Building for the future in Ukraine
John O’Connor, former Jesuit alumnus of St Ignatius College, and founder of O’Connor International, which provides specialised construction activities, returned recently from a trip to Ukraine where he was exploring what role Irish companies might be able to play there in terms of post-conflict reconstruction.
John, like Irish Jesuit Bishop Alan McGuckian, was born in Ballymena and before his trip to Ukraine, he made contact with Bishop Alan and the Jesuit Refugee Service in Ireland to explore ways in which he could assist both Ukrainian refugees in Ireland and those still living in Ukraine.
John also has a lifelong love of horses, is a stud farmer, and has stables in Cashel Co. Tipperary. So whilst on his fact-finding mission, he visited stables in Kyiv ». There he found that despite the war, the Ukrainians working there were putting great energy into the care of their horses. “We want to support them because these people love their horses and are doing a really good job minding them in very difficult circumstances,” says John. He presented the workers there with the Tipperary GAA flag (see photo) which sports the same colours as the Ukrainian flag. The workers then hung it up in their own stables ».
John made a number of short videos on his trip, including one from a graveyard in Kyiv ». There he spoke about the Ukrainian’s interest in rugby and how in previous years the people would have been packing the sports bars to watch the European Rugby Championships. He said many of the Ukrainian men would not be doing that this year having been called up to fight on the front. And he paid tribute to one of them, Oleksi Tsibko, now buried in the graveyard where John was filming. Oleksi was the former president of the Ukrainian rugby union and former skipper of the national side who, says John, “died like a lion defending his country”.
John also shot a short video from Demydiv » which is on the border of Belarus. It has always been a strategic town for the Ukrainians. In it he is surrounded by water, flooded into formerly arable land by the local people who took it into their own hands to destroy their farmland in order to slow down the Russian advance. “Another example of the incredible resilience of the people,” he concludes.
On his return, in an interview with Pat Kenny on Newstalk », John spoke about the business aspect of his trip. He said that it was important to start making connections now between relevant Irish companies and the people of Ukraine in order to put in place systemic connections that would allow for the rebuilding of the country when peace is finally achieved.
He says this will be a long-term 20-year project that cannot be left to ad hoc businesses that might sweep into Ukraine at that last minute and take over the rebuild without the full consideration of the needs, wants, and capabilities of the Ukrainian people post-conflict.
John says the Jesuit influence on him has been significant and he holds his former school, St Ignatius London, in the highest of esteem. He is happy to be able to give back whatever he can in gratitude for the formation he received from them in those early years when his family made the emigrant journey from Ballymena, Co. Antrim to London.
Just before he left Ukraine John paid a visit to St Andrew’s Catholic cathedral in Kyiv. It’s a place where men went to pray before heading off to the front he says before stepping in to add his own prayers for this deeply troubled country.