A home away from home


REUNION  Kate Rudko and her husband Pasha (both on right) pictured with, from left, Brendan ‘Ninny’ Reilly, Mary McNicholas and Bernie ‘Binny’ Reilly on a visit to Kiltimagh 16 years after she last visited the town with the Chernobyl Children’s Project.

Seventeen years after being hosted by the McNicholas family, Kate Rudko returned to Kiltimagh

Edwin McGreal

An enduring friendship which began in 1999 and stretches from Kiltimagh to Belarus came full circle this summer.
Kate Rudko was only 11-years-old when she was part of a Belarusian group from the Adi Roche’s Chernobyl Children’s Project who were hosted by a group of families in Kiltimagh.
Kate and ten-year-old Sveta Acmdikbuu-Benrama were hosted by Mary and Kieran McNicholas and their children, Ciara and Colin as part of the programme that sought to improve the lives of those people living in the area affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
They returned to Kiltimagh with the Chernobyl Children’s Project in 2001 and have stayed in contact since. So strong was the bond that this summer, Kate, now 30-years-old and a lawyer working in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, retraced her steps and returned to Kiltimagh.
“We were so delighted to see her. It was so emotional. She was like the Kate we last saw 17 years ago, the same warm personality,” Mary McNicholas told The Mayo News.
“Because Kate was in the designated Chernobyl zone, she was put through school and college and that’s how she got her education. She’s a lawyer now, has fluent English and is a real intelligent businesswoman. She’s a real flier.
“Kate and Sveta are like our own children at this stage. We are so proud of them and all their achievements,” added Mary.
Kate returned with her husband, Pasha, in May and stayed once more with Mary and Kieran McNicholas at their home on the Cloonkedagh Road in the town.
“She was telling her husband all her memories from her trips. There’s a museum and Sculpture Park on James Street where Kate had photos of herself 17 years ago and she retook the same photos this year. It’s uncanny how similar the photos are and how little she has changed.
“Kate was always very questioning and inquisitive. She had a little bit of English but she was always looking to learn more. She was the life and soul of the place when she was around.
“She always said about how she had to learn – ‘only through learning can I get a better life for myself’ she would say. She was only eleven!,” added Mary.
Mary runs the Copy Shop printing business on Aiden Street in the town while her husband Kieran is a retired garda sergeant. Kate’s father was also a policeman and the worldwide fraternity that exists between law enforcement officers took hold.
Kate and Sveta were brought for a tour of the then new Castlebar Garda Station while Kate’s Dad sent over his Belarusian police belt as a memento for Kieran.

Ninny and Binny
Kate’s return visit could not have been complete without a visit to Brendan and Bernie Reilly in Churchpark, Kiltimagh.
Friends of the McNicholas’s, Kate and Sveta were brought out to the Reilly farm during their initial trips and were fascinated by the farm animals, something alien to them from living in Minsk.
Known to the McNicholas children as Ninny and Binny – the kids could not initial pronounce Brendan so he became Ninny and the names stuck – Kate and Sveta would also receive gifts in the post from the Reillys at Christmas, signed ‘Ninny and Binny’.
The girls’ first trip was a fascinating one for them as Mary recalls. Fruit was a foreign concept to them and they had never seen a banana before. A trip to Pontoon and Enniscrone was the first time the girls had been at a beach
It has, Mary McNicholas admits, been easier to stay in contact with Kate than Sveta, primarily due to Kate’s much better grasp of English. Nonetheless, Sveta sent them a picture of her wedding in recent years and presents are still exchanged.
Initial communications after 2001 were by letters and an occasional phone call. Now, with the wonders of Whatsapp, Ciara (27) and Colin (26) are able to receive pictures in an instant from Kate.  
“The two girls were so good, so well behaved when they came here as children. It was like we were giving them a million dollars every time we put a breakfast in front of them. It would make you think about what our own children take for granted!
“Kate said at the time if there was one thing she could bring home to her mother, it would have been a microwave. She was amazed by what that could do,” said Mary.
And the trip had serious health benefits.
“They reckon that a month of fresh air adds two years to the life of someone from the Chernobyl zone. Even though Kate and Sveta were healthy in appearance, the month would have benefitted them considerably compared to the air in the Chernobyl zone.”
And benefitted too from the warm hospitality they received on Cloonkedagh Road, a home away from home.