When Ukraine defeated Russia in Ballyleague

The winning Ukrainian team, celebrating their big success in 2016. Photo: Andrew Fox

It was Sunday night, October 9th, 2016 – and over 40 thirsty and weather-beaten hardy anglers had gathered in a huddle for a celebratory drink in the lounge of the Yacht Bar in Lanesborough – after three days of fairly frantic and exhausting activity on boats out on Lough Ree.

  The occasion was the staging of the 9th World Predator Boat Fishing with Lures Championships – contested by 17 countries from around the world. Anglers from the across the globe had arrived in the midlands and the west on the previous Wednesday.

  The Ballyleague/Lanesborough area was the chosen hub of the event after beating off stiff opposition from two international and two regional venues, and, thanks to financial and logistical support from Roscommon and Longford County Councils and Failte Ireland, the area had enjoyed a week like no other, with world class anglers from 17 nations pottering round the community, dipping in and out of the water and the local pubs and bringing a unique taste of their own native culture to the locals.

  The championships were very serious business. Each day, 34 boats launched from the Ballyleague Marina to fish a 3km section of the Shannon. Teams consisted of four anglers fishing in pairs from the two boats for pike and perch, using artificial lures. To put it mildly, the competition was stiff.

  The official event commenced with two days of practice on the lake and that evening the local community joined in with the traditional opening ceremony, when teams paraded through the streets in the company of the Garda band, local school students, and the Castlerea Festival street theatre group – the latter with giant-sized floats which brought a particularly special Mardi Gras-like feel to the Shannonside town.

Fishing for honour

The Ukrainian team was one of the last competitors to arrive. Iurii Orlow & Konstantyn Shvabi, who fished as a pair, were already recognised achievers on the international angling stage and their skills were shown very clearly over the week on Lough Ree (which fished much harder than usual in very flat calm conditions). In fact, Team Ukraine produced 45 fish for 167,284 points over the key championship days and were up there in the top three all the way to the finishing day.

The Russian team pictured outside the Lough Ree angling office in 2016. Photo courtesy of Ciaran Mullooly

The Russian team, meanwhile, had actually arrived in Ballyleague exactly one month before the championships began. In early September they drove into town in two shiny, powerful 4×4 vehicles with their two even more impressive speedboats on tow on the trailers behind. They too clearly meant business.

  Instead of waiting for the traditional last-minute recce around Lough Ree with the other competitors in October, they had chosen to instead spend a full two weeks here in September. They proceeded to practically scour the entire lake day after day in search of pike and perch, familiarising themselves with the contours and topography of the lake. They rented a local house in the centre of the town, parked up the trailers behind it every night, and enjoyed some of the local hospitality.

  When you think about the resources at their disposal, it was really extraordinary. They had driven over 4000 kilometres, did the recce over two weeks, then parked up the jeeps and the boats and flew home to Russia before flying back on October 4th for the official start of the competition. Clearly money was not an issue.

Modest approach

The Ukrainians, in contrast, just made the one visit to Ireland. They also had a pair of boats at their disposal (about €10,000 cheaper than the Russian models) but their public profile was much lower than that of their neighbours. They were also clearly upset about other events that had occurred in their homeland. In a number of casual exchanges, they made it clear to the locals they would not be communicating or mixing with the Russian team at any point if they could avoid doing so.

  As one of the organisers of the World Championships at the time, I have to admit I had no clue what the problem was. Like most of the western world, we were blissfully unaware of the fact that there had been a serious invasion of Ukrainian territory in the Crimea region in the 20 months leading up to the championships. None of us really had a bull’s notion why the visiting Ukrainians were so upset.

Events of 2014

The facts are that in February and March 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. On 27 February, 2014 Russian special forces stormed the parliament building of the Supreme Council of Crimea and the building of the Council of Ministers in Simferopol. Russian flags were raised over these buildings, and barricades were erected outside them. In the months and years since, over 10,000 people have lost the lives in that conflict. Here we were, a voluntary little fishing committee in the heart of Ireland totally ignorant of these facts and wondering why our visitors from Ukraine were so very seriously upset.

  Staying well away from the Russians, the visiting Ukrainian team concentrated on the angling task in hand and continued to fish very well. The Russian team, in contrast, was having an absolute stinker. All the fish they caught and released during early September (on their first trip) were now unwilling to come back out of the lake to meet up with them (maybe the fish knew more than us!)

  When the boats came out of the water for the final time at Ballyleague marina on the Sunday evening, the Ukrainians had passed out Romania and beaten off Belarus, Hungary and Lithuania to win the gold medal.

Champions of world

By the time the official medal ceremony was held that evening, the Russians were gone out of town. That did not stop the Ukrainians from boisterously celebrating their World Championships title. A couple of hours later we all were back in the ‘Yacht Bar’ in Lanesborough – enjoying their moment of glory. It was during this couple of hours that the visiting Ukrainians let their hair down for the first time and spoke openly about the invasion of their country, the death of their friends and relatives, the war they had to endure, the failure of the western world to pay a blind bit of notice, and the fact that we in the west had all been deceived by what they claimed was a rigged referendum in Crimea just 24 months previously (one that claimed to show that the people of Crimea wanted to go back into the Russian Federation).

  At the height of the celebrations I distinctly remember talking to one of our new world champions about the staging of the event the following year – due to take place in, of all places, Russia. “We will DEFINITELY not be going” he pronounced very clearly, also using one or two words not fit for a family audience. “They have taken part of our country and we will not forget that. We will get it back”.

  As the celebrations went on into the early morning, the Ukrainians unfolded their national flag and sang their traditional songs – and a number of anti-Russian messages too. They were at pains to explain what had happened to anyone who would listen. They explained how proud they were to have beaten the Russians in the world championships, but above all they told us time and time again there was unfinished business in their homeland.

  Last week that ‘unfinished business’ took another turn for the worst. This tragic story has more to run.