At St Vincent’s Convent Primary School in Blackpool, on Cork city’s north side, a hall full of children broke into cheers, giddily waving handcrafted Ukrainian flags – and of course some Cork ones too – for their special guests. A stream of Ukrainian women, and one man, dressed in white clothing decorated with ornate embroidery, marched into the hall with determination.
After a chance encounter between a school staff member and choir member of Cork’s first Ukrainian choir, a cultural exchange was organised between the groups. On Thursday morning, the Kalyna choir were welcomed to the school that’s become home to many of their own over the last year or so.
“This is our first cultural mission to a school,” said Viktoria Tymoshchuk, the choir’s co-founder. “We are grateful to St Vincent’s for being brave enough to welcome and teach Ukrainian children fleeing war. They receive such a warm welcome at local schools and feel integrated and part of society. Our mission is to remind them who they are.”
More than 100 children were treated to complimenting performances from Kalyna and a 5th class girls choir. Teachers, and the odd brave student, swayed along with Slavic dance moves.
On performing Shchedryk (or Carol of the Bells as the song is known in English), many faces lit up recognising the hymn used in Home Alone, and the children sang about how the war stole childhoods, reducing one mother to tears.
The entire hall joined in a rendition of Frère Jacques in Ukrainian, with teachers holding up hastily produced sheets with the Ukrainian lyrics. A surprise verse of Danny Boy was performed by the Ukrainians. “Who’s Danny boy?” one curious child asked a teacher.
Khrystyna Zahorulko, who is “10 and nearly 11″, said “it’s very nice to hear songs in my language. It makes me feel more at home,” but added that she missed her two cats and dog in her home country.
Ten-year-old Maiia Bitkova said she had been in Ireland for two years. Quickly, her mother interjected: “No, no! One year and two months.” Maiia jumped into her arms giggling and insisted she has lived in Ireland with her new friends for two years.
Do the songs remind her of home? “Home!” she shouted with more than a hint of sadness.
“I thought the connection in the room was incredible,” said Aedamar Ní Shiochrú, assistant principal at the school. “Every child felt it, because you wouldn’t have this many children sitting quietly listening if they weren’t engaged.” She hopes other schools will host similar events. “Out of small ideas, big things grow,” is how she put it. Meanwhile, the Kalyna choir hopes to visit children elsewhere in the future.
Ger Meagher, a teacher at the school, said the exchange was emotional for many of the staff members: “Just seeing those strong, strong women and the way they shared their culture with us really blew us away. It’s just wonderful to share that experience with those women, to see their strength.”
Afterwards, Ukrainians left the school laughing, reminiscing, enjoying the sunshine far from the suffering back home. One mother cradled her eight-month-old baby born in Ireland, apparently uplifted by the event.
As Ukrainians stay on Irish shores for far longer than many had planned, the community appears keen to adopt new customs while holding tight to their old ones. For Tymoshchuk, “Ireland became a kind of a small motherland”, with the school at the heart of this for Ukrainian children.
“For some of our children Irish teachers became their first teachers,” she said. “They will remember them forever.”