He came to Ireland without any contacts 10 years ago. Today, as a researcher on The John Murray Show, Zbyszek Zalinski is one of Ireland’s rising radio stars. He tells Áilín Quinlan how he did it.
LISTEN, says Zbyszek Zalinski. “Listen; I’m a Polish guy of only 33 who came here from nowhere 10 years ago, knowing nobody and here I am working on one of the most listened-to programmes on Irish radio and meeting amazing people!”
By amazing, he doesn’t mean the celebrities who have peppered the show since its inception — Tony Blair, Dolly Parton, Sinead O’Connor, Barry Manilow or Brenda Fricker; people on whom he’s prepared detailed interview briefs for the show’s presenter, John Murray.
By amazing, Zbyszek (prounounced Speecheck), means “normal people; listeners and colleagues”.
He admits it — he’s a “chatterbox” and maybe that’s why he loves Ireland and the Irish so much, and has done so well here.
“Everyone in Ireland has a story to tell and maybe because I’m such a chatterbox and love talking to people I fit in. Irish people like a talker, I think. They like a chat.
“Even though I’ve been out on the streets asking people strange questions about everything from Fifty Shades of Grey to their thoughts on the water charges, I’ve never had a bad experience.”
After coming to Ireland in 2004 to study for his PhD at Trinity — with €500 in his pocket and only a “modest scholarship” — Zalinski never seemed to get around to leaving.
There was never any grand plan to work in the media — back in Lodz, where he’s from, mum, a university lecturer and dad, a newscaster, wistfully visualised a solid, sensible civil service career for their only son.
“My father works as a TV newscaster, but he never wanted me to go into the media,” recalls Zalinski.
“He thought it was a career that can be difficult to get into and bruising to the ego — and not very predictable. He wanted me to get a good civil service job. It’s the same for many Irish parents; they’d like you to have a nice office job.”
Yet here he is, a researcher on RTÉ One’s John Murray Show who has earned his stripes with some memorable pieces. There was, for example, that episode on the Fifty Shades of Grey obsession, which made for sheer compulsive listening — Zalinski stood outside a number of bookshops bluntly asking customers why they were buying the steamy bestseller — and also getting them to read excerpts aloud and at random from a book which is notorious for its explicitly erotic scenes featuring every kind of sexual practice, from bondage and dominance to sadism/masochism.
Certainly not what he envisaged doing on his very first visit to Ireland in 2001 when he arrived on an Erasmus programme.
“I spent a year in Limerick because my university in Lodz had a relationship with Mary Immaculate College,” he explains.
He split his attentions, taking courses at both the well-known teacher training college and also at the University of Limerick, studying the Irish language — he can still reel off a few key phrases like “Go maith”, “Cupán tae” and “Is mise Zbyszek” — as well as Irish history, and the teaching of English as a foreign language.
Along the way he picked up a bit of knowledge about hurling and Gaelic football.
“I found it very interesting that there was a college to train primary school teachers — we didn’t have that in Poland.
“I also wasn’t aware of hurling or gaelic football and learning about that was great. The University of Limerick and Mary were very sports-mad.
“It was a super-interesting experience,” he says, adding that he chose Ireland because he wanted to go to an English-speaking country, but already knew a lot about Britain. His sister Magdalena, who works in the fashion industry and is now married and living in Canada, lived there for a while.
“I loved Limerick and I had a ball. I was turning 21, I was young, it was my first time away from my parents and I went out and partied and had lots of different experiences.”
To earn extra money he stacked shelves in a supermarket in Dooradoyle.
“It was an adventure. I went home after the year and finished my Master’s in International Relations, but I knew I wanted to live abroad after I finished my studies.”
When it came to doing his PhD Zalinski applied to a number of universities around the world.
Trinity was one of the colleges to offer him a place, so back he came.
“On Sept 7, 2004, I boarded a plane to London — there were no direct flights to Dublin from Poland then.”
Poland had joined the EU the previous May and things were changing rapidly, as he realised when he saw a Polish shop in Rathmines.
“I could hear Polish being spoken on the street; we had joined the EU in May and a lot of people moved from Poland to Ireland to work,” he recalls.
He lived in Rathgar and survived on his scholarship and the money he earned from marking papers and a part-time library job.
“I loved Ireland and the Irish, and I felt very welcome here. People very friendly and open and welcoming.”
The excesses of the Celtic Tiger completely swept over him.
“I wasn’t even aware of the Celtic Tiger, but then, I wasn’t coming for that, I was coming to study.
“I was a poor PhD student living in student accommodation and earning extra money by marking papers and working in Trinity Library.”
His foray into the Irish media world came on St Patrick’s Day in 2007 when he was invited onto RTÉ’s Spectrum radio show to talk about what it was like to be a Polish person living and working in Ireland.
Afterwards he returned to his studies.
“I had no intention of being in the media, I wanted to become an academic.”
Fate, however, had different plans.
“In Aug 2007 there was a change in the presenter on Spectrum and I was asked to record a pilot.
“They must have liked it because I became a presenter on the programme.
“It was a weekly programme that went out on Saturdays and that’s how I became part of Radio One.”
From there he became a researcher on programmes such as Drivetime and Arena and later for The Tubridy Show.
Since its inception in 2010 — the same year he was conferred with his PhD in Political Science — he has worked as a researcher on The John Murray Show.
“John’s fantastic to work with, very easy going and he has a great sense of humour.”
He’s enjoyed his travels through the country.
“I’ve met a lot of ordinary listeners. They’re always very friendly to me and always very interested.”
His favourite bit so far has been the road trip to Poznan with the John Murray Show for Europe 2012.
“It combined a few elements that were fantastic — John’s love of sport, my love of road trips, and the opportunity to showcase Poland to the Irish listenership — it was an amazing experience.
“We broadcast live from the ferry, and the following day from the beaches of Dunkirk and again from outside the Brandenburg gate in Berlin, and then we had two live programmes.
“It was amazing, sunshine all the time, a great car, the open roads, eating lots of sweets and having a laugh.
“I was very happy that the Euro 2012 trip was a success — there were so many Irish fans in Poznan and the Irish fans lived for craic and the Polish beer!
“When I close my eyes now it seems like a dream to have been part of such a great thing.”
As far as Zalinski is concerned, he’s more or less Irish now, well integrated, settled, with a good job and his partner Chris who hails from the West of Ireland.
“I really only talk Polish to my parents now. I’ve got a couple of Polish friends but not as many as other Polish people who live here because for me Ireland is now my home. I went home last Christmas for the first Christmas in six or seven years and when I came back to Dublin afterwards, I definitely felt I was coming home.
“I have integrated.”
There was no particular time that he made that decision, it just happened, he says
“I don’t want to live here and really be in Poland in my head — this is the culture I love.
“I now consider myself about 65% or 70% Irish. This is my life now, and if I don’t treat it seriously my life would become a dichotomy.
“I’m not Irish but I’m not 100% Polish either, because I’ve had this big injection of a different culture and a different language. It has a profound impact on you when you live day to day in a language you have not grown up using.
“I work every day though a language that is not my mother tongue and I don’t think about it at all. It’s slightly bizarre.”
Another thing he really enjoys about Ireland:
“Everyone knows everyone here. One day I got a call to the programme. This lady said are you one of the Zalinskis of Drogheda?
“The lady thought I must be from Drogheda because there was a Zalinski family in Drogheda which ran a hairdressers at one time.
“I checked but I couldn’t find a trace of them.”
But maybe there were Zalinskis there once, he says.
“Who knows? Because everybody knows everyone in Ireland.”
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