Hi everyone, this is Peter O’Neill’s fantastic introduction to my debut collection ‘Peacekeeper‘ (Doire Press) at the launch in the County Library Tallaght on the 13th of April 2016 .
It was recently published in this current issue (June) of Ireland’s Military Story & Reveille Magazine for which I would like to say a massive thanks to Wesley Bourke and his team and also to Peter O’ Neill.
Arma virumque cano!
Peacekeeper by Michael Whelan,
Doire Press, 2016.
War is the father and king of all (Heraclitus).
Every age has its wars.
Since the first existing literary text, believed to date from Babylon in 1300-1000
BC, The Epic of Gilgamesh and onto Homer in 750 BC, till the arrival of Virgil,
whose opening line to The Aenied forms the title of this text, in and around 40
BC, to our own Táin , or Cattle Raid of Cooley, in the first century AD; war
and war poetry have been with us.
Look around at events going on in the world today… Syria, Georgia, Iraq,
Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine these are just some of the areas currently
Embroiled in Conflict.
Not very long ago, you only had to pick up a newspaper to read about the latest
victims to terror of one kind or another up in Northern Ireland. We read the
headlines year after year, down in the south, and simply thought to ourselves
there, but for the grace of god go ‘WE’.
The poet whose work we are gathered to hear reading to us today was
involved in two major conflicts, those in the Lebanon and in Kosovo. Michael
served as a Peacekeeper with the United Nations Interim Force in the Lebanon (UNIFL ) and with the Peace Enforcement mission in Kosovo (K.FOR), and it
from his experiences of both these conflicts that the majority of Michael’s
poems in his debut collection of poetry Peacekeeper come.
It is a very great honour for me to be here, at Michael’s request, to help launch
the book with him today. I first became aware of Michael’s poetry while editing
an anthology of contemporary Irish poetry called And Agamemnon Dead for the
French writer and publisher Walter Ruhlmann for mgv2>publishing. Walter and
I were attempting to put together an anthology of Irish poets and writers who we
both felt were not getting a chance to present their work on a suitable platform,
and which we hoped to be able to offer them with the anthology.
When we hear the term ‘war poetry’, most of us would immediately think of
WW1, the names of poets like Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke,
Siegfried Sassoon and our own Francis Ledwidge. Why is this?
There are, I am sure, many reasons. One, surely, is as it was the first fully
mechanised and so modern war, in which millions of men were so
systematically massacred, and on an industrial scale. We are all familiar with
the horror of life for soldiers in the trenches, and it is mainly due to some of
the poets listed above. WWII is less associated with poets, perhaps, than the
‘Great War’, but from it also came a formidable body of work. Poets such a
Dylan Thomas, for example, described life during the Blitz, for war had a new
side to it now, as civilians as well as soldiers were also among the casualties.
There was Rene Char in France, a voice from the resistance. Aresny
Tarkovsky, father of the famous film maker, who reported back from the
Russian front, and Karl Krolow writing from the German side. But the majority
of writing which came from WWII was written in prose; one thinks
immediately of the American writers Joseph Heller ( Catch 22 ), Norman
Mailer (The Naked and the Dead) and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse 5 ),
which all recount the horrors and the absurdities that the soldiers had to endure.
Again, the impact of civilian literature is also considerable, considering the
apocalyptic and all encompassing nature of the war; Primo Levi’s Is This Is A
Man, and the Diaries of Anne Frank being two of the most known books to
come out of the war.
Yet, when I spoke to Michael about his influences, he spoke to me of the
American soldiers who had just returned from tours of Iraq and Afghanistan,
such as Brian Turner (Here, Bullet).
And this is the thing which struck me immediately about Michael, as an Irish
soldier- ‘poet’ he was alone. I couldn’t think of any other contemporary Irish
poet, at least, who were writing in the country with a similar kind of
background or experience, as Michael’s. To the best of my knowledge there are
none. So, in this, Michael is truly an original and authentic voice in
contemporary Irish poetry, reaching back to a tradition that is as long as
memory itself. And Michael is very much part of that tradition, that poets like
Brian Turner too belong too. For Michael is writing as both a survivor, and as a
The first thing which strikes you, when reading the poems of Michael Whelan,
is the very natural poetic ability Michael has, particularly when treating highly
sensitive material, such as the impact of warfare upon children.
His poem Chocolate in which he describes an encounter with a couple of
children, sheltering in a bombed out house perfectly illustrates Michael’s
capacity, in the space of three short sentences, to completely encompass a
particular microcosm of the atrocious events which happened in Kosovo, in the
last decade of the previous century. Events, which we said in Europe, which
were “‘never to happen again!’”
Michael’s style of writing is unencumbered with artifice. It is minimal,
essential…. And yes, it is brutal.
In the Poetics, Aristotle famously speaks of the cathartic element when
he is attempting to analyse and define the nature of tragedy, which tragic
writing has; ‘ …effecting through pity and fear (what we call) the catharsis
of such emotions.’
Listening to the poet reading his own work, about his experiences in Lebanon
and Kosovo, makes us dearly realise the price that one pays for freedom.
Peter O’ Neill
22nd February, 2016.
Michael J. Whelan – Poet, Peacekeeping South Lebanon
Peter O’Neill is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Divertimento The Muse is a Dominatrix ( mgv2>publishing, France, 2016 ) and Sker ( Lapwing, Belfast, 2016 ). He edited And Agamemnon Dead, An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century with Walter Ruhlmann also for mgv2>publishing (2015). He is the founder of Donkey Shots, an avant garde poetry fest which takes place in his hometown of Skerries where he also hosts The Gladstone Readings.
A translator of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, he was awarded a first class honour in his final exams answering on Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger. On completing his BA (2007), he went on to do a Masters in Comparative Literature (2013), also at Dublin City University.
 Aristotle: Poetics, Translated with an Introduction and Notes by James Hutton, W.W. Norton, New York, 1982, p.50.