There are not many bus stops in the small Irish city of Shannon. In any country, while young people wait at a bus stop, they have a tendency to write on the wall, usually a more or less innocent message. In Shannon, the glass wall of a bus stop displays in tiny, carved letters the name “Lithuania”.
The relationship between Ireland and Lithuania is indeed special, and continually developing. Lithuanians who have gone to Ireland to work are very satisfied with their lives there, and increasingly seem to stay for longer periods.
The Irish, on the other hand, are visible guests in Vilnius, where the Irish “colony” is growing every year.
A reminder of this connection was broadcast to all of Europe in May this year at the Eurovision Song Contest in Helsinki, when Ireland gave the highest score, 12 points, to Lithuania. This was the second time this has happened, giving an idea of the numbers of Lithuanians living in Ireland.
The musical connection also goes the other way. Erica Jennings, a member of Skamp, one of the most successful Lithuanian pop groups, is Irish.
In 1935, a pilot called Feliksas Vaitkus had to make an emergency landing in Ballinrob in Ireland, after crossing the Atlantic Ocean in an airplane called Lituanika II. Even though he failed to make it all the way to Kaunas, his achievement went down in history books as the sixth solo flight across the Atlantic.
This time, the Lithuanians have come to stay for a longer period, a reason to further examine the relationship between the two countries. Many other factors are involved, such as history, culture and religion, and more subtle nuances that are difficult to define, but which are worth closer scrutiny.
In the shadows of empires
A small nation often ends up in the sphere of influence of a larger neighbour. This is true both for Ireland and Lithuania. The Irish struggled for centuries with the British Empire, whereas the Lithuanians have had to deal with the Russians.
This has at times created political tensions, leading to uprisings and repressions. It has resulted in harsh suffering and losses, including measures that prohibited expressions of the national identity.
Sometimes even deportation has been used to crush national ambitions. People from both nations have served as peculiar “colonists”, in areas very remote from their homelands. In the case of Lithuania, deportation has traditionally been to Siberia; whereas, in the case of the Irish, the main destination for deportation was Australia.
From many perspectives, the deportation experience differs. Lithuanians were usually deported for reasons of political insurgency; whereas the Irish were deported for criminal offences, sometimes of a ridiculous kind, in an indirect way for political reasons.
The shared experience of deportation has provided a deep awareness of the burden placed by an empire on smaller countries under its control.
The struggle for independence in both countries led to armed conflict. Both countries achieved independence during the chaotic aftermath of the First World War.
In the case of Ireland, the Irish Republican Army waged a merciless guerilla war against the British, and managed to negotiate a degree of self-rule in 1921.
The Lithuanians also took the opportunity in the same years, and fought Russian, German and Polish forces, finally securing their territory. Any country that has gained its independence this way knows the high cost of the undertaking, as well as the rewards.
These ties seem to last to present times. Maybe it is no coincidence that the Irish embassy in Vilnius is located at the end of Gedimino prospektas, in the very centre of the city. This location is well known to all Lithuanians as the headquarters of the Sąjūdis movement. This was the most important organisation when the country was struggling for its independence at the beginning of the 1990s.
Motherland and migration
A large number of Irish, as well as Lithuanians, have, for various reasons, decided or have been forced to leave their homelands throughout the centuries.
The numbers of Irish migrants used to be among the highest in the whole of Europe. The trail often took the Irish to the US and other English-speaking countries. This, in turn, has led to a very widespread Irish diaspora.
For a long time, the population drain by migration was a huge problem. An interesting result today, however, is the widespread global network of Irishmen, which in many ways contributes to the present steady economic growth and development of the country.
Lithuania has a somewhat similar migration experience. History has provided a number of waves of migrants settling elsewhere. At the moment, this process is very concentrated, and at home the phenomenon has turned into a big issue.
The future effects of this migration process are very hard to predict. A comforting notion might be that the Irish, having been through really harsh times of mass emigration, seem to have come out of the experience stronger than ever.
Be that as it may, with its gains and advantages, migration is a matter intimately associated with longing and, no doubt, the idea of returning. In the presidential palace in Dublin, a light burns in a window, lighting the way for potential homecomers to the Emerald Isle.
Who knows, maybe in the future the Lithuanians will place a torch on the top of Gediminas Castle in Vilnius, to guide their fellow countrymen and light the path for their return?
The land of Mary
Ireland and Lithuania can be put at the top of the list of countries in Europe in which Catholicism is important. In both countries, the Church plays a profound role in society.
This has not always been the case, though. For centuries, the Lithuanians were especially resistant to conversion. Finally, however, at the end of the 14th century, after diplomatic considerations and after the marriage between Grand Duke Jogaila and the Polish Princess Jadwyga, they abandoned paganism and joined the Christian world.
St Patrick’s Day, the best-known Irish holiday, commemorates the man who, according to legend, converted Ireland to Christianity. This took place in the second half of the fifth century. A legend recounts how the future saint was brought as a slave to Ireland by Irish raiders. After six years in captivity, he escaped, to return later as a missionary. His efforts subsequently changed the course of Irish history.
When the Lithuanians finally changed their religious mindset, they did it with their entire hearts and souls. The country is sometimes referred to as “The Land of Mary”, in honour of the Mother of Jesus.
For the Irish, the fact of being Catholic is virtually inseparable from the national identity.
However, things are sometimes more subtle and complicated than they may seem, especially when talking about religion and the national identity. If you question which of the two countries displays the most “Catholic” characteristics, and what those characteristics would be, the answer might surprise you. The answer would be: both, and their Polish minorities.
A very unusual feature is that Lithuania and Ireland have preserved two of the most ancient languages that exist in Europe today.
One of the defining features of these two nations is their linguistic backgrounds.
Lithuanian is the oldest living Indo-European language, and has similarities with Sanskrit.
Ireland’s various dialects, collectively known as Gaelic, or Irish, can be traced back to Celtic origins, as a subgroup of the Indo-European family. Celtic was most likely introduced in the region around the sixth century BC.
As in any language, there are many different regional dialects, in both Lithuanian and Gaelic. Gaelic is spoken differently in Munster, Connacht and Ulster; and Lithuanian is spoken differently in the west to how it is in the southeast.
In terms of language preservation, Lithuania is a leader in Europe. For over 1,000 years, the Lithuanian language has remained almost entirely unchanged.
This patriotic zeal can be illustrated by the semi-legendary “book carriers”. From the mid-19th century the written Lithuanian language and alphabet were entirely banned under tsarist rule. Smugglers brought books printed in Lithuanian from neighbouring countries into Lithuania.
Irish culture and language, though not as well preserved, have equally deep roots. As one of the most archaic languages in Western Europe, Irish to this day serves as an inspiration for modern culture. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous epic The Lord of the Rings leans heavily on ancient Celtic lore, borrowing descriptions of mythical creatures directly from ancient Irish folk tales.
When comparing the two countries’ culture and language, we cannot help but notice uncanny similarities between their mythology. The Lithuanian-American archaeologist Marija Gimbutas (1921–1994) notes in her book The Language of the Goddess that there are direct goddess equivalents between the two cultures.
For example, one of the prominent goddesses of the Lithuanian pantheon is Laima, the goddess of fortune and fertility. She can be equated with the Celtic goddess Brigit. Both were called upon by women in childbirth, and both are symbolised by the crossing of waters beside rivers or streams.
Hopefully, in the near future, we will see books translated from Lithuanian into Gaelic, and vice versa, as a celebration of the rich cultures contained within these two ancient languages.
Other countries have sometimes played a similar role in the histories of Ireland and Lithuania.
Both were raided by the Scandinavians during the Viking era, when the “Men from the North” looted the European coasts, spreading fear everywhere they went. In a kind of Mafia style, the Vikings divided their turf between them, meaning that the Danes sailed for the British Isles, while the Swedes focused upon the Baltic shores.
In Lithuania there is a folk saying that the Vikings kidnapped local women and took them over the sea to Scandinavia.
In the case of Ireland, the main targets of the sea raiders were the monasteries with their treasures.
It seems very clear, however, that a long-term relationship is developing between Ireland and Lithuania. Possibly other small European countries can look and learn from the friendship between Paddy and Marija.
A common development
At a time when the large nations of the world are becoming more active in terms of spheres of impact and control, it seems more important than ever to emphasise the tiny but strong bonds that tie small countries together.
The developing bonds between the Lithuanians and the Irish may serve as a good example from many points of view.
One of the main features of the development is, of course, the economy, highlighted by the large numbers of people migrating from Lithuania to Ireland. When visiting Lithuania in May, the Irish president Mary McAleese emphasised the importance of the Lithuanian immigrants to the economic growth of her country, and expressed her sincere gratitude for their being in Ireland.
The most significant question at the moment is doubtlessly migration. Many Lithuanians go to Ireland for a period of time, some even “commute”, thanks to the low air fares. It is difficult to foresee what the phenomenon will lead to in the long run.
No doubt, there are moments of tension, as always when speaking of migration. So far, however, it seems that the process has been going on relatively smoothly.
“Ireland went through similar situations in the past, with the last wave of emigration as recent as the 1980s,” says Izolda Bričkovskienė, the ambassador to Ireland. “Today the process is in reverse. We hope the same will happen in Lithuania soon.
“We have already noticed a diminishing number of Lithuanians coming to live and work in Ireland. Some sectors at home are doing particularly well at the moment, so the construction industry now keeps its employees at home more easily. Even experienced workers are coming back, after spending some time working abroad.
“It is good when the EU freedom of movement gives the possibility to citizens to enrich their lives and gain experience in other member states. Some people will settle in Ireland, but the majority, I believe, will return home.”
It is difficult to determine the actual numbers of Lithuanians in Ireland. According to the official Irish Census, the number of Lithuanian residents in Ireland stands at 26,400. But according to unofficial figures provided by the Lithuanian community, there are 100,000 Lithuanian nationals or more. Some estimates by Lithuanian businessmen selling Lithuanian food products in Ireland suggest that the number may be as high as 120,000.
This is a remarkable figure, bearing in mind that the official estimation of how many people have left the country in the last few years suggests a number of more than 300,000 people. This means that a third or more of the Lithuanians abroad are now in Ireland!
Jurga Vidugirienė, the president of the Lithuanian community in Ireland, confirms that there is a large population.
“About a thousand Lithuanians register in Ireland every month now. In some small cities, even a third of the population is Lithuanian, and there are about two hundred and twenty Lithuanian food shops in the country.”
The community has turned into one of the most active groups of the diaspora, and includes all kinds of organisations. There are at present, for instance, five places with Lithuanian Sunday schools for children, and the cultural exchanges with the motherland are intensifying and expanding all the time.
The devotion of the minority to promoting its roots could well be compared with, for instance … well, the Irish in exile.
Speaking of the Irish abroad, there has recently been a trend in the USA for Irish from the big colony in Boston to return to Ireland. These “Bostonians” have in turn to some extent been replaced by a large number of new immigrants from … Lithuania.
As a result of this development, partly due to migration, the Irish interest in Lithuania is growing accordingly.
Dónal Denham, the Irish ambassador, gives an idea of the Irish approach to migration on a long-term basis.
“We are very glad to be able to provide opportunities to Lithuanians in our country for the moment, and hope that many of them will be able to return to their homeland in the future.”
Of course, things happen the other way round. That is, Irish come to Lithuania. An important sign of this is that an Irish pub, with the classic name “The Dubliner”, opened this spring in Vilnius. It has become a much-frequented place by locals and foreigners alike.
The major field of Irish interest and investment in Lithuania is at present the real estate market. Several people of Irish origin are active in this booming sector.
There are also examples of Lithuanian business interests in Ireland. The furniture company SBA, resembling IKEA, has established a franchise there.
John Whitefoot, the English CEO in Vilnius, is optimistic: “So far, the results of our Irish venture are very promising. More Western countries are on the list.”
The mutual trade figures in general for the two countries are not so overwhelming; but, measured in terms of growth, the figures are increasing.
To learn from success
Today the Irish are in the midst of an economic boom, attracting all kinds of foreign attention and creating a good climate for development and wealth creation. It has not always been like that, though.
About 30 years ago, when Ireland joined the European Union in 1973, the situation was complicated, to say the least. The average income was about two thirds that in the rest of the EU, and the social problems were manifold.
However, especially during the last 15 years, the pace and strength of economic development has been one of the most significant in Europe, and one of the most remarkable in the world.
The “Irish miracle” was due to many factors. Dónal Denham emphasises a few of them: “In the first place, the Irish Government brought together the main actors in a Social Partnership Agreement to establish common goals and priorities by consensus. This mechanism has worked exceptionally well for us.
“The second main reason was the creation of access to free education for everybody, an initiative that has already paid off.”
A third aspect has been the large efforts made to attract foreign investment. This, in turn, has drawn the attention of major business interests, in fields such as technology and pharmaceuticals, paving the way for increased employment and service development.
Lithuania can learn a few things from its green friend about the economy and management, possibly benefiting enormously from the lesson in the not-so-distant future.
“Lithuania can learn a lot from Ireland,” says Ambassador Bričkovskienė.
“Let me just mention one thing: the way of looking at things from a positive point of view, the fantastic ability to extract and highlight the successful side of an issue. You can feel the upbeat emotions, and it is good for the image of the country, too.”
Give and take
There are, on the other hand, some fields where the Irish might get some advice from Lithuania.
One of them is language policy. To keep a small language alive, and furthermore developing, is not all that easy.
In this case, Lithuanian could provide a lesson or two to the Irish, who are struggling against the overwhelming superiority of English. The Lithuanian language has repeatedly been through hard times, but it has nevertheless remained as a vivid, everyday tool of communication.
Another field of learning is the experience of dealing with minorities. The rapid changes in Ireland, a formerly ethnically very homogenous country, has created a need for skills and understanding in integration matters.
Lithuania, with its long and deep experience of minorities, can provide some advice on the matter. Irish contacts with the Lithuanian migration authorities and the local population have led to an increasing exchange of experience.
One of the more concrete achievements has been making information available in Lithuanian about public services, such as access to healthcare for immigrants.
Yet another advantage in Lithuania is the instant and cheap access to culture.
The Irish ambassador shared his delight at this: “I was astonished when I realised that I could actually get tickets to top-level concerts and ballets the very same day as the performance, and at reasonable prices! We have a lot to learn here.”
An amusing detail, speaking of the relationship being forged, is that representatives of the two countries actually sit side-by-side at official European Union meetings! Perhaps this arrangement can provide even more possibilities to learn from each other.