From sirens to schoolbooks


Ukrainian refugees (from left to right) Olena Shyianovska, Olexandra Kovych, Natalia Butka, with their children (from left to right) Ania (11), Paulina (4) and Veronika (6) in Burriscarra NS

Burriscarra NS welcomes three Ukrainian children into its fold

Oisín McGovern

BURRISCARRA NS has educated hundreds of children since it opened back 1991, providing an invaluable social service to the community of Carnacon.
In that time, it has produced possibly the greatest female footballer of all time (Cora Staunton), as well as two Mayo footballers (Michael Plunkett and Jason Gibbons), a Rose of Tralee (Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin), a Mayo Rose (Rachel Gibbons) and a chancer who somehow got a job reporting with The Mayo News.
Its corridor and classrooms are filled with happy memories.
We gazed in awe at the sparking silver of the Rose of Tralee tiara, the county titles and the All-Ireland chalices which visited the parish over the years.
We leapt for joy in front of a half-tonne television when Robbie Keane stuck the ball in the German net at the 2002 World Cup.
We decked the halls in combinations of green, red and white for our heroes representing Ballintubber, Carnacon and Mayo.
We heard all the tales, traditions, tragedies, legends and lore of our historic and picturesque surrounds. We learned the history of our great island, a land which knew the horrors of plunder, pillage and war for centuries.
We learned how Ballintubber Abbey was wrecked by Cromwell’s brutality. We learned how the altruism of the great George Henry Moore saved scores from starvation during The Great Famine. We learned about the horrors of the Second World War, the likes of which we thought would never again visit European soil.
In 2022, instead of learning about man’s humanity in the pages of a book, Burriscarra National School became part of a chapter of history that is still being written before our very eyes.
Ania Shyianovska (11), Veronika Butko (6) and Paulina Kovych (4) grew up in the Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv, Sumy and Bucha, which are over 500 kilometres apart. Their paths were never destined to cross.
That was until the terrible morning of February 24, 2022, when their motherland woke the sound of Vladimir Putin’s war machine, hell-bent on maiming, killing and destroying everything in its path.
They waited for some weeks before their parents made the unthinkable decision to leave their husbands, brothers and fathers behind for a safe but distant land.
Through the help of local charity Candle of Grace, Ania, Veronika and Paulina resettled with host families in Mayo and are now an integral part of the school community at in Carnacon.
Each morn, the village echoes not with the roar of artillery, the wail of sirens or the growl of warplanes, but with the melody of laughter and birdsong. Far from wretched winged beasts, butchery and mayhem, these Ukrainians now live, work and play beneath the clear and hopeful skies of rural Mayo.

IN its heyday, Burriscarra NS had three full-time teachers catering for over 40 students. For a variety of reasons, that number had dropped to 15 by September of 2021.
Shortly after the war began, the school reached out to Candle of Grace through Mary McGing, a school board of management member who is also involved with the charity.
Before long, Ania, Paulina and Veronika were pulling on red school jumpers and heading off to school in Carnacon with hope and joy in their hearts.
“We had the capacity to take the children and we just wanted to put out the hand of friendship. We were ready to help,” Burriscarra NS’s school principal James Rafter tells The Mayo News.
Olena Shyianovska found work shortly after she and her daughters Ania and Mariia settled in with Mary McGing following a long and harrowing trek from Sumy.
A qualified English teacher in her native Ukraine, Olena has been helping refugees adjust to their new school life through her work in Carnacon and Louisburgh’s Santa Maria College.
“They settled quite quickly,” Mr Rafter says. “Ania came into the senior end of the school, and she had very little English. That was difficult for her.
“But technology and Google Translate is great, and now, even after six or eight weeks, she understands everything and is speaking lots of English.
“Children have a capacity just to get on with things. They have no issue. The local children have been very welcoming and inclusive. We are delighted to have them.”
Mr Rafter insists that Carnacon has room for plenty more children, whatever their nationality.
 “We are trying to sustain our small schools, so the support of the local community is really, really important. In a rural area like this, the school is the centre of it,” he says.
“It’s a bit like our pubs and post offices, they will only be missed when they’re gone.”
New home
WHEN The Mayo News called to Burrsicarra NS recently, Ania, Veronika and Paulina were just about to raise the school’s sixth Green Flag along with their parents Olena, Natalia and Olexandra.
It’s not a completely alien environment to Natalia, who worked as a teacher in her native Kharkiv and is now living with Maura and Martin Walshe in Ballintubber.
Not long after meeting this reporter, Natalia shows us a picture of herself and her husband Oleksandr on their wedding day. In the next photo, Oleksandr  is no longer suited and groomed. He is rugged and war-beaten, wearing body armour and holding a gun. A completely changed man.
Olexandra and her daughter, Paulina, came to Ireland on April 6, having spent 15 days living in a shed after the start of the invasion. Their hometown of Bucha made global headlines when cowardly Russian soldiers massacred and raped civilians as they fled from Ukrainian forces.
Olexandra and Paulina’s home is still intact, but the roof has been destroyed. Because of the bombing and shelling, many other homes in her area will never be lived in again.
The mother and four-year-old now live in Westport with Helena Hastings, who works as a special education teacher in Burriscarra NS.
Through Olena’s interpretation, and using whatever English they know, the three women and their  children express heartfelt gratitude to the school community.
“They take care of every child. I feel like I don’t have any problems and that nothing bad will happen,” says Natalia.
Her daughter, Veronika, wants to be a vet when she grows up because she loves animals, of which there are plenty in the fields around Carnacon.
“The people here are very helpful and very kind. They help a lot and do everything for Ukrainian families. I am very grateful,” says Olexandra, who has prepared a beautiful spread of traditional Eastern European food for the Green Flag ceremony.

IN a country with so many overcrowded classrooms, going to school in Carnacon is like being part of a big family.
“I am very surprised that, for such an amount of children, there are so many teachers who help every day,” says Natalia.
Olena says that the most important thing for most Ukrainians is that their children are going to school in a safe and secure environment.
“For some people it’s difficult because it’s another road, it’s another tradition… in general I think it is very good that we have an opportunity to stay here and to stay safe,” she says.
One day Olena, Natalia, Olexandra, Ania, Veronika and Paulina will return to their motherland, but not until it is safe to do so.
Whatever the outcome of this terrible war, Carnacon will always hold a dear and special place in the hearts of these brave women and children.
“I hope that when the war is finished, we will take an Irish flag and plant it in our school in Ukraine,” Natalia vows.
“We will invite you to our country, because we have a beautiful country, with beautiful houses, and we will gladly meet you in Ukraine.”