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Isreali army foot patrol - By Oren1973 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Israeli army foot patrol – By Oren1973 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

THE CINDER BUS

        Hebron

 

Above me a jet

leaves a long scratch

on a perfect sky.

 

The crowds pour out,

the shutters come down,

the town changes shape.

 

Then comes the shouts,

the stones,

the bottles and bricks

 

smashing into shuttered shop fronts

and the patrolling Israeli soldiers

channelling through the streets

 

in a slow verse of history,

into the familiar well-rehearsed ambush,

this arsenal of new rubble,

 

this old battleground,

this biblical reverie

of rubber bullets and smoke,

 

laden down, nervous and young,

hands stuck fast to guns,

helmets hanging on the backs of their heads,

 

chin-straps between their teeth

like a horses bit,

frothing at the mouth,

 

invisible bridles strung out

pulling armoured chariots

through the hail like tired scriptures.

 

No glory descends on this broken road

as they pass the cinder bus once more,

the sun casting long shadows.

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

 

Published in ‘A NEW ULSTER,’ magazine, issue 32, May 2015

Kosovo (c)Michael J. Whelan - c.2000

Kosovo (c)Michael J. Whelan – c.2000

THIS IS THE DAY

(Balkans)

 

Narrow lines of yellow tape

stretch up into forest hills

marking places where it’s safe to trek

between unexploded bombs

and dead refugees waiting to be rescued.

 

This is the day

a peacekeeper is blown to bits

clearing a path to a suspected mass grave

near an empty village,

where booby-trapped doors wait to be opened,

made safe before it might live again.

 

His friends finishing the search

before gathering all the parts of him,

zipping him into a dozen body bags,

each soldier sweating in his own skin

as the dead look on,

relieved it wasn’t them.

 

 

Michael J. Whelan

Published in ‘A NEW ULSTER, magazine, issue 32, May 2015

Local children - Kosovo - 2001 (c)Michael J. Whelan

Local children – Kosovo – 2001 (c)Michael J. Whelan

 

ARMS

 

During the war in Kosovo

a lot of ordnance was dropped,

the ground sewn with a

deadly liberation.

The children didn’t understand,

the merchants never cared.

 

They would come almost daily,

in all weathers and none,

filthy and cold, traipsing deep

puddled footprints in the melting snow,

smiles empty, arms filled with cluster

bombs and unexploded shells

of one kind or another, from one side

or the other, for the tin merchant

close to our base.

 

If we gave them money to stop

they just brought more,

ignored them and they tapped on the wire

for hours with the contents of their hands.

 

Outside the base was a UXO pit

our engineers regularly destroyed

when it filled up with

the ticking harvest.

 

It was hard,

some of us had kids at home.

 

 

 

Michael J. Whelan

(UXO + Unexploded Ordnance)

 

Published in ‘A NEW ULSTER’ magazine, issue 32, May 2015

United Nations Position - Lebanon, 1994. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

United Nations Position – Lebanon, 1994. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

 

MORAL OF THE STORY

(Lebanon)

 

A convoy of three Mercedes cars and a pick-up

truck fleeing the retaliations of the Israeli

backed militia, which they have just ambushed,

bombs down the hill towards a U.N.

roadblock in the narrow chicane

of a sun trapped checkpoint

manned by Irish peacekeepers.

Full to the teeth with Hezbollah

Resistance, fighters armed with rocket

propelled grenades and automatic rifles,

and not having time to stop in the stifling

heat of day, the convoy opens up

spraying the checkpoint with bullets

and shrapnel.

And the moral of the story?

Peacekeepers in Lebanon may not always

hold the centre ground but they are always

caught in the middle!

 

Michael J. Whelan

Published in ‘A NEW ULSTER’ magazine, issue 32, May 2015

Large grave, Albanian Village, Kosovo (c)Michael J. Whelan - 2001

Large grave, Albanian Village, Kosovo (c)Michael J. Whelan – 2001

 

SILENT CONVOYS

                      (Kosovo)

 

Playing fields and roadsides still

hide their prize,

flat packed strata

in the hard coveting earth,

layer upon layer,

limbs and possessions mingling

in an overcrowded place.

 

Sometimes we watched

from silent convoys,

listening for the word to come,

the searchers digging for what once

were boys and men,

longing to feel the day’s breath

on their bony faces,

to hold up their skeleton arms

and call out to those who love them still,

             ‘Here I am, here I am,

                        come, take me home.’

 

 

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

Published in ‘A NEW ULSTER’ magazine, issue 32, May 2015, edited by Amos Greig

 

Michael J. Whelan - Lebanon 1994

Michael J. Whelan – Lebanon 1994

 

PARADOX OF THE PEACEKEEPER IN THE HOLY LAND

 

I am forever walking upon the shore

       betwixt the sand and the foam.

       The high tide will erase my footprints,

       and the wind will blow away the foam,

        but the sea and the shore will remain forever…’

 

                                                                         Kahlil Gibran

 

 

 

In Lebanon I sought redemption

like the pilgrim at the crossroads of Heliopolis,

on the Bekaa’s great range where Bedouin caravans met

and Romans laid their bodies down in supplication to their gods,

to Aphrodite and Jupiter, and long before this peacekeeper came

on what seemed a fools errant, whose only armour

was the feeble weave of a blue flag,

 

before these wars for modernity and religion

where the new city’s shadows fall like dead soldiers

on the broken steps of Astarte’s Temple,

where the priests of Baalbek burned incense,

lay themselves prostrate with tribute and homage

beseeching fertility over the land and on warriors on the eve of battle

 

and the same priests parcelled out her favours to believers

who built new columns to the sun god on her ruins,

before all this there was blood on the stones and in the dust

of Tyre, of Sidon and in Byblos,

and the gods looked down from the heavens and laughed

for they knew that man knew not of their fallibilities,

their eyes kept the storms that belief constructed –

 

the defence of Masada by Jewish zealots

against ramparts, siege-towers and battering rams of enemies – never giving in,

the caliphs who ordered the conquests of Bilad al-Sham,

Helen who setting forth from Constantinople to Jerusalem

in search of the Cross set beacons ready to burn along the way

and Constantine, her son, converted his empire in promise to his mother

 

who lit the path for Crusaders and the burial places of a thousand years

under these skies of mumatus clouds that hang like fronds of fruit

above the hills at dusk, who rest like relics with Saracens

and Mamluks, the swords of east and west,

the holy books of Abraham, Mohamed and Byzantium,

where Gilgamesh cleaved the cedars for his ships

 

and where now the free man might dig with trowels once more,

adjure in the Temple of Baachus, revere the flake-bones of gladiators

under the triumphal arch of Al-Minah – the hippodrome at Tyre,

where fishermen still cast their nets on the same Phoenician shore

in Galilee beneath the stirring sands of Jordan

and camels sometimes carry scholars through the Quadisha Valley

like in the old days passing slopes of red anemone, wild tulip, oleander and poppy

 

and young girls might seek the damask rose in the gorges of forgotten ambushes,

where sultans and kings slaked their pious thirsts – slew their enemies

and exiled the youth of many futures – those pawns who lay penitent at the altars,

who laid down in the Temple of Aphrodite like the peacekeepers lay down now,

yes we who lay down with our wives and lovers like knights with sacred talismans

and far away they lie down with us under the same different moons,

 

they wait and pray looking up upon the many faces of the gods

who see us only as a fleeting moment on the pages of passing civilizations,

the rising and setting of the sun and we know the signal fires are burning,

the funeral pyres rise up in pillars of ash in the marches between the watchtowers

along the border wire and we know that so much metal has been fired in this cauldron

from arrowheads and spears to icons and the corrupted jagged shards of bombs,

shrapnelled landmines and bullets. On a rainy day we can almost smell it

weeping through the red mud tracks of an army and we must watch our step.

 

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

Published in ‘A NEW ULSTER,’ issue No. 32, May 2015, Edited by Amos Greig

 

 

 

 

 

 

IRELAND’S PARTICIPATION IN THE CENTENARY OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR – THE GALLIPOLI CAMPAIGN

The Commonwealth and Ireland Service to commemorate the centenary of the Gallipoli Campaign, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Helles Memorial 24 April 2015

The Gallipoli Six L - R Sgt Joe Meade, Airman Michael J. Whelan, Petty Officer Kevin Heade, Petrty Officer Cormac De Barra, Sergeant Tracy Walsh, Coy Sergeant Jim Aherne. Cape Helles Memorial - 24th April 2015 (Photo by SgtTracy Wash).

The Gallipoli Six L – R Sgt Joe Meade, Airman Michael J. Whelan, Petty Officer Kevin Heade, Petty Officer Cormac De Barra, Sergeant Tracy Walsh, Coy Sergeant Jim Aherne. Cape Helles Memorial – 24th April 2015 (Photo by Sgt Tracy Walsh).

L – R Sgt Joe Meade, Airman Michael J. Whelan, Petty Officer Kevin Heade, Petty Officer Cormac De Barra, Sergeant Tracy Walsh, Coy Sergeant Jim Aherne. Cape Helles Memorial – 24th April 2015 (Photo by Sgt Tracy Walsh).

GALLIPOLI 100

Recently I had the honour of representing Ireland and the Irish Defence Forces at the Commonwealth and Ireland commemorations of the April 1915 landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula during the Great War. Many Irish soldiers serving in the British and ANZAC forces perished or were badly injured during the almost 9 months campaign and the Irish state has now officially recognised their part in the battles that took place in the Dardanelles one hundred years ago. I was selected by the General Officer Commanding the Irish Air Corps to be part of a team of six Irish Defence Forces personnel (two from each of the three services – Army, Navy & Air Corps with one of the army members being a piper and an Air Corps member being female) to take part in the commemorations on April 24th at the Cape Helles Memorial.

The six Irish Defence Forces personnel were Company Sergeant Jim Aherne (7th Infantry Battalion), Sergeant Joe Meade (piper – 7th Infantry Battalion), Petty Officer Cormac De Barra (Irish Naval Service), Petty Officer Kevin Heade (Irish Naval Service), Sergeant Tracey Walsh (Number 3 Operations Wing, Irish Air Corps) and myself Airman Michael J. Whelan (Irish Air Corps Museum, No. 4 Support Wing, Irish Air Corps). A few long hard days were had by the six representatives in the preparations, travelling to Cape Helles and the many rehearsals with British naval and army forces. All six of the Irish Defence Forces representatives accompanied An Tuachtaran Na hEireann Michael D. Higgins – President of Ireland and Lt. General Conor O’ Boyle – Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces on the flight to Istanbul on April 22nd and later we were all present at the Commonwealth and Ireland ceremony in Gallipoli on the 24th.

It was a very high profile event both in Turkey and around the world with over twenty one Commonwealth heads of states and or their representatives and entourages in attendance, including

HRH Prince Charles of Wales,

HRH Prince Harry of Wales,

His Excellency the President of the Republic of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan,

His Excellency the Presidents of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins,

His Excellency Mamnoon Hussain, President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,

The Right Honourable John Key MP, Prime Minister of New Zealand,

The Right Honourable Tony Abbott MP, Prime Minister of the Commonwealth of Australia,

His Excellency Jea-Yves Le Drian, Minister of Defence, the French Republic,

The Honourable Lynne Yelich, Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Consular), Canada,

His Excellency Markus Grubel, Parliamentary State Secretary for Defence, the Federal Republic of Germany,

His Excellency Md. Shahriar Alam, State Minister for Foreign Affairs, the People’s Republic of Bangladesh,

His Excelleny General V.K. Singh (Ret), Minister of State for External Affairs, the Republic of India among them.

 

Company Sergeant Jim Aherne (7th Infantry Battalion, Irish Defence Forces) read an excerpt from a letter written on the 13th of August 1915 to his father by Captain Paddy Tobin ‘D’ Company 7th Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Captain Tobin was killed at Suvla Bay three days later aged 21 years. Sergeant Joe Meade (Piper – 7th Infantry Battalion, Irish Defence Forces) played with the Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland and the Prince of Wales Division’s Band throughout the ceremony. Petty Officer Cormac De Barra (Irish Naval Service) delivered the wreath from the Irish People to the President of Ireland to be placed at the memorial Sergeant Tracey Walsh (Irish Air Corps) delivered the wreath to the representative from the Federal Republic of Germany to be placed at the memorial before returning to their positions in front of the monument and opposite the fifty-seven member Royal Navy Guard of Honour, where the military representatives of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France and the Republic of Ireland lined the route.

As a historian I have a keen interest in the First World War and the Irish soldier’s roles in it. I had visited the peninsula a few years prior and so it was real privilege and a humbling experience for me to be back near the beach cemetery again (V Beach) for this remembrance ceremony and to be part of the small delegation representing my country at this history making event, where almost to the exact moment 100 years ago Irish born soldiers serving in the British and ANZAC forces came ashore into decimating machine-gun fire. The thing I remember most about Gallipoli or what resonates with me the most I think is the fact that so many men on both sides died in such a short period in such a small area and most of them have no graves. The Gallipoli peninsula is their resting place and though it is a beautiful landscape the dead are still there in the energy of the place.

Michael J. Whelan

29 April 2015

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