When Barry and Lola Haughian purchased an historic old castle on the outskirts of Galway in west Ireland in 2017, they had no idea that one day they would be opening the castle doors to people fleeing war in eastern Europe. But that is exactly what has happened, after Barry Haughian personally traveled to Poland to fly a group of Ukrainian refugees back to Ireland to live in Ballindooley Castle, a building Mr. and Mrs. Haughian had been using as a vacation home (their primary residence is in Madrid).
Welcome to Ireland
After being moved by the plight of the war victims, the Irish-born Haughian and his Spanish spouse originally thought about hosting Ukrainian refugees in Spain. But they soon realized it made much more sense to bring homeless Ukrainians to Ireland to take up residence in their 3,400-square foot (316-square-meter) castle, which was fully restored more than two decades ago after lying in ruin for centuries.
“We were emotional wrecks for probably more than a week,” Barry Haughian told Reuters . “We weren’t sure what we were doing, and just trying to make things better for them.”
Haughian is currently staying in the four-story Ballindooley Castle along with his wife, two adolescent children, and 11 Ukrainian refugees from the villages of Dnipro and Zaporozhye. The Ukrainians arrived about a month ago, and while the adjustment to living in an English-speaking country was difficult at first, they appear to be settling in quite nicely. Five have already found jobs, and the children in the group have been enrolled in school and are already making friends with local kids who come to play on the half-acre Ballindooley Castle estate.
“So now, every week it gets better… You can see the weight coming off their shoulders,” Haughian confirmed. “We’ve got people dropping in all the time trying to help them. It’s a real ‘céad míle fáilte’ (a hundred thousand welcomes) from the people of Ireland.”
11 Ukrainian refugees plus the Haughians are currently resident in Ballindooley Castle. ( Ballindooley Castle )
One of these refugees, 20-year-old Maria Nazarchuk, is a former accountancy student who has found employment in a garden center near the castle.
Despite the turmoil that engulfed her life, Maria is doing the best she can to adjust. She hopes to continue her studies in accountancy at the National University of Galway in September.
“Irish people are very friendly, very kind,” she said. “All the people want to help us. I (am) very happy here. I have a good job, a good home. I never thought that someday I will live in a castle.”
Maria fled from Dnipro to the Polish border with her mother to escape the spreading violence of the Russian invasion, and the two of them came to Ireland together. But she has three siblings and a grandmother who are still living in Ukraine, and as of now she doesn’t know when they might be reunited.
Ballindooley Castle, Ireland, where the Ukrainian refugees are staying. (Mike Searle / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
A Brief History of Ballindooley Castle
What is known today as Ballindooley Castle is a Norman tower house that was constructed sometime in the late 15th century. It is believed to have been built by the De Burgo (Burke) family, one of 14 ancient clans that occupied the area around Galway in medieval times.
After 300 years of occupancy, Ballindooley Castle was abandoned in the 18th century. However, the castle was repurposed as a fortress one last time, during the Irish Easter Rebellion of 1916. This uprising was started by Irish rebels seeking to escape British rule, in order to establish an independent republic. A group of rebels gathered at the Ballindooley Castle to organize a march on Galway, only to be shelled by the British gunboat Helga which was patrolling offshore in the waters of Galway Bay . The castle wasn’t completely destroyed, but it sustained enough damage to leave it looking even more dilapidated than it had before.
After lying in disrepair for two centuries, in 1989 the castle was finally rescued from oblivion by a new American owner.
An attorney from Chicago, Mary Hegarty, saw the ‘for sale’ sign on the castle when she was in Ireland on vacation. On a whim she decided to purchase and restore the castle to something resembling its previous grandeur.
After the restoration was completed in 1990 Mary vacationed at the castle a few times over the years, and she also offered free stays at the castle as prizes for her favorite charities. She decided to sell the building in 2010, and it was eventually purchased by the Haughians after the selling price had been reduced several times.
The castle in its current state is as comfortable and livable as any home. In the 20-plus years since it was restored, however, the arrival of the 11 Ukrainian refugees represents the first time it has been occupied as a full-time residence.
A Ukrainian’s Home is Their Castle
So far approximately 23,000 Ukrainian refugees have resettled in Ireland. The Irish government predicts that number could eventually reach 100,000, which will create a challenge for local governments who must find places for all to live.
Presumably, the 11 Ukrainians living at Ballindooley Castle will eventually relocate to more conventional houses or apartments. But in the meantime, they have a place to stay that is spacious, peaceful, and awe-inspiring, in a welcoming community that is doing its best to make them feel at home.
Top image: Ukrainian refugees in Ballindooley Castle, Ireland. Source: Ballindooley Castle
By Nathan Falde