Ireland is often described as a warm and welcoming place for visitors.

The same, however, cannot be said about the weather.

It’s not very welcoming - and certainly not warm for most months of the year.

But when someone who was born and reared in the frozen wilderness of Siberia says she found it difficult to acclimatise to the weather here, it’s clear we got the wrong end of the sunshine stick

Natasha Brennan
Natasha Brennan

“My first impression of Ireland was that it’s very cold,” says Natasha Brennan.

“When it's cold in Siberia, people wear furs to keep warm, but here, people don't wear warm clothing, so the cold was a little bit difficult.”

Born in Siberia, Natasha and her parents later moved to the western Russian city of St Petersburg.

But it was back in the far east of Russia, on an island just off Japan, that Natasha, working as an interpreter, met, fell in love with, and married overseas Newry contractor Gerry Brennan.

This was to lay the foundation for Newry’s first and only Russian school.

Natasha returned to Northern Ireland with Gerry permanently in 2008.

She became involved with the Russian Speaking Community NI group in Belfast, which helped organise and facilitate the first school for Russian children in the north in 2013.

It was from this that the idea of a weekly Russian school in Newry arose.

"It was not my idea,” said Natasha.

“It was the idea of some people in the Russian Speaking Community NI. They were trying to organise a Russian school in Belfast and they managed to do it, but they also looked at the idea of organising a school in Newry as well.

“So we were working at this idea and we found facilities, first in the Three Ways Community Centre, and then Justyna McCabe from Newry, Mourne and Down District Council was very kind and paid the rent for this office at WIN. So we are happy to have lessons here."

While the Russian community here is relatively small compared to other eastern European populations, Natasha said there was still a hunger for a school to learn Russian language and history.

“People were asking, people were interested,” said Natasha.

“Whenever I was asking the Russian people I know here if they wanted a Russian school to be organised, they said yes of course, of course.

“The problem is, there are not many Russians living here in Newry."

The doors of the school first opened in October 2015.

Natasha, who has a diploma in teaching, is the school’s only teacher.

About 15 people each week use the service on a one-on-one basis.

"It's very important that people retain identity, language,” said Natasha.

“I have a boy pupil and he passed his GCSE exam in Russian language - he got 95 points out of 100 - and he's heading to Level Eight.

“We also study the history of Russia. I find the materials on the Internet, print them out, and read them. He is very interested in Russian history; he is Russian, he was born in Crimea.

Student Simone Kucina
Student Simone Kucina. Photographs:

"His parents moved to Ireland when he was nine, but he was forgetting how to write and speak Russian and that is why his parents decided he should go to Russian school. It is important to retain culture and identity."

Student Simone Kucina agrees.

The 15-year-old GCSE pupil has been attending the school each Saturday for over two years.

"I came to the school to learn how to communicate better with my family back in Russia," said Simone.

"I didn't know much Russian and couldn't really talk with my grandparents. I'm in regular contact with them, but they don't speak English.

"I think anyone coming to or living in Ireland should also learn their native language because if you learn your language, you feel more connected in a way.”

Simone was born and raised in Newry, attending St Joseph's Convent PS before going to St Mary's High School.

She then moved to Kilkeel and St Louis Grammar School before moving to Banbridge, where she attends Banbridge Academy.

She added: "I like learning language and I'm interested in politics, so I'm thinking about a career in those areas.”

Natasha is helping pupils like Simone develop and enhance their language skills and retain their identity.

It’s a role she loves and a service she hopes grows.

“Simone is a great person, very strong and determined,” says Natasha.

“I enjoy teaching and speaking in the Russian language. I would like it to get bigger and more people to come, but it looks to me like the parents are more concerned about their children learning to speak better English than Russian, but I think that's a mistake, because if the person is Russian and lives in Ireland, it's much better to teach the child to speak Russian as well. It's their future.

"It's only a few hours a week, but every little bit helps, slowly but surely,” she added.

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