Caillte san Úcráin review: Finbar Cafferkey film is a riveting portrait of left-wing Irishman who was killed in Ukraine

Television: TG4’s documentary Caillte san Úcráin rigorously tracks Cafferkey’s journey from Mayo to Bakhmut but fails to deliver any real sense of him as a person

If Finbar Cafferkey was American or British, he might have inspired a hagiographic Clint Eastwood biopic or a Ken Loach movie in which characters earnestly debate the merits of collective farming. Being Irish, his story is instead told via the less glamorous medium of TG4 documentary series Iniúchadh (TG4, Wednesday, 9.30pm), in which reporter Kevin Magee sets out the facts of Cafferkey’s life in Achill, Co Mayo, and his death at age 46 in April 2023 while fighting for Ukraine against Russia.

Caillte san Úcráin does not venture in to psychoanalysis or, for that matter, provide any real insight into Cafferkey as an individual. Still, by its own modest standards, the film is a riveting portrait of an Irishman whose left-wing beliefs took him from the Shell to Sea campaign in Mayo to the frontline against Isis in Syria and, finally, fatally to Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. Those beliefs were unorthodox: he was an anarchist who believed in a utopian society where everyone lived equally, and nobody took more than their due.

“There was nothing soft or fluffy about Finbar,” recalls one of his fellow campaigners with Shell to Sea, who resisted the construction of a pipeline connecting the Corrib gasfield to a refinery at Bellanaboy in Mayo. “He stood with us in tough times and he was courageous.”

Iniúchadh’s Magee clocks up an impressive number of miles telling Cafferkey’s story. In Malmö, he meets another former volunteer with the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, who explains that varying motives drew foreign fighters to the war zone. “Some people are running away from things; some are attracted to violence. Some felt they wanted to right past wrongs,” the man says.


Magee travels to Poland and then to Lviv in western Ukraine, where he meets left-wing activists who worked with Cafferkey to deliver trucks and cars to Ukrainian military units that shared their politics. They recall urging the Irishman not to enlist as a combatant – telling him that he was doing enough as it was.

The documentary rigorously tracks Cafferkey’s journey from Mayo to Bakhmut. But the viewer never gets any real sense of him as a person. He was clearly idealistic. However, this profile required greater shading. Was he courageous or reckless? Politics aside, were there events in his private life that drove him to take ever bigger risks? You want a deeper picture of him to emerge, and that never quite happens.

It’s his family you feel for. His parents and siblings hold back tears as they recall receiving a phone call from Ukraine revealing Cafferkey was missing in action. With little prospect of his remains being recovered in the foreseeable future, they have no chance of closure and are instead left with an unstanchable sense of loss.

“I don’t think that his body will be coming home,” says one of his sisters. “We don’t know for sure. We won’t have a funeral.”