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Westport Ukrainians mark Independence Day


BLUE AND YELLOW Ukrainian children wore their country’s colours on Independence Day.

Ann Hogan

Last month I wrote a feature about a new voluntary group formed around the time the first refugees arrived in Westport. At that time they knew very little about our country or culture, other than it offered safety and somewhere to rest after their arduous journeys through Europe to reach our shores.
Since then, volunteers have grown in number along with the number of refugees arriving in our town, and whilst there have been challenges involved for everyone, there have been reasons for celebration too. This was particularly apparent when a lot of us were involved in marking the Ukrainian Independence Day last Wednesday, August 24.

Flying the blue and yellow
This event was tinged with worry and concern for loved-ones who are still in Ukraine, but even so, those gathered were all determined to celebrate. Tom Bourke at The Towers Restaurant and Bar down at the Quay offered their marquee for the celebrations. This is a fantastic spot at any time of day with its gorgeous sea views and great atmosphere, and Tom, along with his staff, put everyone at ease and worked hard to help everyone have a good time.
So many Ukrainians contributed to making this a day of real celebration, sourcing wood and fabric in their country’s colours to make a fantastic photo booth, which was a great backdrop for many of the photos.
The food, cooked by many people in different houses, was great – and it was a good opportunity for the many local people there to sample that country’s different dishes.
Cleverly, there were notices showing what each dish consisted of, since a lot of us, me included, didn’t recognise a lot of the dishes at first glance! For instance, there was ‘salad varya gycylska’ which consisted of prunes, beet, beans, oil and seasoning – it wasn’t what I’m used to but it was really delicious. It was the same with ‘varenki with mushrooms’ which uses eggs, flour, oil, mushrooms, onions and butter; and so it went on with many different dishes to try, all served with pride by the people who cooked it.
Another highlight took place on the stage erected in the marquee – two young women explained the situation in Ukraine and how it has affected them and their families. One of them spoke in Ukrainian and the other followed this in English, so that everyone knew what was happening.
They explained that it’s been so frightening to phone back home and not get a reply for days to say that their loved-ones are still alive. However, they didn’t dwell on this, instead thanking the people of Westport for their continued welcome and said how happy they are that their children will be starting the new school year with a good chance of being integrated into life with their Irish classmates.

Music and culture
The children were a delight and a group of them danced for us, along with some teenagers, and whilst they had their own small orchestra there, there were also a couple of Irish songs from local musicians too. Two young women played the keyboard and sang for us – beautiful voices and very atmospheric.
There was also a board where anyone could write their hopes and messages for the future as well as displays illustrating some of Ukraine’s customs and interests, including explanations about Motanki (dolls) – ancient family charms of Ukraine with each doll representing the union of family ties of generations. The name Motanka comes from the concept of ‘winding’ and the general appearance of such a doll is a human figure, usually a woman or child, with the body parts connected by knots. There was a craft stall, which a lot of the children loved as well as face-painting and they all seemed to be having a lot of fun.
The orchestra played the Ukrainian national anthem – this was particularly moving in the current circumstances, and I could see that it affected many of the people present. Looking out over Clew Bay in the background, there couldn’t have been a more beautiful and tranquil backdrop to these celebrations, and such a contrast to what is happening in the refugees’ home country.
They then sang a patriotic folk song which has become their unofficial anthem – recently remixed and sung by Andriy Khlyvnyuk of BoomBox who was touring in the United States when the Russian invasion of Ukraine started on February 24. In response to the invasion, Khlyvnyuk cut the tour short to return to Ukraine in order to join the armed forces. He recorded the song and video while wearing army fatigues, standing near Sophia Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, and uploaded it to his Instagram account on February 27, where it became viral. Listening to it, you can see why it stirs up so many emotions.
The Cathaoirleach of Westport/Belmullet Municipal District Council, Cllr Christy Hyland, talked about the efforts that everyone had made to make this a day of celebration despite so much sadness. This echoed what we have all seen over the past few months – that the people of Westport have continued to show kindness and hospitality to people who have arrived in our town with nothing but a suitcase to their name, determined to make a new life here even though there are still many challenges to overcome.  

Ann Hogan is a member of the Westport Welcomes Ukraine Group.