Portlaoise is now truly a multicultural town, and nowhere is this more evident than in the number of students attending English classes in Mill Court.
Among the packs of tutorial sheets laid out on a big table in the Respond Community Centre is a cardboard box filled with student nametags. It tells a story in itself. Names like Asad, Ademola and Dariusz show just how many different ethnicities now call Laois their home, They are happily settled here, many with mortgages, jobs and children in local schools. Now thanks to the Fáilte Isteach classes, set up last October, they are overcoming the final hurdle of learning English.
Every Wednesday from 2 to 4pm, the centre is filled with the quiet hum of six or seven small groups chatting together aided by their teacher. Friendships have grown as the language barriers break down.
Elena, aged 29, is from Moldova. She moved to Ireland five years ago, and herself and her Moldovan husband bought a house in Portlaoise. Both work locally.
“Yes I am happy here. I love Ireland, the people are very friendly and helpful. Life is different here, sometimes I don’t like all the rain,” she laughs.
Elena’s tutors are retired farmers from Ballyroan, Margaret and Rody McEvoy.
“I want to say thank you very much to Margaret and Rody and the organisation. I have met very nice people and I know more about Irish traditions and Ireland now,” she said.
The McEvoys volunteered to be trained as tutors after hearing about it in the active retirement meeting at St Mary’s Hall.
“We are enjoying it, we have a bit of fun. It’s nice to meet people from different countries. They really want to learn, they ask about the farming, how the ewes and lambs are doing. When I was younger I used to think that people should come here, when we see how poor they are in other countries. Things should be shared more evenly,” Margaret said.
Agnes Conroy is a retired teacher from Mountmellick. Storm Powell from Laois Partnership suggested she join up.
“I knew it would suit me. It’s marvellous, they are very committed and pleasant. It’s not like school, you don’t have to give out or get cross,” she smiles.
Asad is Pakistani and a chef in a Portlaoise kebab restaurant.
“I like it here, my wife is here. My English is not good, I come here, talk with Agnes. Too many things I don’t know, I know them in Urdu, I ask her and I write it down and keep everything in my file. I like the English language and I want to speak it,” he explains.
Failte Isteach was set up in 2006 in Summerhill in Dublin by the Third Age organisation. Such was the demand that over 400 students from 27 countries have attended it. Other courses rapidly opened throughout Ireland, Portlaoise being the 47th. Tomorrow (Thursday) they will all travel to Dublin City Hall to celebrate the fiftieth course being opened, with speakers Kathleen Lynch TD, Pat Cox and Denis O’Brien, and MC Micheal Ó Muircheartaigh.
Portlaoise already has 35 students and ten volunteers, overseen by representatives from Laois VEC, Laois Partnership and Respond Housing Association, who together set up the course. It is a perfect example of smart co-operation. the VEC refer students to it, and they can later further their education through them, Laois Partnership refer people from their jobs club, and Respond, who give social housing to migrants and locals, provide the building. Classes are free of charge, and students can attend them for as long as they feel the need.
Sandra Doyle of Laois VEC says they hope to expand to other towns in Laois.
“We have students who are living in Mountrath, Mountmellick, Portarlington. There are tutors from Abbeyleix and Borris-in-Ossory who would be happy to teach classes there,” she said.
Jane from Latvia is a perfect example of the course’s success. Having improved her English to the point of having a slight midlands accent, she is now studying Psychology in Portarlington’s third level college, and has become a tutor erself in the Failte Isteach Portlaoise class.
“It’s one thing to learn in school, another thing to communicate with another person. The classes get people involved, so they are not isolated. I feel at home here now, I am used to the culture, the weather, Most of my friends are Irish,” she said.
Before Christmas, everyone brought in food from their countries. Now they plan to play music together.
“One tutor plays the flute. Then we heard others play the drums, the violin and the guitar. It will develop naturally,” Ms Doyle said.
Information on the course is available from Liam Carey of Failte Isteach, phone 046 9557766.