The photograph was taken only 18 months ago, but the man in the middle of it now seems to belong to another era.
A grinning Volodymyr Zelenskiy still looks like the sprightly political novice who left behind a career in comedy to run for Ukraine’s presidency in 2019, rather than today’s khaki-clad wartime leader, his bearded face lined and sombre a year after Russia’s all-out invasion of his country.
The woman shaking Zelenskiy’s hand in a grand reception room of his administration has not changed since the picture was taken, at least outwardly, but Therese Healy has faced her own challenges as Ireland’s first ambassador to Ukraine at a time when the Kremlin wants to wipe it off the map.
Just six months after opening the Embassy in this country of more than 40 million people, Healy evacuated along with most other western diplomats when Russia sent missiles, tanks and troops into Ukraine in the early hours of February 24th.
“There were about 300 Irish citizens here at the start of the all-out war,” says Healy, who was born in the village of Bweeng in Co Cork.
“There were Irish students in a number of cities in the east who… were able to evacuate successfully. There were also Irish members of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe monitoring mission who had to move out from some tough locations,” she adds, referring to the Donbas region where fighting began in 2014.
Healy served previously in Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow and Shanghai, and though working as consul general in the last city at the start of the Covid pandemic she honed her crisis-management skills, being ambassador to a country at war was a new and very different experience.
The local staff she had recruited for the embassy all initially decided to stay in Ukraine, as Russian forces moved to within 30km of Kyiv, reached the outskirts of the nation’s second city, Kharkiv, and occupied swathes of territory in eastern regions.
“About a quarter of Ukraine’s population moved as internally displaced persons or refugees… To see the reality of the pain inflicted by this unjustified and unprovoked invasion really resonates with me, it stays with me,” she says.
When Healy presented her credentials to Zelenskiy, she told him how much she wanted to visit the Donbas region that Russian-led militia partly seized in 2014 following Ukraine’s pro-western Maidan revolution and the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea.
His office helped arrange a visit to then government-held Mariupol in November 2021, and Healy says that witnessing how Russia’s undeclared war affected the port city on the Azov Sea and nearby areas strengthened her bond with Ukraine.
She recalls “seeing the landscape on one side of the road – some Irish farmers would be jealous of that amazing black earth – and on the other side landmine notices, and it was completely inaccessible. I visited the front line and met some of the soldiers there and understood a bit about their lives.
“Then I walked that evening through Mariupol along the coast, and thought how in its heyday this would be a lovely resort town, a great place to visit… That’s when the attachment began to grow, especially when you have to leave somewhere sooner than you wish and under difficult circumstances.”
Russia’s military levelled much of Mariupol before finally occupying it last May, and Ukrainian officials say some 20,000 civilians were killed in the assault and perhaps twice that number were forced to move to Russian territory when all other escape routes were closed.
Healy briefly returned to Ukraine with then minister for foreign affairs Simon Coveney last April, when they visited the town of Bucha outside Kyiv, where more than 400 civilians had been killed by Russian troops during a month of occupation that ended in late March.
“You could still smell the burning buildings,” she recalls.
“When you meet people and hear their stories, you cannot help but be affected by that. I’ve seen politicians who saw the open graves in places like Bucha and I could see it affected them… There is something about these places that really goes to the heart.”
A month before Healy returned to Kyiv full-time and reopened the embassy last August, she accompanied Micheál Martin on the first visit by a taoiseach to Ukraine.
“I was surprised by the impact these visits have on ordinary people,” she says.
“For Ukrainians who might not have known very much about Ireland, every glimpse of hope, every sign of interest from the outside world… in understanding what was going on and lending support, means so much to them.”
Ireland has declined to join other western states in providing weapons to Ukraine, but has committed €50 million to Kyiv in humanitarian, political and financial support and a further €77 million in non-lethal military supplies such as body armour and medical kit via an EU programme.
Probably Ireland’s biggest contribution to Ukraine has been its acceptance of some 75,000 refugees, including some 15,000 of school age.
“Every Ukrainian I’ve met has said ‘Thank you’ for Ireland taking in our people. I think it’s because of the stories they are getting from their families, especially that the children are feeling safe and protected and welcome in Ireland,” Healy says.
“It’s interesting to hear them talking about Donegal or the beauty of our beaches or the liveliness of Galway. When you hear these impressions of Ireland – from people who are from a sophisticated country with a beautiful culture – it is really refreshing, as is seeing many of them working and doing well and being very valued,” she adds.
“Before the war, Ukraine was reaching out to Europe. This is why I believe [Russia] wanted this process to be stopped, because Ukraine was naturally gravitating to Europe and Ukrainians see their future there. This war has accelerated that process.”
As sirens wail in Kyiv, Healy talks in the basement of a hotel that serves as a bomb shelter during air-raid alerts – one of many grim novelties that war brought to Ukraine, which also included a winter of power cuts caused by Russia’s bombing of the national grid.
“People accepted it… and we all used the torches on our phones, and you’d see little concerts of lights moving along the footpaths,” she says of Kyiv during evening blackouts.
“There was a sense that we will not be frightened or intimidated. But clearly behind that there is a lot of pain and sacrifice, particularly in families that have been separated.”
Irish companies including Kingspan and CRH continue to work in Ukraine despite the war, and Healy says the immense economic potential in sectors ranging from agriculture to IT will eventually be realised – especially now that the country has become an official candidate to join the European Union.
“There’s a lot of work we can help with on the way to membership, as we celebrate 50 years of our own EU membership,” she says, adding that Ireland is also willing to share its experience of conflict resolution if Ukraine seeks advice.
“But every conflict is unique and you need both sides sitting down in earnest. Our general approach is that Ukraine must be content with whatever possible peace resolution is mooted, and they need to have ownership of that,” Healy explains.
“Peace will come at some point, but it should be on terms that Ukraine is fully happy with… and then Irish people and Ukrainian people will surely be brought even closer. And when Irish people can visit Ukraine again, I think they will be so astounded by the beauty of the country and the beauty of the people.”