Oleg Kurinnyi.

Ukrainians looking to an unfamiliar Christmas in Westmeath

Christmas will be different for the Ukrainian residents at Maple Court in Castlepollard this year – not just because they are so far from home and away from family and friends, but because the dates of the Irish Christmas are somewhat out of step with theirs.

Ukrainians from the eastern side of Ukraine tend to follow Orthodox traditions, under which the celebrations focus on January 6, and while those on the western side sometimes follow the Catholic tradition, and see December 25 as the important date – largely they too opt for a January 6 celebration.

And just to really confuse things, St Nicholas is the man who brings presents for children – and he visits on December 19.

The Irish Christmas table would look strange to Ukrainians, and our practice of erecting the tree and decorations from December 8 is also at odds with their habits, which is not to erect decorations before December 19.

Halyna Buchya explains that one of the traditions is that on the eve of Christmas, the dishes eaten do not contain meat, or fats derived from animals.

On the day itself, there are 12 dishes, with meats, fish or sausages; the traditional highlight is kutia (boiled wheat mixed with poppy seeds and honey).

As here, schoolchildren participate in nativity plays. Carol singing is popular – and the Ukrainians take great pride in revealing that the much-loved ‘Carol of the Bells’ is actually a traditional Ukrainian song.

Castlepollard’s community of Ukrainians are, however, looking forward to their first Irish Christmas, and have nothing but good things to say about the town that became their home last April.

Oleg Kurinnyi - 'In Ireland we feel safe'

Oleg Kurinnyi was one of those who spoke with the Westmeath Examiner shortly after the group of 58 moved in to the former nursing home in Castlepollard. Eight months on, he reveals he loves life here, and he and wife Julia and their daughter Alisa have made a point of getting out and getting to know the country.

Oleg, an economist, managed to keep working for his banker employers in Ukraine for some time after his arrival in this country, but due to the impact of the war on the Ukrainian economy, he has since been laid off.

Oleg was aware of this country’s position as a FinTech hub before arriving, and is hopeful that he may be able to get a job here in the banking field. To that end, he is currently participating in an online training programme.

Oleg’s wife Julia, an engineer, obtained a job that allows her use her professional qualifications: she is an assistant to the operational director at Mergon – within walking distance of their residence at Maple Court.

"I am very happy to be here after [living through] the war in Ukraine; in peaceful Ireland, with good apartments. We are very grateful [to] Ireland and Irish people for this," says Oleg.

In the longer term, the family will likely return to Ukraine, but, he points out, the timescale hinges on the victory he predicts for Ukraine, and after that, the pace of the country’s economic recovery.

"Our daughter is in Castlepollard [Community] College and in two years, or one and a half years, she will study at an Irish university maybe, and we will stay here for her education." Oleg says in many ways, the cultures of Ireland and Ukraine seem similar: "And that is why in Ireland, we feel at home."

So far the family have visited Dublin a few times; also Sligo, and the Cliffs of Moher. They greatly enjoyed the fleadh in Mullingar, and a visit to Sligo was to take in a baroque music festival there.

A difference between the two countries is that Ireland, Oleg says, just feels safer than even pre-war Ukraine. There seems less need to worry about locking up one’s possessions: "You don’t have to put bars on the windows," he remarks, saying that in Ukraine, it was always more necessary to take precautions.

"In Ireland, we feel safety. We feel safety in every place: in the dark evenings, we can walk without fear."