MARCH Participants in the Westport Welcomes Ukraine gathering walking to St Mary’s Church for a prayer service.
“UKRAINE has not yet perished.” That is the title of the Ukrainian national anthem. Its sentiment is also etched into the faces of the men, women and children who draped Westport blue and yellow on the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion.
Banished from their homeland by Vladimir Putin’s wretched war machine, the hundred-odd souls that gathered at the Octagon last Friday are among the 3,000-plus Ukrainians who have sought refuge on Mayo’s peaceful shores.
Irish people and other nationalities also turned out, all to send a message of hope and defiance in the wake of the terrible war that was ignited on that dark morning of February 24, 2022.
“It is our chance to support each other, to support Ukrainians, to so say thank you for having us here, for supporting us here, and to say thank you for all they have done for us,” said Natalia Herasymenko, who spoke to The Mayo News in Christy’s Harvest café prior to the gathering. Joining her were Tetiana Popelniuk and Oksana Konoval.
This time last year, Murrisk, Westport and Carrowholly were as alien to them as Mariopol, Bucha and Irpin were to the average Irish person.
Today, these peaceful Clew Bay hallows are the place they call home. Since arriving in Ireland, through all the adversity, they have formed deep friendships.
At one point on her journey, Oksana and her teenager shared accommodation with 20 other people.
“We cried every day,” she told The Mayo News. “I don’t know how to explain what this means for us. It’s great, it’s wonderful. Sometimes I would like to cry because Irish people support Ukrainian people.”
In her native country, Oksana was the manager of a concert hall.
“I was absolutely happy. I was delighted for my job,” she recalled.
“Sometimes I thought maybe it’s not good… but yesterday, when I saw my old photo before war, I understand how I was happy. Now it’s [a] very hard feeling.”
“I feel the same,” added Tetiana, who arrived here in September and now lives among 90 Ukrainians in a hostel in Murrisk.
“It is so hard to let the previous life go and forget everything and have an understanding that you lost it. There is a hope, and I will go back to Ukraine. I will continue what I did before the full-scale invasion. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a normal life.”
‘We are here for you’
When the women were asked if they think Ukraine will win the war, the reply was unequivocal.
“Sure,” the three women replied immediately, in unison.
“We know it! There’s no doubt, but the question is the time,” said Tetiana.
Natalia has been blown away by the kindness of the volunteers who welcomed the newly-arrived Ukrainian community. They came as strangers, but soon became friends with these locals and their fellow Ukrainians.
“People were asking ‘How are things?’. They were supporting us as much as they could. They were bringing us clothes for kids and for adults. They were taking us for coffee… it was amazing,” she said.
One of those volunteers is Judy Casey, a member of the Westport Welcomes Ukraine.
Speaking at the rally at the Octagon, Judy reiterated the message of support that went out loud and clear in the spring of 2022.
“We want you to know that we are here for all of you. We stand with Ukraine and we are here to do anything that we can,” she told an emotional crowd.
Similar words were imparted by Cllr Christy Hyland, Cathaoirleach of the West Mayo Municipal District.
“If there is help that we can provide for you that hasn’t already been provided, let us know,” he said, before being greeted with a handshake from a Ukrainian child.
The gathering was one of mixed emotions for the exiles. The defiance that has swelled the spirit of the nation burst from every word spoken and every song sung. But there was also a palpable air of sadness underneath the grey Atlantic sky.
Tears were shed when Oksana addressed the crowd in her native tongue. The crowd then burst into a passionate rendition of the rousing ‘Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow’ – an old patriotic Ukrainian song.
Later, a poem in praise of the generosity of the Irish people was read in English and Ukrainian by Ludmila Krivoshey.
Flags, banners and placards in hand, the crowd then marched and sang their way along the short journey to St Mary’s Church for a special service.
As they turned right at the bridge, the Ukrainian national anthem rang proudly across the Mall, reaffirming that defiant creedthat has forged the spirit of a nation: “Ukraine has not yet perished.”