Subscriber OnlyIreland

Finbar Cafferkey: The life and death of an Irish fighter ‘who put his money where his mouth is’ in Ukraine

‘He was quite pragmatic about it’: Family and comrades tell the story of how an Achill islander (45) wound up first in Syria and later in Ukraine

Colm Cafferkey was getting a bag of chips in Keel on Achill Island when he got the call saying his older brother Finbar was missing in action on the front lines in Ukraine.

Finbar and two other international volunteers were fighting with Ukrainian units in April to keep open a vital supply route to the city of Bakhmut, which was on verge of being overrun by the Russian invaders.

A sustained mortar strike hit the group, causing many casualties. Amid the chaos no one could be sure what happened to the 45-year-old Mayo man.

For the next week the Cafferkey family was worried but hopeful. Finbar had a reputation for disappearing for days or weeks at a time, only to pop up in another city or country.


Colm recalls them attending 1996 All-Ireland football final between Mayo and Meath and Finbar failing to show up at an arranged meeting spot.

“He rings us a few days later and he is in London. And then he rings a week later and he’s in Holland,” Colm recalls with a smile. “He could go three months without texting you.”

A week after he first heard his brother was missing, Colm got confirmation: Finbar was killed in the strike near Bakhmut, the devastated city in Donbas, eastern Ukraine, during Europe’s bloodiest battle since the second World War. He is the third Irish man known to have been killed in the fighting since the war started in February 2022. Continued fighting and the trading of territory between the sides meant recovering his remains was impossible.

Interviews with those who knew and fought alongside Cafferkey paint him as a brave, occasionally withdrawn man who was unable to stand still for long and who was willing to make sacrifices for his beliefs, even when it meant working alongside ideological opponents.

“He put his money where his mouth is,” says Colm. “He thought long and hard about how he could help in the world.”

Growing up as one of five children in an Irish-speaking family in Achill, Cafferkey was a voracious reader. He took an interest in Irish history and the Troubles which shaped much of his republican worldview.

“He was really stubborn but really fair as well,” says Colm, four years his junior. Colm remembers his older brother figuring out at the age of six that Santa wasn’t real.

“But he didn’t tell the rest of us,” he says.

As a teen, he was “never bound by social expectations,” says Colm. “I wouldn’t say it made a loner of him but it made him stand out.”

Cafferkey went to college for a while, spent a short period with the Army Reserve and worked various jobs, including in construction. By the mid-2000s, he was drifting somewhat, his brother recalls.

That’s when he became involved in Shell to Sea. This was the grassroots protest against the construction of a gas pipeline through north Mayo, which campaigners said would pose serious health and ecological risks.

Finbar Cafferkey: The life and death of an Irish fighter in Ukraine

Listen | 28:21

Finbar had involved himself in some activist causes before but his participation in the Shell to Sea protests was transformative.

“That was a big moment for him. Once he got in there, he couldn’t step away,” says Colm. “It set him on a certain trajectory.”

In 2015 Finbar travelled to Greece to assist the huge numbers of Middle Eastern migrants arriving in rubber dinghies on the island of Kos. It was perhaps there where he conceived of the idea of trying to address the source of the refugee crisis directly.

He never told his family he was travelling to Syria in 2017, which was then six years into a bloody and complex civil war. He enlisted with a heavy weapons unit of the YPG, a left-wing Kurdish militia that was fighting to oust Islamic State from its base in Raqqa in the north of the country.

The first time Colm knew his brother was in Syria was when a video appeared online of him wearing a traditional Kurdish scarf and carrying a Kalashnikov.

“I came here because I admire the struggle of the Kurdish people,” says Finbar on the video, drawing parallels between the YPG and the IRA.

I knew there were two new guys coming who were hardcore republicans. I was a bit wary as I had served in Northern Ireland ... I really took to Fin straight away

—  A former British soldier who met Finbar Cafferkey in Syria

Colm was shocked at the video “but really proud of him as well. It’s such a step for someone to take.”

When he later spoke to Finbar, he realised he had “thought long and hard” about the decision. “He had prepared himself mentally for it. No one had brainwashed him,” he says.

While undergoing military training in Syria, Finbar met Mark Ayres, a former British army soldier.

“I met Fin in northern Syria at the YPG training academy for international volunteers,” says Ayres. “I knew there were two new guys coming who were hard-core republicans. I was a bit wary as I had served in Northern Ireland and didn’t know how we would get on. I need not have worried as I got along with both of them ... I really took to Fin straight away.”

The YPG was successful in destroying Isis, also known as Islamic State, leaving Cafferkey searching for another cause.

At the time he was sort of idle and trying to think of what he would do next. He was quite pragmatic about it. He didn’t have children. He was in a position where he thought he could help

—  Colm Cafferkey

When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, Colm knew immediately his brother was likely to get involved.

“At the time he was sort of idle and trying to think of what he would do next,” says Colm. “He was quite pragmatic about it. He didn’t have children. He was in a position where he thought he could help.”

Thousands of foreign fighters have travelled to Ukraine to aid in the fight against Russia, including dozens from Ireland. Some have extensive military experience; others have none.

“Some are basically kids who should never be there and are probably a danger to themselves and others around them,” says an Irish man who has fought in Ukraine who asked not to be named as he intends to return to the frontline soon.

“There’s others who tend to be older and have that bit of experience in fighting or medicine or logistics, and they can be helpful.”

Finbar Cafferkey seemed to fall in to the latter category.

“He said to me before that war is awful, that so many people are not able for it, that it ruins them,” says Colm. “He felt he was able to go to it and be around that stuff without it completely destroying him.”

Cafferkey made contact with an anarchist group in the Polish capital, Warsaw, and travelled from there to Ukraine to try to join a volunteer defence unit, preferably one made up of like-minded leftists.

But in those frantic first weeks of war, Ukraine’s forces struggled to equip all the volunteers who wanted to fight. Cafferkey returned to eastern Poland without signing up.

“I got a message that two comrades were coming and could we host them,” says a member of the Anarchist Black Cross Galicja group (ACK Galicja), who uses the pseudonym Leon Czołg.

“The other comrade was more orientated to fighting over there so he didn’t stay long. But Ciya stayed,” he adds, using the nom-de-guerre Finbar took in Syria.

Czołg first met Finbar and the other man, who is from Scandinavia, in ACK Galicja’s warehouse in eastern Poland, where he found them “tearing apart” bulky boxes of medical supplies and turning them into lightweight combat first-aid kits.

“They looked like serious, proper guys ... That’s what struck me from the beginning. They had only just arrived but they wanted to put their energy straight into the warehouse without messing around,” he says.

Cafferkey began making aid delivery runs to places deeper and deeper inside Ukraine, eventually to eastern Donbas, near the front line.

“He would come with a vehicle and say, ‘I have got a week or two and I will go wherever you tell me,’” says Sergey Movchan, an organiser in Kyiv for anti-authoritarian volunteer network Solidarity Collectives, which sends supplies to civilians and soldiers in Ukraine.

“Maybe he had some fear but he didn’t show any. He was very calm and kind and willing to help.”

On one run to Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine, which was then under daily shelling, Finbar reconnected with Mark Ayres.

“A few times I tried to talk him into joining my unit. He always declined and said he would carry on helping civilians ... I was shocked to learn that he joined up,” says Ayres.

Cafferkey is thought to have revived his initial aim of taking up arms when he heard about plans to form the kind of leftist unit he had sought at the start of the war.

Its commander was Dmitry Petrov, a leading light in the anarchist underground in Russia with a long record of opposition to the regime of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Petrov had also spent time with Kurdish guerrillas in Syria and Iraq.

“It was a surprise for me that Ciya [Finbar Cafferkey] decided to join Leshiy’s unit,” says Sergey Movchan, of the anti-authoritarian volunteer network Solidarity Collectives, using one of Petrov’s many pseudonyms.

“Before he went to training, I asked Ciya whether maybe this was not the best time – there was very heavy fighting near Bakhmut, lots of people were being injured and dying, and my Facebook page was like one big obituary.”

Cafferkey and some anarchist comrades were so eager to join they agreed to train for a month under the Bratstvo (Brotherhood) battalion linked to a far-right Christian movement.

In March, Petrov and Cafferkey met in Kyiv with former US marine Cooper “Harris” Andrews and an activist from a Ukrainian environmental group who uses the pseudonym “Yenot” (Raccoon), before travelling to the Bratstvo training ground.

“We all decided that we can spend a few weeks with these guys because we have a bigger goal, and after this we can start something of our own,” says Yenot (26).

“It was actually better than expected. Every day there were things we didn’t like – their symbols and songs, for example – but in general it was all right ... There was no hostility. We were all in the same situation and wanted to train. We were on same side, fighting the same enemy.”

One trainer was “Madzh”, a Bratstvo fighter who says Finbar performed well with physical and weapons training. Around this time the Mayo man took a new nom-de-guerre, Osyp, a traditional Ukrainian name.

On April 17th the Bratstvo fighters and the four anarchists drove east through the night to a town near Bakhmut and the so-called road of life, which was the last open supply route for Ukrainian troops fighting a rearguard action in the ruined city.

Cafferkey, Petrov and Andrews were assigned to a combat platoon and Yenot to a medical unit that would treat the wounded.

“Before the fight they were optimistic, with a good fighting spirit. I clearly remember Harris repeating the phrase: ‘We come and they die.’ Ciya seemed calm, as always, and confident,” says Yenot.

“I said I wished we could have a beer together, and Leshiy replied: ‘Don’t worry, we will finish this mission and when we have won, we will have a beer.’”

Madzh remembers Finbar having a moment of doubt before the battle, as he says happens quite often in such situations.

Finbar said he had a bad feeling about the mission, prompting his commander to suggest he should stay behind. “But Finbar said, no, he wasn’t going to leave the group.”

The operation started on the morning of April 19th.

“An eyewitness, someone who was in combat there, told me it was a horrible scene. There were a lot of corpses from both sides in those trenches,” says Yenot.

“Someone on the radio said the guys were about 100m from the enemy, and it sounded like they would soon finish their job. I didn’t know that the real hell was about to begin.”

Footage from the road at this time shows shell-blasted fields criss-crossed by trenches where soldiers struggled through thick mud and clambered past crumpled bodies.

“It was near Bakhmut, so everything was firing: artillery, tanks, rifles, drones dropping grenades,” says Madzh.

“There were lot of explosions there, happening all the time. The land is full of craters from explosions. A Kalashnikov is like a children’s toy there.”

Yenot says Russian mortars landed to the right and left of her comrades before directly hitting their trench.

“One of the commanders said Ciya [Cafferkey] and Harris had been killed,” she says. Leshiy was later confirmed dead, too.

The grief felt by the men’s anarchist friends was compounded by Bratstvo’s claim that they had “joined” the far-right Christian movement with “strange leftist beliefs” but had subsequently “learned to respect faith and love God” and “took part in worship”.

In the Kyiv office where he last saw Cafferkey, Movchan recalls the Achill man telling him how training with Bratstvo had been “funny and weird and he had really thought about quitting”.

“But they decided, basically, to get through this and then they would have their own unit without all this religious bullshit,” adds Movchan.

Photographs of the three dead men stand in the Solidarity Collectives office, where in May dozens of people, including Petrov’s parents, gathered to honour them. Finbar’s family joined the event by video link.

“Many people would ask Ciya what he, an Irish person, was doing in Ukraine,” says Movchan. “And Ciya would reply that he had decided that he could be useful here, and he had time.”

When news of Finbar’s death was confirmed in Ireland, Tánaiste Micheál Martin paid tribute to him in the Dáil, calling him a “man of clear principles”. It was a relatively uncontroversial statement from the Government, which didn’t want to be seen to be encouraging people to travel to Ukraine to fight.

But it caught the ire of Russia’s ambassador to Dublin, Yuriy Filatov, whose embassy issued a statement blaming the media and the Irish Government for Finbar’s death in a Russian mortar strike.

“We also do not know if Mr Martin’s remarks signify support for the Irish to take part in combat in Ukraine, but we do know that if that is the case, then Ireland would be the direct participant of the conflict with all the ensuing consequences,” the embassy said.

The remarks drew a furious response leading to calls for Filatov’s expulsion. Colm Cafferkey, still coming to terms with his brother’s death, was not comfortable with the furore. He saw various sides, including supporters of Nato, trying to lay claim to his brother’s memory.

He issued his own statement. Finbar was, he said, against “all forms of imperialism, be it US, British, or Russian, and was strongly opposed to Ireland’s support of US troops and any moves towards joining Nato”.

The statement continued: “He was in Ukraine to help the Ukrainian people, as he would have helped any person in the world who was under attack.”

Looking back, Colm says he owed it to Finbar to clarify his position. “He wouldn’t have been any more in favour of Nato than he was the Russian gang.”

The Cafferkey family are still grieving as they await the return of Finbar’s remains, which are stored in a Ukrainian military base, alongside many others, awaiting formal identification.

It may be several more months before repatriation can occur and a funeral can be held.

“We’ll bring him home, le cúnamh Dé,” his father, Tom, said at a memorial service on Achill in May.

Does he hold any anger towards his brother for putting himself in such a dangerous situation? Colm pauses to think.

“That hasn’t hit me yet,” he says. “It feels like the really heavy emotions are still out in front of me still ... but it’s not anger. He knew what he was doing. He wouldn’t have had regrets.”