When Tanya Palamar’s mother back in Ukraine asks how her granddaughter’s English is progressing, Tanya jokes that ‘Irish people would learn Ukrainian sooner than my daughter will learn English’.
That’s because Tanya, her husband and their three children are among 900 or so Ukrainians who now outnumber the locals in Lisdoonvarna, Co. Clare, where the population was around 800 in February.
The famous spa town with the equally famous anthem by Christy Moore, together with Ballyvaughan up the road, both doubled in population virtually overnight in March when vacant hotels there were chosen to house those fleeing the war in Ukraine.
This prompted an exemplary response from the community, but also presented some significant challenges for both locals and new arrivals.
The Palamars come from the southern city of Zaporizhzhya, where Tanya runs a beauty salon and husband Oleg a furniture factory.
‘Even last night we had four rockets fall in our city,’ Tanya told the Irish Mail on Sunday. ‘About three weeks ago one rocket fell right across the street and the windows were broken in my beauty salon.’
They want to go home as soon as they can but are trying to make the best life they can in Ireland as the war rages on.
Oleg is working as a waiter and Tanya works with local community group Lisdoonvarna Fáilte, which support´s refugees and asylum seekers. The Palamars want to find their own place and jobs to match their qualifications, but are struggling with obstacles familiar to many Irish people – finding a place to rent and finding childcare. The childcare centre in Lisdoonvarna is, unsurprisingly, full.
Transport was an issue too until Oleg brought the family car over and, clearly, these problems are exacerbated by the sheer volume of new arrivals.
Extra bus services have been put on between Ballyvaughan and Ennis, but even now it is common for drivers to have to turn away queuing passengers, locals and new arrivals alike.
Local businessman Peter Curtin, who employs some refugees in the Burren Smokehouse and the Roadside Tavern, said the circumstances in Ukraine mean ‘you have to give a dig out’.
With next month’s Lisdoonvarna matchmaking festival set to be compromised by a lack of accommodation in the town – as has the current tourist season – Peter said it may become a concern if more suitable medium-term accommodation isn’t found by next year.
‘Places like Lisdoonvarna, unfortunately, are seasonal. I’d imagine if we were having this conversation a year from now and the hotels are still taken up by refugees – which is understandable, the Government has to put people somewhere – but definitely it would be another year without tourists in the town. That would put a strain on things obviously.’
In the post office on the main street, Joanne O’Gorman is suddenly one of the busiest postmistresses in Ireland. She says she is second only to the GPO in Dublin for processing welfare supports for Ukrainian refugees.
‘It all happened overnight and nobody knew it was going to happen,’ she told the MoS. ‘I opened here one Thursday morning on what was supposed to be a normal day and there was a queue to the square.’
Joanne described communication as ‘impossible’. Both parties must speak into a translating app, further prolonging the process.
‘It’s probably too much for a small town, but for them as well because there aren’t the facilities around here,’ said Joanne, who has brought forward her retirement date to the end of this month.
The primary care centre in nearby Ballyvaughan is under similar strain. A doctor there who wished to remain anonymous said they are ‘ready and happy to help, but the pure volume of extra patients is proving a little difficult to manage nowadays – for the receptionist, the nurses, not only the doctors.
‘We’re actually trying to get in touch with a HSE liaison person now to see what we could put in place because I don’t think we’ll be able to manage long-term, and our own patients who have been in the practice for years and year s are certainly feeling the impact of it too when all of a sudden they can’t get an appointment and they have to wait, which wouldn’t normally be the case in a rural practice.’
The doctor also expressed concern that secondary services ‘that we are struggling with anyway, like access to phsiotherapy , psychology, psychiatry’ would soon be ‘hugely impacted’ by the influx of people.
‘Because after Covid it was all delayed and people’s appointments were put off, and now with the extra needs, that will certainly affect all the population.’ Local schools too have had to go above and beyond to find space for hundreds of new pupils. This is expected to pose a significant challenge when schools reopen in a few weeks.
Children are settling in well, according to Mark O’Donnell, a GAA games development officer who happened to be assessing a Cúl Camp in his home club of St Breckan’s this week which had around 25 or 30 Ukrainian kids in attendance.
Mr O’Donnell told the MoS: ‘It’s not going to be a quick fit but I’d imagine over time they’re going to integrate in, and the GAA is the best way in the world to integrate you into any corner of Ireland.
‘In fairness, I think the community has done a lot in a very short space of time to try and integrate and make people feel welcome.
‘We see them all the time walking with their kids and they’re very nice people. They say hello. Some of them work locally. Some of them play music in the pubs and that.’
Local Fine Gael county councillor Joe Garrihy added ‘young lads scoring hat-tricks for Burren United’ to the ways in which new arrivals have bedded in.
Mr Garrihy has worked to assist the refugees and was instrumental in getting the extra bus routes added.
‘The people of north Clare have reacted in an extraordinary way, to be honest,’ he told the MoS. ‘You’d be so proud of people rallying’ and the kindness and the willingness to help.’
Nowhere in Ireland has taken in more Ukrainian refugees. per capita than north Clare .
The Ennistymon electoral area had 1,236 refugees at the CSO’s last count, which is 7.5% of its population – a far bigger proportion than anywhere else in Ireland.
Mr Garrihy told ‘a particular story from last week that would leave you completely devastated. A six-year-old girl with her 75-year-old grandmother arrived and the accommodation provider asked “Will your family be joining you?”. The family were all killed in Mariupol.’
Mr Garrihy said any local objections or concerns were ‘the same issues that you would have if you brought 800 people to any area that already had a population of 800’.
Tanya Palamar, whose husband studied in Limerick as a teenager (and with three children under 18 was allowed to leave Ukraine), said her family ‘absolutely fell in love with Lisdoonvarna and Clare and the people here.
‘The only reason we want to go to a bigger city is to find a place to rent and jobs. Really it’s lovely to stay here. When we came from Ukraine, it was so calm and beautiful here. So for our nerves it was really great.’
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