mosaic for the Chapel of St Anne in Mullingar Cathedral.

mosaic for the Chapel of St Anne in Mullingar Cathedral.

In 1954,the Soviet Government organised major celebrations to mark the tercentenary of the Union between Ukraine and Russia. As part of the celebrations,Ukraine was awarded the Russian territory of Crimea. No one could have imagined then,when the Soviet Union seemed all powerful that Crimea would become a prize to be fought over by an independent Russia and an independent Ukraine.

Also in 1954,the Roman Catholic Church organised a year of events in honour of The Virgin Mary. As part of these celebrations,the Bishop of Meath,John Kyne,commissioned the Russian born artist,Boris Anrep,to do a mosaic for the Chapel of St Anne in Mullingar Cathedral. The mosaic,depicting the presentation of the child Mary in the Temple,is a beautiful work which reflects the deep reverence in which Mary is held in Russian Orthodoxy. But it is also a tribute to the beautiful and enormously gifted Ukrainian born Russian poet Anna Akmatova-known as “Anna of the Russians”,who had been Anrep,s lover  during the First World War. Anrep had not seen Anna in nearly 40 years but they had corresponded and he used her as his model when he came to depict Saint Anne in the mosaicin Mullingar. It is Anna Akmatova’s face one sees when one looks at the face of the Saint. A copy of this beautiful work is now to be seen at a new museum dedicated to the poet in Russia.

  Both Anrep and Akmatova had connections to Russia and Ukraine. Anrep,who,like Vladimir Putin,was born in St Petersburg,studied for a time in the Ukraine  in the city of Kharkiv. Anna,whose real surname was Ukrainian-Gorenko,was born in the Ukrainian city of Odessa and went to school and university in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. During World War One Anrep returned from Art Collrge in England to fight in the Russian Army. He saw action in Galicia-a region then ruled by Austria but later part of the Soviet Union and Poland and now partly in Ukraine. Interestingly,it was a man from Westmeath,Count Richard Dalton,an emigre from Rathconrath who had settled in Vienna who had secured Galicia for Austria in 1772-a feat for which he was honoured by the Austrian Empress.
          Anrep-like millions of other Russians and Ukrainians, fled into exile after the Communists seized power in 1918. Anna Akmatova stayed in Russia and,like millions of Ukrainians,Russians and other nationalities,endured the horrors of Stalinism,about which she would write so movingly. Her first husband,the Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev,whose work had included a verse drama exploring the relationship betwen Irish Christian monks and pagan Vikings in 9th century Iceland,was murdered in 1921 by the Commmunists. Her son was imprisoned in the Gulag. At times her work was denounced by the State and banned.
       Anna Akmatova and Boris Anrep met briefly one more time before their deaths. Nine years after he paid tribute to her in the Mullingar mosaic,the poet and the artist attended a literary festival in England,at Oxford,in 1965. Anna died in Moscow in 1966 and Anrep died in London in 1969.  Both are now honoured in Russia. Anrep’s mosaics in Mullingar Cathedral are among the most important art works in the Irish Midlands and provide a cultural and historical link between Mullingar,Russia and Ukraine.
              The historical links between Ireland go back at least 1,000 years. Irish monks-perhaps including men from the Midlands,travelled as far east as Kyiv in the ninth and tenth centuries. One of their settlements was at Chernobyl-site of the nuclear disaster in 1986.
        In the 18th century,Irishmen in the service of the Russian,Austrian and other armies fought on Ukrainian soil. Richard Dalton,from near Mullingar,helped secure the now partially Ukrainian region of Galicia for Austria in 1772. In 1709,an Irish born General,Peter Lacy,had led Russian forces to victory over the Swedes at Poltova in Ukraine.
         From 1854 to 1856,numerous Irish soldiers saw military action against Russia in the Crimea.The Crimean War involved many men from the garrison town of Mullingar. A report in the Westmeath Guardian in 1856 praised the    “Bronzed veterans of the Crimean conflict as they paraded through Mullingar on their return from the War. Names such as Sebastapol and Balaklava became all too familiar to Westmeath folk as the war went on. It is strange to think that the Crimea was dominating the news when Mullingar Town Commission was set up in 1856 and that it is dominating the news again 158 years later as the Town Council comes to an end.
    And as we prepare to mark the centenary of the 1916 Rising,itis worth noting that one of the leading personalities in the Rising,Countess Markiewicz,who visited Mullingar on a couple of occasions during the 1916-21 Troubles,lived in Ukraine in the early years of the 20th century. Her Polish husband had large estates in Ukraine.
           The distinguished Mullingar artist,May Raleigh,(1925-2002),Co Founder of the Mullingar Art Guild,who taught art to generations of Mullingar children, visited Ukraine in the 1970s and 1980s,when it was part of the USSR,and painted the Kiev skyline .
By Ruth Illingworth

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