When Zelenskyy came to Drogheda

By Aubrey Malone

I wasn’t sure how Volodymyr Zelenskyy was going to react to Ireland’s position on the Ukraine situation  – I refuse to call it a war; it was an invasion – when his foreign minister made a call for arms recently. We covered ourselves with pride when we took in as many refugees as we did, much more per capita than England, and without asking for money to support them in our homes.

I knew he would be touched by our kindness but he keeps saying they want “guns, guns and more guns” and that made me feel he would regard the humanitarian aspect of the aid as very much secondary. I was afterwards gratified to hear him saying we did everything we could when he addressed the Dáil, not being a military nation.

At that stage I didn’t know the former comedian had been to our country before. The momentous event took place in 2017. He came to the TLT theatre in Drogheda to do a show there. It was his promoter, Nick Levchenko, who organized it. Levchenko had been living here for over twenty years at that stage. In those years he’d invited many people over here from the Ukraine to put on shows for Ireland’s Eastern European community.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy (third from the left) in Drogheda in 2017 when he visited with his comedy show. Also pictured is Nick Levchenko (far right).

Zelenskyy was a big star in 2017. Two years before he’d been in a show called “Servant of the People” in which he played a politically conscious history teacher who becomes president of his country by accident.

Life imitated art when he became the actual president. Many people thought he would be too lightweight for the position. Vladimir Putin thought he’d be a soft touch because of his background. It was similar in ways to the way Khrushchev thought about John F. Kennedy prior to the Bay of Pigs incident sixty years ago. It didn’t take Putin long to realize the 2019 annexation of Crimea was a cakewalk in comparison to the resistance he met – and is still meeting – among the brave souls of this country, none more so than Zelenskyy himself.

The invasion was far from Zelenskyy’s mind when he did a song and dance show for the people of Drogheda in 2017 with his production company Kvartal 95. He didn’t seem to have a care in the world in those days.

Whether they did or not, the people of Drogheda responded very enthusiastically to what they saw. The spirited members of the Kvartal 95 crew brought the house down.

The concert was performed in Russian. This, by the way, is Zelenskyy’s first language. It’s only when we consider facts like this that we realise how close the Ukraine is culturally to Russia, and why so many families in Ukraine are being driven apart as Irish families were during the Civil War here back in the 1920s. It also, of course, explains why Putin is so determined to get the Ukraine back into his fold and return his country – as he sees it – to the glory days when the Iron Curtain reigned supreme and anyone who didn’t do his bidding was either locked up or disappeared down a salt mine in Siberia never to be heard from again.

The concert ended with a rap song that compared the Ukraine to a woman and Russia to a man bearing down on her. The metaphor holds good right up until the present day when we hear so many harrowing tales from Ukraine.

Zelenskyy got a standing ovation when the concert ended. He was then presented with an Irish flag, which he took back to Ukraine with him. How fitting, then, that we now see Ukrainian flags waving in the wind from so many Irish windows as we nail our colours to the mast of this beleaguered nation.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Brazen Head pub in Dublin in 2017.

The small man with the big heart spent three days in Ireland afterwards. With his wife Olena he went to the Guinness Hop Store and some adjoining pubs. After visiting Aras an Uachtaráin he headed west, stopping off in Moher to gaze into the deep from the captivating cliffs there. As well as being entranced by the scenery he’s said to have been hugely impressed – like the present refugees – by the warmth and hospitality of the Irish people. He vowed to return.

Will that happen? Anything is possible but one thing is sure. His namesake in the Kremlin isn’t laughing at the former comedian now. The politburo bit off more than they could chew when they went into the Ukraine with all their firepower, not expecting this David to hit their many Goliaths with so many slingshots.

Nobody knows yet how this story will play out in the long run but if ever Mr Zelenskyy comes back to Drogheda – or anywhere else in Ireland for that matter – he’ll be treated with the same reverence as our own heroes of 1916.

Small countries that are colonized by neighbouring aggressors will always have that camaraderie in common.

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