RAISING the Polish flag outside City Hall on Thursday evening, beside the busts of Lords Mayor Tomás Mac Curtin and Terence McSwiney, Councillor Derry Canty, deputising for Lord Mayor Deirdre Forde, joked that it would never be a chore to fly a red and white flag in Cork.
Cork City Council was marking Polish Independence Day, 11 November, which commemorates the restoration, at the end in 1918 of the First World War, of Poland’s sovereignty after 123 years of partition and struggle.
It might be a stretch to say that the coincidence between Poland’s national colours and Cork’s own was a sign of a kinship which was almost pre-ordained, but the easy atmosphere of warmth and familiarity afterward at a reception in the Millennium Hall showed just how much Cork’s Polish community has become part of the city’s family.
In his speech, Cllr Canty expressed the city’s gratitude for the cultural, economic and social contribution of Cork city’s 25,000-strong community, Leeside’s largest migrant community.
He also singled out for the praise the work of Cork charity Together-Razem, which had organised the evening with the assistance of Cork City Council’s Social Inclusion unit and the Embassy of Poland.
“Since 2006, Together-Razem has been providing support to the Polish and Eastern European communities in Cork, offering them a wide range of services to help them integrate better with Irish society and at the same time to maintain respect and memory of their roots and traditions,” Cllr Canty said.
“Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Together-Razem also supports Ukrainian refugees by providing essential services in a dedicated hub, ‘Together4Ukraine’ in Blackpool.” On behalf of Cork City Council, Mr Canty thanked Together-Razem for its tireless and compassionate work in supporting Ukrainian people in Cork, and he acknowledged the pain and sorrow felt by Ukrainian people displaced by Russia’s illegal invasion of their country.
“We stand here in solidarity with you and to collectively celebrate the value of independence. We only hope that very soon you will be able to win back yours,” Cllr Canty said.
Polish Consul Grzegorz Sala told The Echo it was amazing to see such a gathering in City Hall, and he offered the thanks of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland to everyone who had worked to organise the event.
“The Polish national day is the most important day for Polish people, this is the day that we remember our history, our heroes, we remember that we are a strong and independent country, and we think about our future, so it is a day to think and reflect,” Mr Sala said.
He said the ties between Ireland and Poland were very strong and the work of Together-Razem was very important for maintaining those connections in Cork, and for helping Ukrainian people arriving here.
A high point of the ceremony featured young Polish children from Together-Razem’s Razem Academy afterschool, in traditional costumes, singing Polish songs and performing a short, patriotic play.
Voytek Bialek, CEO of Together-Razem, said the charity’s work in education was of vital importance for Cork’s Polish community.
“We are providing English classes, but we are also providing Polish classes to kids who are born in Ireland, they speak fluent English, they have Irish in school, but they keep forgetting Polish roots and Polish heritage, and this is an important part of our identity,” he said.
“They travel to Poland, they need to communicate with their grannies, with cousins in Poland, and our aim is to teach them how to speak Polish, how to read Polish, and a little about Polish geography and history as well.
“It’s once a week, for two hours after school, we have a school in Ballincollig, we have a school in Midleton, and we used to have a school in Cork also, and we have an inline module so kids from all over Ireland can join us to learn the Polish language,” Mr Bialek said.
He added that Together-Razem wants to help Ukrainians set up a school so Ukrainian children here will learn their native language.
“Children are catching language at a school age very quickly, and they keep forgetting their own language, and there is a lot of research which shows that bilingualism helps children to learn third and fourth and even fifth languages,” Mr Bialek said.
“This is why, a couple of years ago here in Cork, there was a big, national [Irish language] competition and a Polish child won first place.” Event co-ordinator Ewa Ikwanty said it was wonderful to see the Polish flag flying at City Hall, and it was a special honour that City Hall would be illuminated in the red and white colours of the Polish flag to mark Polish Independence Day.
Svetlana Zakharova, who has lived in Ireland since 2002, is originally from Ukraine and describes herself as a local person.
“I love Cork. When the war started, I began working with Together-Razem as a volunteer Ukrainian immigrant support worker, because I am local, I am Ukrainian, and I speak four languages, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and English,” Ms Zakharova said.
“We are helping Ukrainian people to integrate in Cork, because when you arrive in a new place, you have no local knowledge, we are providing support and helping people to make connections.”
Ms Zakharova, who works with the HSE, added that part of her work with Together-Razem included helping Ukrainian people suffering from trauma to gain access to counselling.