Living with Leo Varadkar: Ukrainian musician on how she fled home and ended up in the Taoiseach’s house

Having spent several weeks of living in hotels, Olesia Borsuk was asked if she wanted to move in with a gay couple. She knew nothing about her new housemates

Olesia Borsuk has known nothing but conflict in her adult life. Her first year as a music student at the Pyotr Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine in Kyiv coincided with the start of the Euromaidan protests in 2014.

The Kyiv Conservatory, as it is better known, is on Maidan Square where millions of mostly young Ukrainians protested for months following Russian interference in the country’s future direction.

Young Ukrainians had hoped that the European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement would finally move the country towards the European Union and away from the maw of Russia, but it was thwarted by Russian pressure

The Euromaidan uprising eventually led to the ousting of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, but only after the country’s secret police, the Berkut, shot dead more than 100 protesters.


Throughout the bitter winter of 2013 and 2014, Ms Borsuk now 28, was out on the streets of the capital Kyiv. She was shocked coming from her quiet western Ukrainian hometown of Ivano-Frankivsk. “I was super young,” she recalls. “I came from a peaceful city and to see the Yanukovych police beat students off the street was a shock to me.

“I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing here?’ When Maidan started we didn’t want to be on the same side of Russia. We wanted to choose the European Union and when they started beating students, we thought it was unacceptable. After November, I was there almost every day. In Maidan it was like ‘to be or not to be’ and I chose to be.”

Like many Ukrainians, she hoped the ousting of Yanukovych would mark a new departure for Ukraine, but Russian president Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and sent his proxy forces into the Donbas, thus beginning eight years of conflict. “We hoped things would change, but Russian was too powerful.”

On the morning of February 24th last year, she was woken up by sirens in her apartment in Ivano-Frankivsk at 7am. She thought it was a drill until she opened the windows of her apartment and saw smoke billowing from the civilian airport five kilometres from her home. One of the first acts of the Russian invasion was a rocket attack on her home city.

Panic attack

“I realised that I had nothing prepared for the war. We were told in the media that you need to have a rucksack, documents, some warm clothes,” she says.

“I didn’t have anything except the cat, Kiki (he is with my parents now), started to collect all my documents, decided to go and buy some food. The whole country had a panic attack except the military.”

It was the hardest decision I ever made to leave Ukraine. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to fight

—  Olesia Borsuk

She volunteered for the military but never heard back from them. Eventually her parents persuaded her to leave Ukraine. “My parents were insisting that I needed to go. ‘You are young, you need to go,’ they said.”

She reached Ireland through Poland, Germany, Denmark and then back to Germany over a nine-day period. “It was the hardest decision I ever made to leave Ukraine. I didn’t want to go. I wanted to fight.” It was harder still as her 39-year-old boyfriend is now fighting with the Ukrainian army. “He’s the love of my life. I’m very proud of him,” she says

She opted for Ireland because a distant relative lives here, she speaks English and heard it was a musical country.

She arrived on March 19th and stayed at the St Catherine’s Community Sports Centre in Dublin 8, then the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown, followed by a few weeks in Citywest Hotel. This was at the time when thousands of Ukrainians were arriving in Ireland every day.

Eventually she was approached by a Red Cross volunteer. “She asked me if I wanted to live with a gay couple, and I said, ‘Yes, cool.’”

At the time, she did not know anything about Leo Varadkar. “I met Matt [Matt Barrett, his partner] first and he showed me around the neighbourhood,” she says. “He said that his partner is a politician.”

‘A fairytale’

She moved into their home near the South Circular Road in Dublin last May. “He’s awesome, he and Matt they are perfect, I’ve never seen such generous and kind and beautiful people like them. They are very supportive. It has been unbelievable.”

She admits to being so preoccupied with the politics of her native Ukraine that she has not been following the domestic travails of the Taoiseach, but acknowledges that Irish Government support for Ukraine has been strong.

She describes Ireland as being like a “fairytale” in comparison with Ukraine. “I have never met so many people who are kind and happy and open. I’m in love with Ireland. It is a beautiful country.”

This instrument has more power than Russian propaganda without saying anything, just sounds. This instrument is sound as history. The organ has had the same sound for the last 500 years

—  Olesia Borsuk

Ms Borsuk was a music teacher in Ukraine. She can play the piano, but her first love is the organ. When she arrived in Dublin, she wrote to David Adams, a teacher in the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) and an accomplished musician in his own right.

He took her on part-time as a student just two weeks after she arrived. She applied for a Bachelor in Musicology degree in the RIAM and was accepted as a student this year. She also played in the National Concert Hall in December with other Ukrainian refugees who are now musicians at the academy. “It’s an academy of dreams,” she says. “They are trying to make us into artists. It is a very holistic thing. I really enjoy it.”

She plays the organ every Sunday in St Catherine and St James’s Church on the South Circular Road and also in its sister church, St Audoens. They are both Church of Ireland.

The organ she plays in St Catherine’s Church dates from the 19th century, but the organ as a liturgical instrument dates from the seventh century.

“This instrument has more power than Russian propaganda without saying anything, just sounds,” she says. “This instrument is sound as history. The organ has had the same sound for the last 500 years.”

Russian propaganda

She first came to the attention of The Irish Times not because of her relationship with the Taoiseach, but because of her objection to a ballet company performing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake around Ireland later this month.

She believes Russian culture is another propaganda arm of the Russian government, and Tchaikovsky is also President Vladimir Putin’s favourite composer. There will be a time when Russian artists can be readmitted to the canon of significant world artists, but not while the war is going on, she firmly believes.

Her PhD in musicology is scheduled to last four years. Can she imagine settling in Ireland? “No,” she says, “home, home, home.” But she believes many of the 70,000 Ukrainians and growing who have moved to Ireland will stay to make a contribution in the country.

“It’s a new chance for them. They have given everything they can to their new life. For many, it will be hard to go back.”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times