basic-level common citizenship or the Common Market, the EU already functions as a single polity.

And as in a single polity, transportation and telecommunications within the EU are increasingly cheaper, thus affordable to all EU citizens. Nowadays there are 400 low-cost flights spanning the British Isles and Poland every week, and their number still rises. Over a cell phone one can chat with one's family in Poland at as little as 8c per minute, or at a mere 1.5c using a landline. At home one can watch all the Polish TV channels courtesy of the Cyfra+ and Polsat sat. digital platforms – satellite dishes with these tell-tale logos sprout all over Ireland. Instantaneous access to the Polish press or a local Polish radio or TV station is also afforded by the Internet. Apart from one, traditionally run by the Polish Embassy, other (privately organized and funded) Polish-medium Saturday schools open across the Republic and in the North.

Most of the newcomers are aged between 20 and 35, and at least half of them came to Ireland after graduation with their bachelor's and master's degrees. Now, to advance in workplace and in society, they want to continue their education. They are frustrated in fulfilling their wish by their imperfect command of English, and by the long and frequently unusual hours of their work. Irish universities have been slow to meet this mounting demand and, on the other hand, seize the economic opportunity. Not surprisingly, this October, a Polish tertiary-education institution opened several MA-degree courses taught in Polish at the DCU premises (students are also offered an intensive course in academic English). More initiative of this kind are bound to follow.

The question remains, however, whether Ireland will get ready in time for these new challenges waiting just round the corner, and be prepared to accept its own transformation into a multilingual land. A land in which the Irish will switch in conversation not only between English and Irish, as they do now, but also between these two languages and Lithuanian, Polish, Romani, Russian, and Slovak.

A broad, all-encompassing discussion on these issues is long overdue, though various phenomena spawned by the recent influx of immigrants have been regularly touched upon in the Irish media. That is not enough, as a comprehensive policy on immigration is needed, so that the newcomers (soon to become Irish citizens) do not face linguistic and other obstacles while using the health service, continuing education at the tertiary level, or while sending their children to schools. The medical care and educational systems, public administration as well as universities should accommodate their needs. Among others, they ought to provide: translation/interpretation services, graded high intensity English language training in schools for the migrants' older children, tertiary-level education in the New Irish's languages, lessons of these languages for their children (also open to English- and Irish-speaking pupils) at schools, or free intensive courses of English for the newcomers with a weak command of this language.

Otherwise, ethnolinguistic ghettoes may arise, complete with new social cleavages. However, if a policy of inclusive multiculturalism is pursued, these migrants and their children may become a long-lasting asset for Ireland. Now, they fill these niches in the economy, where there is an acute dearth of employees. But the sheer number of the migrants increases demand for goods and services, thus creating new jobs. In turn, this adds to the economies of scale, driving prices down, hence making Ireland more affordable to all its inhabitants, and more competitive in the globalizing world. The newcomers also keep the country's population young and vibrant, and contribute to the overcoming of the disastrous demographic effects of the Great Famine of the latter half of the 1840s. The island's population, having recently reached 6 million, is still short of the 8 million inhabitants, which Ireland enjoyed in 1841. Last but not least, the prospect of multilingual Ireland will enable it to compete better in the multilingual EU than the overwhelmingly monolingual UK, France, or Poland.

Dr Tomasz Kamusella is a lecturer in Polish Studies at Trinity College Dublin