48 hours that turned Donamon Castle into a safe sanctuary for refugees

They say that a week is a long time in politics, and that when it comes to bureaucracy and the operation of Government, big wheels often turn very slowly – but I have to say that the events of the last seven days have restored my faith in humanity and the ability of those in power to govern decisively and effectively, especially when there is really an urgent need to do so.

  Loyal readers of the Roscommon People will recall this columnist writing in recent weeks about the invasion of Ukraine and the anguish of a nation as bombs and missiles and tanks brought fear to the streets and left dozens of residents dead and injured, hundreds homeless and four million people heading out of the country looking for safe sanctuary for themselves and their young children.

There have been many times in the last three weeks when I have felt quite woefully helpless and totally powerless as this brutal war unfolded – wondering like the rest of you how something could be done to help the poor people of Ukraine and how we in the western world could possibly try and cope with a man who was effectively holding a gun to their heads with the threat of nuclear or chemical weaponry.

  Last week, in the space of just a few magical days, something very real and very special did happen. Most readers will know by now that the actions of a small but determined group of people here in Roscommon transformed the outlook for dozens of worried people who were in fear of their lives in their native land as the bombs struck.

  As a member of Roscommon Lions Club for over 15 years, I don’t think I have ever seen the club members in such a determined mood. Last Tuesday week (as I wrote here previously), we sat in the function room at the back of Gleeson’s in Roscommon and talked about what we MIGHT do to help. Three days later our volunteers and their friends collected over 9000 euro to support the cause, but we still only had a handful of firm ideas and suggestions on how we might try and provide sanctuary to the people of Ukraine. There we were thinking…who are we, in our small numbers, to try and make a difference?

  In the middle of the street collection on the Friday of that week I rang the former President of Roscommon Lions John F Hanley and asked him if he would meet me at the Divine Word Missionaries HQ in Donamon Castle and explore the potential of turning the accommodation block there into a warm and safe haven for refugees. Sean Beirne and Adrian Leddy –  two men with vast knowledge and connections in the area – were already enthusiastic about the idea. When we were greeted at the castle door by Fr George Agger, I soon knew we had another enthusiastic ally on our side.

  There were so many reasons why all of us in that room on that Friday afternoon felt that our plan might not be successful, but instead, we looked at the challenge in a different way. We looked carefully at the growing needs of the refugees in Ukraine and at the vast facilities available in Donamon. Then we looked at the national and international crisis – and we set our plan in motion. An hour later the Red Cross had been notified that there was a safe haven available for up to 100 refugees in Roscommon, and, as the old saying declares, where there is a will there is surely a way – and so it was to prove.

  Seven days after our plan was hatched, the first group of 41 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in their lovely warm and comfortable ensuite rooms in Donamon and were enjoying the greatest of welcomes that the people of Roscommon could offer. In the previous 48 hours, the most remarkable metamorphosis you could ever imagine had taken place in the building. Dozens of hard-working men and women and their community groups had led the charge in heroic style. The phone calls and text messages offering help just never stopped.

  The people of Oran and those involved in Creggs Rugby Club were not found wanting. So too the Lions club members and their families and friends. As usual, the Oran GAA Club and Roscommon LEADER Partnership team were among the very first to respond to the challenge at hand, providing sterling support for the arriving refugees. Also putting a collective shoulder to the wheel were members of Roscommon Gaels, who provided support, including provision of the Hyde Centre as a drop-off point. When Fiona Ni Chuinn and her team at Roscommon County Council took control of the mission everything began to fall into place with lightning speed. When Gerry Mulhaire pulled into the campus with enough bed linen for 100 people at 10 am on Friday morning the green light was firmly on. Gerry was heading to a family wedding but made the push first to drive hundreds of miles and deliver on time. Shortly afterwards the beds arrived and then the dozens of volunteers from all corners of life in Roscommon and even further afield turned up. The Lions of Claremorris and Ballina played their part too. There was Emmet with the van, Selina and Jayne with the expertise, Paschal and Paddy with the manpower of the mens shed and more, and there was an army of professionals too whose only mission was to provide a warm bed and a sanctuary for those who had been terrorised out of their own land.

  Just 12 hours later the refugees arrived and spoke so poignantly about their experiences. John Mulligan of the Connacht Tribune spoke to ‘Ludmilla’, one of the first to get off the bus in the dark of night. An architect by profession, Ludmilla described the suddenness of the invasion and the chaos that followed.

  “On February 23rd, with my working group of architects and urban planners, I went on a business trip to Akhtyrka – a small town in the Sumy region” she told John. “At 5 in the morning my boss woke me up and told me to urgently get ready for a meeting, because Russia had begun…its invasion of Ukraine. I heard explosions in the distance. Our team of architects gathered and left the city and the Sumy region in the direction of Kyiv. The road was very tense, as we understood that Russian tanks were advancing behind us. When we entered Kyiv, we saw the first blow-ups of the von troops in the Kiev region. It was just the beginning. At 2.19 am in the morning in Kyiv, it began with the explosion of an aircraft, the wreckage of which fell on the facade of a multi-storey building on a neighbouring street. Homes were badly damaged. I went down to the parking lot under the store, which was in my yard. People hid in it all night in fear of dying in their apartments. There were no conditions for staying there. People slept on the concrete floor, there were no amenities and (no) food. Then I found a fellow traveller and we decided to leave Kyiv as soon as possible…because events developed so rapidly that it was dangerous to stay in Kyiv”.

  Over the weekend such stories have been told again and again many times. Tears have been shed and friendships struck as the message from their war experience seeps into the heart of our own community here. In the coming days there will be more calls for help and more heroics needed too – but what a start has been made. Well done to everyone involved. Never have I been prouder to be part of the team. Sometimes we CAN make a difference after all.