After 20 years here I feel Irish. I don’t get Lithuanian jokes any more

New to the Parish: Giedre Visockaite arrived from Lithuania in 2002, when she was 15

Giedre Visockaite: ‘I was saving every penny for my ticket to Lithuania for the summer holidays. But when I finally went back there, things felt different. I realised I’d settled in Ireland.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

Giedre Visockaite: ‘I was saving every penny for my ticket to Lithuania for the summer holidays. But when I finally went back there, things felt different. I realised I’d settled in Ireland.’ Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Nearly two decades ago, in July 2002, Giedre Visockaite, her sister and Zaneta, their mother, packed up their entire lives into the family car and drove across Europe to start a new life in Ireland. They were travelling to Mullingar to meet up with Visockaite’s father, who had moved the previous year after answering an advertisement in a Lithuanian newspaper seeking mechanics in the Irish midlands town.

“We were among the first people from Lithuania to move to Mullingar. We didn’t really know many people who had moved abroad but my mum was keeping an eye out for work. The economic situation wasn’t great and life was quite challenging. We were fine but we weren’t living too comfortably. My parents had it in their minds that they wanted to search for a better life.”

Visockaite, who was 15 when she left Lithuania, remembers that her parents briefly considered moving to the United States. Eventually they decided Ireland would be a better place to start over. “I think my parents really liked the idea of Ireland because it’s similar in size to Lithuania, even the landscape is quite similar, and they have the same religion.”

Visockaite initially felt excited about the big move when her father first left. “It was the excitement of the unknown. We almost had butterflies in our stomachs, we were really positive about this new chapter.”

In Lithuania you couldn’t really have a job as a teenager, but here we could save money and buy things. And I think that work ethic stood to us

However, when the time came to leave her friends, the teenager was very upset. She and her sister, who is one year older, both started second year at Loreto College in Mullingar and found part-time work in a local coffee shop. The other girls were friendly and interested in the new students, but Visockaite felt lonely and immediately began saving to buy a ticket back to Lithuania.

“Those first two months were extremely difficult. I was upset a lot and everything was in a different language. School was also a shock. We had been in a mixed school with boys and no uniforms before. But now it was a strict Catholic school with only girls. I wanted to go back for the first 12 months here. I was making just over €4 an hour in the coffee shop and I was saving every penny for my ticket to Lithuania for the summer holidays. But when I finally went back there, things felt different. I realised I’d settled in Ireland.”

Visockaite’s parents, who spoke some English, quickly settled into their new life and built a strong circle of friends. Her mum, who had worked as a nurse in a children’s home in Lithuania, found a job in a nursing home and later as a home carer, while her dad worked as a mechanic and in construction. 

Both girls worked hard through secondary school and secured more than 500 points in the Leaving Cert. “I think we learned growing up to have determination and discipline. We both played piano when we were very young and had to practise all the time. We hated it sometimes but loved it too, and we learned how to stick to things and finish them. That was one of the most valuable skills I’ve found.

“In Lithuania you couldn’t really have a job as a teenager, but here we could save money and buy things. And I think that work ethic stood to us. We’d been given this amazing opportunity to move here – life in Lithuania would have been very different, way less opportunities.”

Visockaite studied finance, venture management and information technology at Maynooth University and stayed on to do a master’s in strategy and innovation. After completing her thesis, she secured a job with the Kirby Group Engineering company in strategy and innovation. Over the years Visockaite has worked her way up through the organisation and is now an associate director in strategy and marketing with the firm. 

The first number of years here were extremely positive, but things changed when the recession hit. Suddenly the perception was immigrants were coming in and taking jobs

She loves her work and says she feels valued by her company. “I work extremely hard and the industry is growing. Kirby is an amazing company; its core value is helping people and having a positive impact on their lives. I’m actually the only woman in the history of the company’s 55 years to make it to the senior management team. That’s a message I’d like to get out, that more women should join the engineering and construction industry.”

Visockaite acknowledges that while she has always felt welcome in Ireland, she found some people’s views of foreign nationals changed after the economic crash. “The first number of years here were extremely positive, but things changed when the recession hit. Suddenly the perception was immigrants were coming in and taking jobs. 

“Before the recession the question was ‘where are you from’ and when I said Lithuania, it was ‘amazing, tell me more’. After the recession people just said ‘oh, okay’. So that dynamic changed a bit. I don’t want to stereotype anyone here but as a general feeling it probably shifted from being extremely pleasant to being seen as a foreigner.”

However, Visockaite is keen to point out that she has only ever felt accepted and valued in the professional world and has never experienced rejection in work because of her Lithuanian background. 

Her strong bond with her older sister has been a vital support through her years in Ireland. “She is my absolute best friend and I think that’s a massive thing, to have someone close to you, especially when you move as a teenager. I can’t imagine what it would have been like doing that alone. She’s doing really well too now; she’s a director at KPMG. We’re so happy for one another.”

After nearly 20 years in the country, Visockaite feels more Irish than Lithuanian. “Even with the sense of humour, I don’t get Lithuanian jokes any more. I still speak Lithuanian with my family every day, but the majority of my life has been here. I feel more Irish, but Lithuania will always be a part of me.”

Visockaite adds that she has no plans to leave Ireland and is in the process of buying her first home in Tullamore. “Maybe it’s because I already went through that process of settling in another country and, subconsciously, I don’t want to go through that again. It’s really hard to create a new life from scratch.

“I am really grateful to my parents that they took this leap. I appreciate their determination to search for a better life and I consider myself really lucky to be here.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com. @newtotheparish