A unique insight into the deepening demographic shifts in eastern Mayo City

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Pictured outside the Parish Hall on Main Street, Ballyhaunis, at the front are Ballyhaunis Table Tennis Club members Bart Ilczuk, Voytech Sulpok and Mark O’Reilly with, at the back , Shay O’Reilly, Elemir Sarwas.

The composition of the Ballyhaunis Tennis Club says a lot about the great diversity of the community

by Mark Godfrey

The Ballyhaunis Table Tennis Club has resumed operations after the extended confinement.

It was too long for Dominik Vidovic who plays at the club against his compatriot Vojtech Sulpok on one of the club’s professional-sized tables. Covid has been a difficult time for the towering Slovak.

“There was nothing to do during Covid, it’s my social life, it was really hard,” he said.

Vidovic has lived in Ballyhaunis for 13 years, Sulpok for three years. Both came to work at Dawn Meats.

The eagerness of both players was palpable as they played under the hanging globe-style lights and a fading autumn sun filtered through the stained glass windows of Sainte-Marie Abbey where the club is based until that its usual place, the parish hall, is being renovated. .

The dim lighting of the church is not ideal for table tennis but “better than nothing”, explains Vidovic, “because it was so hard” when the club closed for almost a year during the pandemic of Covid. “We were playing three days a week and then nothing, no games, nothing to do,” he said.

The club’s makeup illustrates the worsening demographic changes in the eastern city of Mayo, where employers go further east to find workers for industrial jobs as the wave of Poles who came here early of the 2000s calmed down.

The Covid officer at the Ballyhaunis Table Tennis Club is Bart Ilczuk, the father-of-one who works at Dawn Meats and one of a now declining Polish population, the others drawn by rising wages and a helped economic boom by a transfer of 9 billion euros to the EU Cohesion Fund and a deluge of investments from manufacturers in Western Europe.

Ilczuk left his hometown of Olsztyn, a beautiful town on the Lyna River in northern Poland, for Ireland in 2005.

In 2008, he found himself on the slaughter line of Dawn Meats. He has been there for 12 years and bought a house in Hazelhill, on the southwestern perimeter of the city.

“I have been playing table tennis since I was seven in Poland, I arrived in the third division of the national league. Table tennis is very popular in Poland, we have a very good academy in Gdansk. In Ireland it’s not that big of a deal, but Gaelic sport is very important here.

Ilczuk is here to stay – “I’m almost Irish now, I’m here to stay,” he said.

But he saw others stay away. The Polish economy is strong, wages are increasing rapidly.

Polish salary growth averaged 5.6% over the period 2017-2019, compared to a European average of 0.4 according to the accounting firm Grant Thornton.

“There are a lot of Poles going to Germany, or Sweden or Holland, not so many to Ireland.”

Ilczuk is reluctant but a much more verbal compatriot in Ballyhaunis, Jakub Grabiasz, tells the story of Polish migrants eloquently.

“In 2004, I came with four colleagues to work on the buildings, we worked for a local developer. At that time, hundreds of thousands of Poles settled here.

“I remember that in the census of 2005 or 2006 it was said that over 400,000 Poles were in Ireland. In those first years of EU membership, Ireland, the UK and Scandinavia were the only countries to open up the labor market to us. “

A monthly salary was equivalent to a weekly salary in Ireland when Grabiasz arrived.

“At that time, Poland was completely different from what we know today. We were just emerging from the post-Soviet economy. We had freedom of speech but still [had] bad wages.

Many things have changed. After having first been seduced by all the money that his emigrants sent home “the [Polish] government quickly realized that was not good. Because it is mostly people with skills who left, entrepreneurs, people who work hard.

A flood of investment in Poland means that the pay gap has halved: two weeks in Ireland equals one month’s salary here, according to Grabiasz. He calculates that of the 400,000 here in 2006, there are now 100,000 in Ireland. The turning point was 2008 when the Celtic Tiger began to collapse.

“The recession destroyed a lot of jobs and people went back to Poland. Many construction workers had come to Ireland to build the Celtic Tiger Dream.

“I remember our company, there were eight Poles on the team and no Irish… Lots of guys would come home two or three times a year and didn’t want to stay here and be on welfare. hardworking people and proud to be Polish.

As the Poles return home, local employers go further east in search of workers. A new member of the Ballyhaunis Table Tennis Club, Sasha Pyatov, is Ukrainian and came to Ballyhaunis this summer after being recruited by Dawn Meats.

Sasha is moving into her first fall outside of Ukraine. Table tennis gave continuity and allowed him to return to a sport he played well in Kiev two decades ago.

The influx, however, is often transient. Workers like Sasha – whose Dawn colleagues have a growing Brazilian population – have short-term contracts tied to temporary visas for those without a European passport.

This fleeting nature makes it difficult to cultivate talent according to the club’s coach, an enthusiastic retiree named Shay O’Reilly whose story of finding a home to buy confirms that Ballyhaunis, like many other towns in the west of Ireland, has seen a boom in the population which belies the frequently repeated complaints about the rural decline rehearsed by some populist political parties.

Originally from Phibsboro in the north downtown area, O’Reilly moved to Ballyhaunis two years ago, after purchasing a farm on the Cloonfad side of town. Ballyhaunis suffers from a housing shortage due to the influx of foreign workers and asylum seekers housed in a direct reception center centered on the former campus of a girls’ high school run by the order of nuns of Mercy.

Because of its universal appeal, the sport offers a microcosm of the city’s changing demographics. Irish teenagers are coached by head coach O’Reilly.

“We first created the club to give the teenagers something to do and to train them, we also had a lot of children from the asylum center.”

The Ballyhaunis Table Tennis Club will organize a training program for women this fall, sponsored by the Mayo Sports Partnership, which aims to make women more active.

There is “great interest in the program,” said O’Reilly.

Pakistani and Syrian community members come in groups. But the most passionate players are the Slavs, says O’Reilly, who has played table tennis for decades in venues across Dublin. However, the Slavs may be less numerous locally – the largest Slavic group in numbers, the Poles no longer come to Ireland, according to Grabiasz.

“I don’t see any new Polish faces here in the past five years. Whoever goes to Poland goes back.

“During Covid, I have never seen so many come back. There is a lot of work in Poland – and in the nearest neighboring countries. Ireland is a distant country for us, ”explains Grabiasz.

“You have to fly here. Or you can drive 380 kilometers to Vienna. All of my wife’s cousins ​​work there. They drive four hours every Sunday evening but spend the weekend at home.

“It makes no sense to fly three hours to Ireland.”

Germany, which initially did not admit Polish migrants in 2004, is now lacking in manpower and has become the preferred destination for Polish workers. Companies organize accommodation. But many Poles want to stay at home.

“There is a different mentality now. I see young people with the equivalent of their Leaving Cert and they are not looking to emigrate, ”explains Grabiasz.

If Polish immigrants see opportunities there, it is a similar situation for immigrants from Hungary, the other great state in Eastern Europe when the EU enlarged in 2002. Ildiko Ignacz, based in Ballyhaunis, from Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok County in central Hungary, said Hungarians keep coming to Ireland – she is part of a Facebook group for newcomers.

“But now you have a better chance to build a better life in Hungary.”

The average salary in Hungary is now twice as high as in 2006, when Ignacz moved to Galway at the age of 21.

“I was studying conservation engineering, my partner was studying wood products engineering. A roofer by training, he currently works as a garden machinery mechanic while Ildiko runs his own bakery business from their home in Annagh, a few miles north of Ballyhaunis town center. Hungary is also keen to keep its young people.

“As a result, it is easier for young couples to buy a house in Hungary through a government guaranteed mortgage program,” Ignacz explains.

“Buyers can get $ 30,000 to help you buy if you have three kids, then you can get a low-interest mortgage. “

Such support almost brought her and her young family back to Hungary a few years ago when they wanted to buy their own house.

But her family moved to Ballyhaunis three years ago when the Galway estate agent said “once you cross the border the price has halved”. After looking at Cloonfad and Claremorris, they moved to a century-old farmhouse in Annagh that had been empty for over ten years. “We had four good walls. We did the work ourselves and added an extension.

Higher living costs in Mayo are pushing others to Eastern Europe from western Ireland, Jakub Grabiasz believes.

“Housing is mega expensive in Ireland… you spend half your salary to live… No one in Ireland has had a dramatic pay rise, but look how much we are paying for gasoline, milk and vegetables compared to to five years ago. “

Life can be expensive, but there are social benefits to living in Ireland. While healthcare is free in Hungary, the minimum wage in Ireland “means you have security no matter where you work,” says Ildiko Ignacz. Salaries in medical or IT jobs in Hungary are comparable to similar jobs in Ireland, but lower paying retail jobs are only paid 700 euros per month.

Ignacz says she knows a few Hungarian families in Ballyhaunis.

“They work at Bpod [bathroom fixtures factory] and Dawn Meats and Western Brand.

“The EU’s freedom of movement and work has given a young generation of Hungarians a curiosity about travel.

“Almost everyone has a family member who has moved somewhere in the EU.”


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