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Kseniya Rusnack on bandura, a harp from her native Ukraine, with Clare-based harp master, Paul Dooley.

Musical traditions in harmony as East meets West in Clare

MUSIC has proven to be a universal language for a collaboration that is fusing Ukrainian and Irish tradition. 

Kseniya Rusnack fled her home after war reached the Ukrainian capital. She now lives in Lisdoonvarna, where her talent for music has drawn her into the thriving trad scene in the area. Alongside leading Irish harper, Ennistymon-based, Paul Dooley, Kseniya performed at the Willie Clancy Summer School and, recently, wowed audiences at Glór in Ennis. 

Kseniya, who was born in the Cherkasy region in central Ukraine, is a musician and singer. She credits, the  bandura, a Ukrainian stringed folk instrument, with opening up the world of music to her. The outbreak of war saw Kseniya flee the capital, Kyiv, with her mother, her five-year-old son and a few precious possessions, including her bandura. 

“Since the beginning of hostilities, we left Kyiv to visit relatives in Cherkasy region,” she said.

“We have been in Ukraine for a month because we believed that everything had to end. But every day was a difficult test – constant air sirens, lasting up to four hours, planes rising in the sky and you could hear rumbling, explosions… Nervous tension grew. It was psychologically difficult. Problems began to arise with the supply of products in stores. It was simply impossible to continue like this to live, and I was worried about my five-year-old son.”

Kseniya described the decision to leave as “not easy, but necessary”. Escaping from the war, they took with them only the most valuable, a minimal set of things – a shoulder bag with documents and the bandura. They reached the border with Poland by evacuation train, then stayed in Warsaw for several days where volunteers helped secure plane tickets to travel to Ireland.

“I had a dream to visit Ireland due to the fact that I own not only a bandura, but also a harp,” Kseniya said. “That is why Ireland interested me in culture, musical art, and the Irish harp. I could never have thought that I would be here and be able to get this cultural experience.”

Since April, Kseniya has been living, with her son and her mother, at a hotel in Lisdoonvara. She described it as “a wonderful place, fabulous nature around, friendly people, and a very calm, hospitable atmosphere”.

The way in which Kseniya discovered the area’s traditional music scene is, she admitted, “quite an interesting story”. “Quite unexpectedly I met a harpist from County Kerry, who informed me that a well-known musician, an expert on the old Irish harp, Paul Dooley, lives near me in Clare,” she said.

“I was very excited to meet him, and our acquaintance grew into joint creative activity, rehearsals, joint music making, and exchange of experiences.”

As an academic and classically trained musician, Kseniya appreciates both Ukrainian and Irish traditions. “As an academic classical musician, I like to play in various musical styles, but most of all Ukrainian folk music, music of Ukrainian composers, and contemporaries,” she said.

“Irish traditional music impresses and fascinates. It is a beautiful and unique heritage of the Irish people and I’m glad to have the opportunity to join and play music.”

Paul invited Kseniya to play at Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy in July and it is something of an understatement to say that their performances created a storm of appreciation. 

Folk songs were preformed by Kseniya friend. “Rada, who was able to participate, shared her musical works and Ukrainian folk songs,” Kseniya said.

Fresh from a performance at Glór, Ennis, as part of a series entitled ‘Just the Two’, curated by broadcaster Paula Carroll, Kseniya paid tribute to Paul’s talent and guidnce.

“Paul’s playing skill, finger dexterity and energy are amazing,” she said. “Listening to his music, you immerse yourself in the exciting world of sounds that touch the strings of my soul. Therefore, joint music-making is a powerful exchange of musical energy, musical culture, which is the property of such different, but spiritually united peoples, the countries of Ireland and Ukraine.”

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