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My curious Irish-Ukrainian connection

Each year when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around, I like to don my “green gear” (not difficult when you are a Rider fan), clip on my “Irish for a Day” button, and prepare to celebrate along with my bona fide Irish friends. To be honest, this Ukrainian, who to my knowledge has not a drop of Irish blood in her body, feels a strong bond to the folks from the Emerald Isle that is rather puzzling.

What could be the reason for this strange connection?

After giving this some thought, I think I can rationalize this feeling of kinship, this mysterious tie. And it has nothing to do with genetics, but much to do with the similar histories and backgrounds of each nationality.

First of all, both the Irish and Ukrainians left their homelands because they suffered from oppression and poverty. Both were peasant class immigrants who left behind a land they loved in hopes of building a better life.

Both ethnicities arrived on the shores of Canada after suffering terrible voyages on overcrowded ships where food was scarce and conditions deplorable. They came with little in the way of resources to begin their lives in a new land.

Sadly, their arrival was not warmly greeted by many folks who saw them only as poor and uneducated. Signs proclaiming “No Irish need apply” were placed in shop windows and places of possible employment. Meanwhile Ukrainians were often referred to as “dirty” because of the smell from their sheepskin clothing.

The Irish and Ukrainian immigrants were largely agrarian in nature. The Irish chose to settle on farmland in Eastern Canada, while Ukrainians (who arrived decades later) were attracted to the offer of homesteads in Western Canada.

Because each came with little or no money, it was necessary for them (usually the men) to gain employment away from the farm. They were desperate to provide for their families and were often taken advantage of and used as cheap labour to help build much-needed infrastructure in a fledging nation.

The Irish are credited with providing most of the labour in the building of Ottawa’s Rideau Canal, while many Ukrainians helped construct railway lines in Western Canada.

Interestingly enough, both Ireland and Ukraine endured terrible famines orchestrated by mankind for political ends. For each country these were some of the darkest days in their comparative histories as millions starved to death needlessly.

Despite many challenges and hardships, both groups quickly adapted to their new home and soon became an integral part of Canadian society. Today the descendants of these early settlers can be found in every walk of life and every profession, with a significant number ascending to some of the highest offices in our country.

Although both the Irish and Ukrainians have become part of mainstream society and proud Canadians, each has made a concerted effort to preserve their unique cultural backgrounds. Their music, song, and dance speaks to the strong emotional attachment that each still retains to the motherland.

Irish and Ukrainians alike welcome any opportunity to socialize which often leads to a party (often into the wee hours of the morning). And any such gathering is never complete without a table laden with food and several rounds of liquid libations (to help with the singing, of course).

Obviously the Irish and Ukrainians have much in common and share remarkably similar experiences.

Maybe I and other Ukrainians can claim to be more than just “Irish for a day.” Maybe we share a kinship that explains my longing, and soon-to-be-realized dream, of visiting the Emerald Isle.

Slainte Mhaith! (I’ll drink to that.)