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‘It is like God saved you’: how Ukrainian war refugees found new lives and love on Sherkin Island

On the remote west Cork island, ‘Sherkrainians’ have found refuge but watch the war in Ukraine from afar with horror ahead of the two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion

When Andrii Grachov was young, he had a “big dream” of being a sailor or a captain. He recalls telling his mother that he was going to live a life at sea; her response was blunt and not exactly complimentary.

“The sea means no family, no relationship, no children, no nothing. Only money,” she told him.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Andrii, now 39, is still looking at the sea every day, but it’s on Sherkin Island in west Cork. He’s living here with his wife, Kateryna, who he met on Sherkin. The couple now have a four-week-old baby, Olivia. Andrii was on the Indian Ocean when Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine. The failure of his employer to repatriate him meant he did not see his home city of Mariupol occupied and later destroyed.


Left effectively boat-bound, he moved from Nigeria to Togo, then to South Africa, on to west China, Japan, and then Alicante in Spain. He arrived on Sherkin, having been granted temporary protection, on August 9th, 2022, little knowing that a woman he had never met, his future wife, had checked in just five days previously.

“It is like a good plot for some romantic or drama movie,” he says with a laugh.

Kateryna is from Kyiv and was one of the first wave of “Sherkrainians” to come to the island, a picturesque spot with a population of 110, according to the latest count of the island’s citizens in Census 2022.

Jude Gilbert, project officer with the local development group Comhar na nOileán, said there were 57 Ukrainians currently on the register as living on Sherkin, while 59 others have departed having spent some time here. The current number includes 15 children under the age of 18: five in second level, eight attending primary school, one preschooler – and now Olivia.

All the Ukrainians on Sherkin reside in the former hotel, Sherkin House. It’s midterm when The Irish Times pays a visit, meaning children such as seven-year-old Samir Seitmemetov are knocking around, while some younger adults catch up with relatives back home on Zoom calls.

Among them is Roman Lotnyk from the Kharkiv region, who in the early weeks of the invasion directly experienced what occupation was like, sitting in his basement as the bombs dropped.

“I hoped the war would end faster because all the people die and in my city every day was attacked,” Lotnyk says.

Now aged 32, his arrival in Ireland had some prior knowledge behind it.

“Before the war I read some history and I like the culture,” he says.

It is a classic case of random groupings of people becoming yoked together. In his case, Roman was asked to select a travel companion from the reception centre in Dublin to accompany him to his new accommodation, all the way down in Sherkin. He picked Andrii.

When asked about his favourite part of the island, Roman delays for a few seconds, allowing Andrii to quickly interject with the name of the local pub: “Jolly Roger!”

‘I would not have a chance to meet Kateryna in Ukraine. I have been to Kyiv a lot of times but it’s a three million population: a one-in-three-million chance’

—  Andrii Grachov, on meeting his now-wife on Sherkin

As it happens, the bar is one of the new locations on Sherkin that doesn’t need a Ukrainian or Russian translation on the map posted in the foyer. The relaxed exchange supports Andrii’s view that on Sherkin: “It’s like a small family.”

“Sometimes I think it is like God bring me, because I work six to eight years abroad, I met different people, different religions, different behaviours, different cultures and it was not difficult to adapt,” he continues.

“There is differences between Ukraine [and Ireland] but for me [the difference] is nothing special.”

This weekend marks the two-year anniversary of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. According to the Department of Justice, the total number of Ukrainians granted temporary protection in Ireland between February 2022 and Valentine’s Day this year is 104,420.

There are currently 58,643 beneficiaries of temporary protection, or BOTPs, in short-term accommodation and another 17,000 in long term accommodation. A small fraction of those are on various islands dotted around the coast, from Arranmore and Tory in Co Donegal down to Sherkin and Cape Clear in Cork.

Yet while it may seem an idyllic life, looking out at the Atlantic, worries from home are never far away. Jude Gilbert says one of the first women to arrive on Sherkin from Ukraine lost her husband in the fighting; another woman’s brother disappeared and was never found.

“You never know what you are going to wake up to,” Jude says, recalling how she was speaking to a woman at a recent parent-teacher meeting who revealed that the previous night had been the worst bombardment of the war, leaving everyone there upset.

“It’s actual trauma and it’s different from one person to the next.”

Andrii remembers only too well the sense of not knowing how or where his mother, Halyna, was for much of the early part of the war.

Not far away, at the Sherkin Community Centre, it’s the fortnightly coffee morning. This week it has the bonus of merging with the Kids’ Club, which is usually held after school. The event is run by native islander Maria O’Driscoll and her colleague, Orla Gleeson, and the extended table is full of scones, cakes and orange cordial, with the kettle in the nearby kitchen working overtime. The adults are seated, all the while circled by stampeding children soon to be diverted into planting spring bulbs. One of those in attendance is Nina Mytrofanova, who is 43.

“When I came to the island, I think it is paradise,” Nina says. “I have never been to this kind of island, this kind of place. I was shocked, in a good way.”

They also arrived here in the first wave on August 4th, 2022. As her young son, Yaroslav, splashes in some puddles, Nina explains how he likes living here and loves going to school.

As we speak, an elderly man passes by and salutes in recognition – a commonplace scene replicated around Ireland, except he too is Ukrainian. It’s vaguely surreal, and Nina describes this sharp sense of community on Sherkin as “awesome”, something that helps her to deal with the “stress and worry” of news from home.

Back inside the hall, Maria O’Driscoll says the influx of Ukrainians has been great for Sherkin. “They have been a great asset to the island,” she says. “It’s lovely to see the generations of people.”

Would Nina stay here?

“I don’t know,” she says. “I know my son likes it here. Maybe when if the war is finished we can go back.”

For her part, Maria believes some of the Sherkrainians might decide to stay, including Andrii.

“I remember in the summertime, all the festivals were starting up, the Wooden Boat Festival and so on, and I said to him: ‘You can go to this festival or that festival’, and he said, ‘No, I would prefer if it was quiet.’ I think he has really fallen in love with Sherkin.”

Andrii, who now works as a Ukraine liaison support worker, references all the places on the nearby mainland where his fellow Ukrainians work and says he would consider staying put.

“It would be great if we could build something,” he says. “Or create some programmes for people who would like to stay or who do not have a chance to come back.”

The continuation of the war in Ukraine into a third year prompts a question for Ukrainians here on Sherkin: when will it end? No one has the answer. Olivia will be a baby on the shores the Atlantic rather than the Dnipro river or the Black Sea coast. Some of those who have travelled from one end of Europe to the other are just passing through, but others might stay a while. Numerous member of Kateryna’s family are here. So too is Andrii’s mother, Halyna, a resident since December 2022. Maybe their ship has come in.

“It’s like God saved you,” Andrii says at one point, referring to the wending route that brought him here, to marriage last month and the birth of Olivia just a few weeks later.

“I would not have a chance to meet Kateryna in Ukraine,” he continues. “I have been to Kyiv a lot of times but it’s a three million population: a one-in-three-million chance.”

Before the war, in Ukraine, Andrii says he worried and had plans: to make money, to create a business, to renovate his apartment. Now all that has changed with the strange path that has brought him to Sherkin.

“Now I don’t worry,” he says. “I have my family that I had always dreamed about.”

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