Sound of laughing Ukrainian children fills Fethard convent

Presentation convent will be home to 55 refugees who have fled Russian invasion

The sound of children laughing and darting from one room to the next filled the halls of Fethard’s convent on Monday.

Michael Gavrylenko was joined by his cousins, nine-year-old Alina and four-year-old Damir, who made it to Ireland from Ukraine with their mother Olena Betlenko and grandmother Liudmyla.

They have been reunited with Michael (3) and his parents, Oleg and Maryna, who have spent much of the past two decades living in Co Tipperary.

Built more than 160 years ago, the Presentation convent will be home to 55 refugees who have fled war and have been welcomed into the south Tipperary community, a short drive from Clonmel.


They will be housed in the newly modified convent, which has undergone a refurbishment thanks to the work of tradesmen who "pulled all-nighters" to get the building fit for purpose, said Joe Kenny, chair of the local community group behind the measure.

“The Presentation Sisters left in June 2020 and they kindly have been letting the convent be used a community day centre. This then was an ideal opportunity to help people and make use of the entire convent. There’s around over 40 rooms here,” he said.

The project received approval from the Irish Red Cross and the Department of Children.

Downstairs, there are tables laid out for eating along with a room for TV and lounging. Upstairs are bedrooms with their own sink.

Outside a children's play room are shelves and cupboards stocked with nappies, sanitary products and toothpaste. All were donated by locals in Fethard and the surrounding parishes.


Olena and her children Alina and Damir had been living in central Ukraine with her husband, who has stayed behind on his sunflower farm. It was a normal life until war broke out and they saw “things fly in the sky”, she said, terrifying her children and prompting the family to leave the country in early March.

They stayed with her sister Maryna in nearby Ballydoyle until, last week, they got to take up residence in the convent.

The children are “happy and playing and enjoying this new green country”, said Olena.

“They’re full of fun,” her sister Maryna said, as the children pulled out of their grandmother.

The family admits that Damir, the youngest, “doesn’t understand why he can’t go back home”, but they hold out hope they can return.

Some normality has returned to the children’s lives, as Alina started school last week in the town.

Despite the language barrier, she has been able to use Google Translate and loves being back in school.

While there’s giddiness among the children in the convent, the horror of what is happening in Ukraine is never far away from their parents’ minds.

Maryna hasn’t been able to watch the footage of bodies strewn around streets: “I can’t see this video, I just can’t. It’s very painful. I’m still shocked, my sister is still shocked and we’re trying to understand.”

The refurbishment works were funded by the nearby Coolmore Stud, the thoroughbred operation owned by John Magnier, which has a number of Ukrainian staff at its yard.

One of them, Oleg Gavrylenko, did equestrian studies at the National Agrarian University in Kyiv before doing placement work in Ireland and staying to work at the Ballydoyle Racing yard.

Olena’s husband has remained in Ukraine too but hopes to return to work soon, the family said.

“Ukraine is an agrarian country,” Oleg said. “The farmers there can’t wait to go back in the fields and take the loose missiles out so they can start growing again.”

The efforts in Fethard are an example of what the government hopes is possible, according to Fine Gael senator Garrett Ahearn. "It's just not feasible to have people just moving to Dublin or Cork or Galway. We need all counties, if they have the facilities, to accommodate people."

He added that the “beauty” of the Presentation convent is that primary and secondary schools are just 100m away, along with a GP and a recently completed sports grounds funded by a rural regeneration programme.