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‘I’m proud there’s an Irishman here and I hope more will come’ – meet the Dub on his way to fight Putin’s army

Rhys Byrne from Santry in Dublin on his way to join the Ukrainian forces to fight the Russian invasion at the Korczawa border crossing in Poland. Photo: Mark Condren


Fionnán Sheahan

It’s almost 2am and the temperature has dropped to -6C.

Within minutes, your fingers begin to go red and hurt from the freezing cold. It’s about 500 metres from the border with Ukraine at the Korczawa checkpoint. In the distance, four figures emerge from the darkness.

When they come into view, they are dressed in various forms of military clothing. One of them has full fatigues on, with a Tricolour on his chest and shoulder. Rhys Byrne is heading in to sign up with the Ukrainian forces fighting the Russian invasion. The Dubliner (27) is nervous about what lies ahead.

“There’s no turning back now, literally up the road and we’re into Ukraine. I’m scared but I’m looking forward to it at the same time. I’m proud to be Irish, I’m proud that there’s an Irishman here standing up and I hope that more will come as well and help,” he says.

The four men, one Irish and three British, have been dropped off and are walking across the border to get a lift at Krakowiec on the far side to head on to Lviv, the largest city in the west of Ukraine. Like tens of thousands of other young men from across Europe and North America, they are joining Ukraine’s fight. The hardest part for Rhys was saying goodbye to his family in Dublin.

“I said goodbye to me ma and I said goodbye to my family members. And it was really, really difficult, especially at the airport, ya know, giving them a hug, it could be the last time. But they all support me,” he says.

His interview with Joe Duffy on RTÉ’s Liveline before he left home added to the debate about what Ireland is doing to help Ukraine. Rhys says Ireland will be affected by the Russian invasion.

He has signed a contract with Ukraine’s Territorial Defence Forces and says his experience over the past decade will be useful in Ukraine. “I have experience with the French Foreign Legion and Lithuanian Special Forces in counter-terrorism, hand-to-hand combat, weapons techniques, all the kind of stuff that is needed for an environment like this.”

Ukraine has set up an international legion, with President Volodymyr Zelensky personally appealing for people with military experience to stand with his countrymen and join the International Legion of Territorial Defence of Ukraine.

Mr Zelensky said last week more than 16,000 foreigners had already volunteered. The model is based on the International Brigade of the Spanish Civil War, who went to fight Franco’s fascists, and included a group of Irishmen in the Connolly Column, named after James Connolly, a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Rhys has been told he will be heading to Kyiv, but where he will be based has yet to be worked out.

He says he hasn’t come across other Irishmen who have enlisted in such circumstances in recent time s: “Many Irishmen don’t do it.”

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