Ireland's accidential tourists: Every summer, south-west Ireland isinvaded by citizens of the former Soviet Union: children whose lives were blighted by the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Few can resist the healing powers of Irish hospitality

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FRANKIE ROSS'Slittle car bowled through the floral, festive communities of County Cork; she passed a harrumphing brass band, the billowing big top of a circus, clusters of Guinness-sampling tourists outside bunting bedecked pubs. The annual holiday homecoming celebrations for young Irish emigrants were about to get under way, and south-west Ireland was wearing an even more than usually cheerful aspect.

In the back seat of the car, hair fluttering in the breezefrom the open window, sat Veronika Trukhnova, a ten-year-old girl from the Minsk District in the newly independent CIS Republic of Belarus. She gazed serenely at the unfolding landscape, giving an impression of quiet introspection which, Frankie Ross assured me, was somewhat misleading. Veronika's father is the head of a collective farm; her mother is a typist. But she is a normal girl in abnormal circumstances. When she was two years old, at 1.23am on 26 April 1986, the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, and the wind, as far as Veronika was concerned, was blowing in the wrong direction.

It blew north, spreading radiation over the fields, forests and towns of southern Belarus, and making her one of the Chernobyl children.

Some Chernobyl children are seriously ill; some are deformed; all are considered to have an abnormally high risk of bone, cell or thyroid cancer; the radiation hospital in Minsk looms large in their lives. But the defining characteristic of their lives is uncertainty: they play in streets next to radiation 'clocks', and most, whether they admit it to themselves or not, are profoundly anxious about what radiation might be doing to them. They have no idea and nor, it seems, does anyone else.

Veronika looks fine - with her large, violet eyes and stunning smile, she is, actually, exceptionally pretty - but, said Frankie, her fingernails are thin and weak. Calcium deficiency.

For several summers now, hundreds of Chernobyl children from Belarus or Ukraine have been brought over to Ireland for 'rest-cure' holidays involving much organised romping about in the countryside. They began to arrive, in a trickle, in 1991, and they have also been brought to Holland, Belgium, Germany and Britain. But the Irish operation has been on a far bigger scale, and in the last two years it has been getting even bigger.

This is largely a result of the efforts of Brian Mooney, a perfumier from County Clare who in 1992 set up a small Chernobyl help group which combined the following year with a similar, CND-inspired initiative. The resulting alliance - to which Frankie Ross belongs - is known as the Friends of the Children of Chernobyl and, despite its origins, is purely humanitarian, with no anti-nuclear campaigners in its ranks. Rather, it is a grouping of ordinary Irish families, funded, more or less informally, by ordinary Irish generosity. This year, its host families, in seven south-western towns in Counties Cork, Kerry and Tipperary, took in 113 children from Belarus and Ukraine.

Everyone in this part of Ireland knows all about the Chernobyl children. All summer, they feature regularly in local newspapers: beneficiaries of the Irish habit of throwing a party at the drop of a hat; being introduced to local dignitaries; trying a spot of ceilidh dancing, Gaelic football, or hurling.

Indeed, helping the victims of Chernobyl goes right to the roots of Irish culture, to the extent that, if you spend any time with the children, you learn as much about Ireland, and the way Ireland is changing, as you do about them.

FRANKIE'S car pulled around a bend to reveal the sea of Cape Clear, and Veronika's face was a cliche in action: it lit up, an event that Frankie registered from her rear-view mirror. 'She loves the sea,' she said. The Atlantic Ocean has gone down well with all the landlocked children of Belarus. On their first visit to a beach at Crookhaven, Frankie told me, some had walked into the water fully clothed.

A few minutes later, Frankie's car pulled up next toa sports field outside the village of Schull, County Cork. Running around with sticks and balls and shouting staccato bursts of Russian were six tall, pale, thin lads, of about ten years old. They sounded robust, but looked wonky, etiolated. One of the boys had shoulders that were too narrow. 'He's from Gormel,' Frankie said from the touchline, 'a very badly affected area.' She pointed to another boy: 'His father was a liquidator. He went into the plant to clean up after the explosion; he's dead now.'

Two boys who know a little English were summoned from their game of hurling to speak to me. It was an unsatisfactory interview, in that not one word passed their lips. They fidgeted, stared at the ground, and pulled at their shirts. When I put my notebook back in my pocket, however, they instantly started having a great time again, bounding back to their mates and gabbling crazily.

'They're coming on really well,' said their rubicund Irish coach, 'really fantastic. And it's please and thank you for everything.' He thought the boys might be able to establish a small nucleus of hurling in Belarus. It seemed a long shot.

I asked Frankie - a brisk, intelligent woman, who migrated south from Belfast - how the Friends of the Children of Chernobyl raised money, and she explained as I accompanied her and Veronika through the bustling main street of Schull. Pointing with her car keys, she said: 'The local gallery had a special exhibition, and we got the proceeds; the owner of that clothes shop had a son who died from leukaemia. He gave free sweatshirts. The chemist donated sun cream, and the darts club had a dinner-dance; the priest was given a brown envelope with pounds 80 in it. The Ballroom of Romance in Cork had a fund-raiser, so did the local Waterstone's . . .' These people heard about the Chernobyl children through that reliable Irish mechanism: word of mouth. The pattern was repeated in the other host towns.

We sat outside a pub to order lunch, and Frankie handed Veronika her Russian-English dictionary for the ceremony of communication to begin. Veronika understood that she was to select the ingredients of a sandwich for herself. She pointed to the word for bread; then the word for butter . . . This could take some time. Eventually, she opted for salad.

After her sandwich, she chewed on the slice of orange from her drink, and then she gave me one of her smiles as she accepted my offer of the lemon slice that came with my crab sandwich. She ate it unblinkingly.

Back home, the Chernobyl children eat fruit warily, knowing that it may be contaminated, and they don't see a lot of citrus fruits. Over here, they eat bucketloads of it, being particularly keen on oranges and plums. It may be that they eat so much here because their bodies actually crave fruit; or it may be just a delight in uninhibited consumption.

Frankie has learnt her radiation facts off by heart. 'Apart from plutonium, the harmful elements in radiationare strontium, caesium and iodine-131,' she said, ticking them off on her fingers. The children's bodies may have absorbed strontium, mistaking it for calcium. This has created, Frankie believes, a craving for real calcium. 'The children really go for milk and cheese.' Dairy products tend to be avoided in southern Belarus because they come from cows which may have been grazing on contaminated grass. The children's bodies may also have absorbed caesium, mistaking it for potassium, which they now seem to crave as a result. One Chernobyl child in southern Ireland had to be hospitalised after eating 17 bananas, which are rich in potassium. Again, it could be the result of a biochemical craving, or just the Belarussian equivalent of the kid in the candy store. The most serious threat (that of thyroid cancer) is posed by iodine-131 being absorbed by the body instead of the natural iodine needed for a properly functioning thyroid. (The children, incidentally, while they may have absorbed radioactive elements, are not themselves radioactive. Many uncontaminated people in their homeland think they are, though; and when, in Ireland, a group of them was taken to see the caves of Bally-vaghan, staff asked whether they would glow in the dark.)

After lunch, we drove to the house of Eleanor O'Driscoll; her husband is a fisherman, and her house overlooks the moody expanse of Roaringwater Bay. Eleanor was playing host to Natasha Chizhikova, a gangly ten-year-old from Minsk. Natasha and Veronika sat on the samesmall chair and began a sort of Russian double-act, pulling faces, giggling, prodding each other, and cross-talking constantly. Natasha speaks a little English, and I asked her what she liked best about Ireland. 'I like canoeing. And ocean, and horses,' she said, before adding some subversive coda to Veronika which had them both in hysterics. The group's translator, Valentina Prigodich, asked Veronika what she had enjoyed most. 'Red peppers,' she said, instantly.

Then I spoiled everyone's fun by asking the children, through Valentina, how they referred to the accident at Chernobyl. 'Catastrophe,' they said - one in Russian (the word is almost the same), the other in English. 'Catastrophe,' repeated Valentina. There was a miserable silence. Valentina nodded to herself.

Later, Natasha and Veronika were taken to join the other Chernobyl children, and the children of the host families, to see a travelling circus encamped in a field outside Skibereen. On the way, we passed a graveyard for victims of the Potato Famine of the 1840s, in which a quarter of Ireland's population died. 'The Irish know what it is to have a hard time,' Frankie said, 'and there's always a strong sympathy with the underdog.' She thinks this might be the psychological factor in the Chernobyl initiatives, and certainly the Irish do seem to have a growing interest in the Third World. Their per capita contribution to Live Aid dwarfed England's; Rwanda is a bigger story in Ireland than in England.

Queuing to enter the stuffy, sweet-smelling big top, the children and their female minders chattered away, pursuing their different agendas. The jostling children - Irish and Belarussian - communicated by a weird mixture of silent gesturing and shrieking. They showed each other snapshots: here's me on a horse; in the sea; on a swing; in my new shoes, and so on. (The Chernobyl children come mainly from families who live in small city flats, or small houses on collective farms. About half their parents have cars, but few have anything so luxurious as a camera, and the children look at photographs for hours.)

The women - generally handsome, early middle-aged wives of farmers, fishermen and shopkeepers - wore simple summer dresses, sparse make-up. They discussed, not without a certain amount of squabbling, arrangements for the next day: the children's last, when they would be flying back to Minsk from Shannon. The circus trip was an attempt to take everyone's minds off this. 'I was blubbing all last night,' said one woman.

Some of the children had seen circuses before, but they all watched goggle-eyed as the miniature monkey rode on the back of the miniature pony; they were in awe of the lone Mexican trapeze artist. During the interval, some of the children extracted two punts from their minders so that they could be photographed with the ringmaster's python, becoming momentarily silent as it was draped around their shoulders.

At the finale, they jabbered loudly in Russian, excitedly putting two and two together as the leather-clad man carrying a crash helmet strutted towards the dry-ice shrouded cannon.

AFTER the circus, Frankie, Veronika and I visited Margaret Hickey, whose house is on the northern edge of Roaringwater Bay. Earlier in the summer, she had taken in two Chernobyl boys, and Valentina the translator was staying with her. In the front room, I asked Veronika - on her own among adults again, and therefore quiet - whether she felt the effects of radiation. 'At home I have headaches in the morning,' she said, in Russian. Every day? 'Two or three times a week.' I asked if she was looking forward to going back. 'She does not want to go back,' translated Valentina, 'but she does want to see her mother.' Would she like to move away from Minsk? Valentina looked disapproving, but asked the question anyway. Veronika shrugged. 'You can't ask a child of ten a question like that,' Valentina complained. 'She is too young to think about such things.'

Valentina Prigodich works for the Peace Fund, a non-political CIS charitable organisation with whom the Friends of the Children of Chernobyl have co-operated in bringing the children over to Ireland. On the one hand, she emphasised the scale of the disaster (a few days before, she had made an emotional speech referring to the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, and speaking of the 'silent sorrow of old people forced to leave their native places'.) On the other hand, she occasionally

intervened to counteract any suggestion that the children were leading a radically abnormal life. But she has not been able to dissuade the host mothers from the belief that the children are kept indoors much of the time at home.

Veronika left the room to go and play on a swing overlooking the bay. 'She's withdrawing because she knows she'll be home soon,' Frankie said. Valentina, meanwhile, groped for the English word for a sarcophagus. 'The reactor is inside one of these,' she said. 'But it is still alive, and the tomb is crumbling.'

THE FOLLOWING morning, at 4am, the women and children assembled outside Schull village hall. A small coach was being loaded by its driver - the first man connected with the enterprise that I had seen. The Friends of the Children of Chernobyl has a male founder, but it is essentially a matriachy, and therefore a mirror, you could say, of day-to-day life in rural Ireland.

Even at dawn, the children were comparing photographs. Some clutched cartons of their favourite fruit. Most fell asleep on the bus, and woke up after two hours for a snack of plums and mineral water. Four hours later, at Shannon airport, the long goodbye began. Right up to the last minute, dictionaries were being used, and the Russian for 'keep in touch fumbled for; the scribbling gesture - 'write]' - was made on all sides. The children and women formed a weeping procession through security check, passport control and departure lounge. There was an inescapable hint of farce: 'We should just have said one goodbye and got it over,' Frankie said in red-eyed exasperation.

In the departure lounge, Pauline Norris, a theatrical, good-looking woman from Ross Carberry, talked about the two girls she was saying goodbye to. 'When they came they had one fixed idea in their minds: they wanted cycle shorts. It was the thing they'd picked up from watching Western television. We took them to a shop, and when they tried them on they came over all demure: 'Oh no, we couldn't wear these - far too revealing . . .' ' She found the children to be extremely bright; a common observation. It seems that as everything else collapses in the former Soviet Union, high standards of schooling, and a belief in the importance of learning, survive. Mrs Norris had been sent a present by the girls' parents: a bundle of roubles. They were worthless, of course - inflation in Belarus is 500 per cent - and probably meant only to symbolise gratitude.

Sitting in the departure lounge was Dr Pat Gallagher, a GP connected to the charity. A shy man, he talked in nervous

rushes. After the inevitable preliminary - 'You know, I even feel a little tearful myself' - he told me he thought that the biggest problem in Belarus was not radiation but a lethal combination of poverty and stress. 'Some of these kids think they'll be dead in two years' time. No wonder they get ill.'

Why were they so pale? 'The city-dwellers lead an indoor life irrespective of radiation; and the diet isn't good.'

And why did some of their bodies look distended and misshapen? 'I've got two babies born in my practice without arms,' Dr Gallagher said. 'If we were living in Belarus, everyone would say it was the radiation.' But hadn't there been pictures in the newspapers recently of a radiation-affected baby with a head three times the normal size? 'I'm sceptical,' Dr Gallagher repeated. He admitted that there had been an enormous increase in cases of thyroid cancer in the affected areas, but pointed out that this was 'an eminently treatable' cancer.

So his was an upbeat assessment? 'Well, sort of,' he said. 'But I've just had a phone call from a friend inBelarus, who tells me it's 38C and the harvest's failed.'

Dr Gallagher likes the people of Belarus, although he does not talk readily about such sentimental matters. He likes their politeness, and the way they share what they've got. I, too, had been impressed on the bus by an extensive, unprompted redistribution of fruit. Dr Gallagher goes so far as to say that there is 'a deep feeling between the Irish and the people from Belarus. It's amazing how they get on. I've been over there twice, and you do have this primeval feeling that you've gone back to a place you've left many years ago. Of course, there is this theory that the Celtic tribes that migrated west originally came from the Caucasus.'

I left the departure lounge, walking past Frankie Ross, whose arm was clamped in doomed solidarity around Veronika's shoulders, and walked to an airport cafe. Here I talked to the man who could be said to have founded the Friends of the Children of Chernobyl, Brian Mooney, a large, pink-faced man in late middle-age who manufactures scents out of wild flowers and herbs in a factory at Burren, County Clare, and is also something of an amateur historian. I asked him why he was interested in Chernobyl. He took a deep breath and explained.

'It began in 1991, when I was researching the history of a 12th-century cross at Kilfenora, County Clare. This cross really marked the end of Celtic Christianity in Ireland, and I discovered that a lot of Celtic Christian Irish monks, driven out by the Anglo-Normans, had sought refuge in the area around what is now Chernobyl.' He argued that the inward, mystical religion of the exiled monks would have blended easily with the similarly oriented Russian Orthodox faith. (He also believes that this tradition of tolerance survived, as exemplified by the difficulty the Germans had in rounding up Jews in the area during the war.) He saw in the Chernobyl project an attempt to 'recreate that link' and, indeed, to return a favour to the region. The scheme would also enshrine the traditions of Celtic Christianity: of communal activity, of hospitality, and of closeness to nature. Brian Mooney believes that these qualities are engrained within the Irish character, notwithstanding centuries of spiritual rule from Rome. And he thinks that they are becoming more overtly acknowledged; that a revival of Celtic Christianity is under way. The scale is modest at the moment, he says. He himself has organised a grouping; he mentioned half a dozen priests establishing Celtic communities. He believes that Celtic Christianity can operate within the Roman Catholic church, but that it does represent a move away from that church's hierarchical, authoritarian structure.

Last year, Mooney had brought over 12 Chernobyl children for a long stay: six months. Two 'bio-energists' took holistic readings on the children, and treated them homeopathically for their headaches, aches and pains. According to Mooney, 'The children really bloomed.' He is aware that he might come across like one of those Irishmen on first-name terms with the local leprechaun, or like one of the hippy 'blow-ins' (immigrants) who have created a New Age subculture in parts of Ireland. But he stresses that he is merely explaining his own motivation. He does not want the Friends to be a religious group. None the less, when you speak to him, large philosophical vistas open up: a revival of the Celtic missionary tradition (you hear talk of Ireland's 'spiritual empire'); a slow break with Rome, already taking tangible effect in the liberal presidency of Mary Robinson, more freely available contraception, a forthcoming second referendum on divorce, and so on.

As the children filed towards the plane, clutching photographs and fruit, turning around every two seconds to wave, even the airport official next to me was crying behind his clipboard. More children would be brought over next year, but - and here was the tear-jerking thought - they wouldn't be the same ones.

A few da ys later, I called Frankie Ross and told her what Brian had said. 'On a very deep level, I know what he means,' she said, 'although I wouldn't put it in those terms myself. I think that as far as most of the women are concerned, it's a pragmatic thing. This is something we can do, so we will do it.'

(Photographs omitted)