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The secret shared history of Ireland and Ukraine

Europe Letter: Kyiv native and fluent Irish speaker on the struggle for independence

The pound of the bodhrán gathered pace with the strumming bouzouki as the young woman's voice called out the chorus of an old Ulster song about work and courtship.

“Dúlamán na binne buí, dúlamán Gaelach,” she sang. “Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed.”

This was the scene not in Doolin or Dingle, but at O'Brien's pub in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine, this weekend, where a regular trad session gathers on Sunday afternoons.

The singer was Nadia Dobrianska, a native of the Ukrainian capital who speaks fluent Irish thanks to a spell taking Irish studies at Queen's University Belfast and attending lessons on the Falls Road.

With the world's attention now turned to the embattled Ukraine, Dobrianska has graced the airwaves of Raidió na Gaeltachta, Tuairisc and Nuacht TG4, explaining the situation on the ground as Gaeilge.

“I wasn’t even sure that I’m fluent enough to speak to the radio, but then when I was invited to, it turned out that I am,” Dobrianska said in an interview from Kyiv.

As a project manager at the Human Rights Centre Zmina, Dobrianska’s work involves documenting human rights violations in the Russian-occupied regions of the country, working against efforts to suppress such information.

"Independent media were destroyed by Russia, since the occupation," Dobrianska says. "The journalists were intimidated or imprisoned."

Ukraine has always been keeping an eye on Ireland... The Ukrainian intelligentsia in the 19th century were quite well aware of the Home Rule movement

She cites the recent sentencing of journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko to six years, and that of two members of the indigenous minority Crimean Tatars to 11 years on charges she describes as “fabricated”, amid an ongoing crackdown on the ethnic group. Zmina estimates that Russian authorities hold more than 300 political prisoners in the territories under occupation.

“These are the stories that we are anticipating that the whole Ukraine will be subjected to should Russia succeed in its aggression,” Dobrianska says. “To tell the truth, it’s really terrifying to be immersed in this, and living through these days.”

Dobrianska says that her experience living in Belfast for her studies in 2019 inspired her to do such work.

There, she immersed herself in learning about and absorbing Irish history and culture, and discovered profound commonalities with the experience of Ukraine, going back to the time of the United Irishmen.

In the same era, Ukraine was also experiencing its Ukrainian National Revival, only to be subsumed into the Russian Empire in an echo of Ireland induction's by the Act of Union in 1801.

“Ukraine has always been keeping an eye on Ireland, historically,” Dobrianska explains. “The Ukrainian intelligentsia in the 19th century were quite well aware of the Home Rule movement.”

Like Ireland, Ukraine asserted its independence in the wake of the first World War. When Ireland’s elected MPs refused to take their seats in Westminster in 1919 and formed the First Dáil in Dublin, it inspired some in Ukraine.

“Ukrainian politicians at that time were looking at Ireland and thinking: do we do the same?” she recounts.

Another striking link is the experience of famine, and its role in forging aspirations for independence.

Ukraine's Holodomor or Great Famine of the 1930s was caused by the forced collectivisation of small farms by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. The mass starvation of four million people had a political purpose too, in crushing Ukraine's independence movement.

Dobrianska collected an oral history from her great aunt, a survivor of the 1946-47 famine, as a way to preserve stories obscured by decades of Soviet censorship. When reading accounts of Ireland’s Great Hunger, she realised they were written by people like her: third generation survivors, who spoke to their grandparents.

“The famine is also featuring in our debate about why Ukraine never ever wants to be under Russian rule,” Dobrianska said. “There is no justification for Russian rule, if you think about these experiences.”

We just keep carrying on with our lives, while the Ukrainian army is cleaning their guns and ready to resist at any time, should there be an invasion

In a long lecture to the Russian nation this week as he prepared to send in troops, President Vladimir Putin laid out his alternative version of history, which claims Ukraine as a rightful part of Russia with no case for independence.

But the heavy-handed tactics of Moscow and years of suspected interference in local politics as young people led movements to align more closely to the European Union have backfired, in Dobrianska's view.

"Previously, some Ukrainians had this certain 'unionist' sentiment. They were nostalgic about this big Soviet Union that they were part of. Now, though, they see Russia as an aggressor," she says.

Despite the gathering clouds of war, Nadia Dobrianska plans to keep her Sunday appointment at the trad session in O’Briens.

“It’s such a nice distraction,” she says. “We just keep carrying on with our lives, while the Ukrainian army is cleaning their guns and ready to resist at any time, should there be an invasion.”