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A Ukrainian teenager in Galway: ‘I love the Irish school system. It’s not that strict’

New to the Parish: Marharyta Pokydailo lives with her grandparents in the village of Woodford while her parents remain in Ukraine

Marharyta Pokydailo’s teenage years haven’t been what she expected. Aged 15 she lived in Kyiv’s vibrant city centre with her parents, thriving at school and playing piano. Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Today, aged 17, she and her grandparents live in Woodford village in southeast Galway, 17km from Portumna, while her parents still live in Kyiv.

Marharyta, pronounced Margarita (sometimes called Margo in Ukraine), is known as Margaret in Woodford, where the teenager lives in Bark Hill House, a former convent-turned-rental property, now refugee accommodation. The 1903 house is home to several family groups from different areas of Ukraine. From the large sittingroom with sash windows on two sides, the gardens, woodland and rolling hills are visible.

“Before the war it was really great. We were living in the centre of Kyiv. It’s a bit of a contrast here, living in a more quiet place. It’s different but I love it. Sometimes I really miss the rhythm of a big city.” She enjoys visiting Dublin, and goes to Galway most weeks.

She’s in fifth year in the Mercy College across the road. “I like the school very much. I feel I integrated fairly quickly. I found lots of friends. I’m really happy in the school. The teachers are lovely. And my classmates, they’re very friendly.”


She learned English at school and, earlier, from her mother, who has “perfect English”. At home they spoke Ukrainian, and she’s fluent in Russian too: when she was small people in Kyiv spoke both languages, but “most people stopped speaking Russian” when Crimea was annexed, “because people hated the actions”.

She’s studying for the Leaving Cert at the Mercy but also “attending” her Ukrainian school, with online tutoring or solo studying, after school. Five students from her former classmates still physically attend school, the rest are scattered, in France, Austria, and “my really good friend, he’s in England”.

I hope when I finish my undergraduate education, the war will finish. I don’t know where I want to live but I definitely want to help to rebuild

Her subjects in her Ukrainian school are physics, chemistry, Ukrainian history, world history, maths, English, geography, Ukrainian literature and world literature. She’s doing German in her Ukrainian school, and French here, where aside from compulsory subjects she’s taking physics, biology and art. This makes for a very long day, plus homework for both. She is “really stressed for my Ukrainian final exams”, which take place this month in the Dublin embassy.

She is in a good position to compare approaches. Subjects are “pretty similar, but especially comparing maths and physics, the Ukrainian school system is much harder. I love the Irish school system. It’s much more, I don’t know, not that strict. In Ireland you don’t get grades every day. You just get grades for tests, once in a few months. In Ukraine, we get grades for absolutely everything, for every homework, and we’re doing regular tests, really often.”

An only child, her parents, Irene and Mark Pokydailo, both work in the civil service, in law and IT. “These are the people we need now the most probably.” Before the war, they had a comfortable middle-class life: an apartment in the city, a country house in a village nearby for summers, regular foreign holidays. “We could afford go on a trip, buy a new car.” Her maternal grandparents lived in another city district.

“When the war started we were forced to flee Kyiv because Russian troops were near. They could come in at any time. I went with my parents and grandparents to western Ukraine for a few months. It’s closer to Europe and was safer because there were no Russian troops, just explosions. There’s nothing more scary than hearing the Russian troops outside Kyiv.” After “Ukrainian fighters made Russian troops go away from Kyiv” they spent the summer and autumn in the city. But that winter “we had no light and no electricity and no water. It was constant blackouts in Kyiv. It was pretty much impossible to live there. There were constant bombardments that winter.” Missile attacks destroyed apartment blocks on their street and “lots of people died in our district”.

She and her grandparents left Kyiv in January 2023, but her parents stayed. “Mum was really worried about me. I’m the only child. She said we should go somewhere, because it’s impossible to live here; all the houses nearby are destroyed. Our house could be like that. My parents, they can’t leave the country, they have a job to do. They think it’s important to stay and help how they can.” Her grandparents are over 70 but “their souls are young”.

They chose Ireland because it’s English-speaking. “It’s important to be able to communicate. My grandma also knows English. Another reason is, we knew Irish people, they really have sympathy to Ukraine. I would say histories of Ireland and Ukraine are similar. I know how Ireland was fighting for the rights and independence, and Ukraine is also doing that now. We knew Irish people understand us.”

Before coming she knew “a bit about Irish history. The famine, Cliffs of Moher, Trinity College, because it’s really famous! In Ukraine it’s much more sunny. In Ireland it’s raining but I’m the kind of person who loves rain. In the winter, my freckles were gone, but now they’re back again!”

It was difficult leaving her parents. “I really miss them because I was, I am still, really close with them. We used to spend a lot of time together.” They have daily video calls.

Coming to Woodford, “we felt really safe. It was really unusual, there were no explosions. And silence. I felt completely comfortable. It’s a safe place. I love people here and really love the nature.”

There was no piano at Bark Hill, but a community of music lovers, Noelle Lynskey, director of Portumna’s Shorelines Arts Festival, pianist Finghin Collins and Music For Galway helped organise the loan of a Kawai piano from Pianos Plus in Dublin. Pokydailo is delighted. “It’s really good. I really love it. It’s just perfect.”

She worries for her parents. “I am constantly reading the news, especially when I know there was an air alert.” They have electricity now, but “they’re really scared, especially when they hear explosions. They go to work every day, even though most nights they spend in the underground shelters, and they can’t sleep.” She returned to see them in Ukraine last summer for two weeks. Coming back, “it was worse” than leaving first time.

After university “I want to help rebuild the cities in Ukraine. I hope when I finish my undergraduate education, the war will finish. I don’t know where I want to live but I definitely want to help to rebuild.

She hopes to live in Ukraine again, but “if years will pass and I will still be in Ireland, it might be hard to decide where to live, because Ireland is becoming my second home, even after one year.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past 10 years. To get involved, email or tweet @newtotheparish