90 years ago, when Ireland gained its independence from Great Britain, Ukraine lost its independence on the other side of Europe
One of the first books published by the Central Rada in 1917 was a Ukrainian translation of The Republic of Ireland by an anonymous author. The choice was not accidental, because the figures behind the Ukrainian independence movement drew inspiration from Irish activists and saw much in common between Ukraine and Ireland. The modern and recent history of Ireland and Ukraine have not only striking parallels but lesser-known pages in common.
THE IRISH AND UKRAINE
To many an Irishman, service in the Royal Armed Forces was perhaps the only chance to somehow arrange for a worthy living, integrate into society and make a career. The Crimean War, waged by Britain, France and Turkey against the Russian Empire, was a tragic page in the history of both Ireland and Ukraine. Of 111,000 British soldiers and officers who participated in the war, 37,000 were Irish. Some of them, like Luke O’Connor who was decorated with the Victoria Cross for his heroism in the Battle of Alma and eventually achieved the rank of Major General, were fortunate enough to make a career of the military. But 7,000 of his compatriots remained buried in Crimean soil and even more returned home disabled. With sad irony, “The Kerry Recruit,” an Irish song, tells of the life of a young man who was wounded near Sevastopol and got a leg of wood and 10 pence a day from the state.
A number of Irishmen, discontent under British rule, distinguished themselves in military service under the colors of European monarchs. Alexander O’Connor was one of them. During the wars against Napoleon he found himself in Russia and displayed heroism in the Battle of Borodino. He was given the nickname “Crazy Colonel d’Connor” for his militant streak. Following retirement, he settled in Poltava Region where he married Oleksandra Storozhenko, a descendant of an old family of Cossack officers. His son Oleksandr O’Connor Jr. married Anastasiya Lysenko and, again after retirement, settled in Mykolaivka, Kremenchuk district, Poltava Region, on his wife's estate. Their daughters, Olha and Valeria, made a significant contribution to Ukrainian culture and the national movement.
Olha O’Connor, 18, wed the famous Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko. Together they studied in the Leipzig Conservatory. Olha went down in history as the first prime prima donna of Ukrainian opera – she was the first to perform Oksana’s part in Lysenko’s Christmas Night which was the start of the Ukrainian opera. Unfortunately, she lost her voice in 1880, and her infertility led to a breakup with her husband.
Olha O’Connor taught piano (one of her students was Lesia Ukrainka) and opened a music school in 1908. After Lysenko’s death, she adopted the five children he had had by his second wife. Her younger sister Valeria was engaged in teaching and public activities in the Prosvita society, the Ukrainian Club and the Association of Ukrainian Gradualists. Her drama pieces became very popular, and she was thrown into prison for her story “Skarb” (Treasure). During the liberation struggle, Valeria O’Connor was elected a member of the Ukrainian Central Rada. She was involved in a number of government structures where she was in charge of literature and theater. After the Directory of the Ukrainian National Republic was established in Kyiv, she left for Switzerland with her husband who was posted as a consul to Zurich. In Austria and later in the Czech Republic, Valeria headed the foreign Ukrainian section of the League of Peace and Freedom, contributed articles to Ukrainian periodicals and taught in the Ukrainian Academy in Podebrady along with pursuing other activities.
The Ukrainian and Irish national movements unfolded at almost the very same time. The losses due to famine and emigration in the latter half of the 19th century and careful attempts by the British government to allot land to Irish peasants eased tensions in society for a while. The demands put forward by a weak enlightenment movement, made up of sports societies and the Gaelic League, which advocated the revival of the Irish language, were limited to the idea of autonomy. However, as the British parliament was slow to grant Ireland self-governance, the movement became increasingly radical. In 1905, the Sinn Féin party was founded and advocated full independence. One of Ireland’s leaders in the nation's struggle for independence was Constance Markievicz, a descendant of the Anglo-Irish Gore-Booth family, who married Count Casimir Markievicz, a noted Polish painter from an old Polish-Ukrainian family. They spent two years in the village of Zhyvotivka in Vinnytsia Region and then moved to Ireland where Constance chose the path of politics and military struggle. In 1909, she founded Fianna Éireann, a paramilitary scouts organization which staged mass protests.
The First World War was a catalyst that ultimately helped Ireland to separate. Around 40% of adult Irish men fought in the ranks of the British army in the fields of Flanders, hoping that their heroism would win autonomy for their native land. However, the self-governance rule granted in 1914 turned out to be purely ornamental. Meanwhile, the British government decided to introduce a military draft in Ireland. This resulted in the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin by the leaders of underground organizations who had no hope it would succeed. However, the utter cruelty with which the British suppressed it won the sympathy of the Irish population for the tortured “martyrs.” The Irish Republican Army, swollen by the remains of volunteers previously defeated by the British, launched partisan warfare which ended in 1921 when a treaty was signed under which 26 of 32 Irish counties formed the Republic of Ireland.
Constance Markievicz was among the founders of the young state's parliament and served as Labor Minister for three years, thus becoming the first woman in a ministerial office in Europe. Her life ended in 1927 after she contracted tuberculosis during a visit to a Dublin shelter. She saw her husband for the last time before her death. (He had gone back to Ukraine in 1913.) Meave Markievicz, their only daughter, born in 1902, was raised by Constance’s relatives in Ireland.
Independence gained in 1921 did not solve all of the nation’s problems. Ireland would experience a civil war between the government and part of the Republicans who were dissatisfied with the way the country had been divided. It would also see the persecution of Irish Catholics in the northern part of the island which remained under British rule. For decades Ireland’s backward economy was unable to shake off its dependence on the former metropolis. The country continued to lose hundreds of thousands of young people who emigrated to the USA. The Irish language never fully recovered, and today it is the mother tongue of a mere 1% of the population. But in the 1980s and 1990s, Ireland experienced rapid economic growth and even now, in conditions of a global crisis, the country ranks 10th in the world in terms of pro capita GDP, according to the World Bank. Its cultural heritage and traditions are popular across the world. It is hard to find an Irishman today who would be disappointed with the fact that his country is independent. Hopefully, we will be able to say the same of Ukrainians in the future.