Posts Tagged ‘Irish Defence Forces’


Kosovo Sky 2001 (c)Michael J. Whelan

Nectar of War

The ground could feel them,
returning to nests with the arsenals
of their colonies,
rotors vibrating the air
on convoys of black silhouettes
zipping by,
dozens of helicopters
swarming overhead
like eager wasps,
tail-booms jutting out
like giant stings
with artillery pieces,
heavy mortars and vehicles
slung beneath their painted bodies
like sacs full of the nectar of war.


Michael J. Whelan


Published in the ‘contemporary Irish poets feature’ in issue 22 of Rochford Street Review – July 2017

see https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2017/07/06/michael-j-whelan-five-poems/


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Destroyed house – Kosovo 2001. (c)Michael J. Whelan


(Kosovo, Winter 2001)


Cold day
Old woman
Ancient urine
Matted hair
Dirty clothes
Filthy skin
In ruin
Burnt out shell
Gone mad
Charred remains
Her family
Inside home
Inside her
Of strangers
Would not be helped
Could not

Michael J. Whelan


Published in the ‘contemporary Irish poets feature’ in issue 22 of Rochford Street Review – July 2017

see https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2017/07/06/michael-j-whelan-five-poems/

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Irish U.N. Patrol - South Lebanon c.1990s Photo by Michael J. Whelan

Irish U.N. Patrol – South Lebanon c.1990s.Photo by Michael J. Whelan


 (South Lebanon)

‘The sun is not to overtake the moon

nor the night to outstrip the day

and each swims in an orbit’ –Qur-an 26;33-58



Ancient minaret,  

sentinel monument marking

this splintered place. Village of the old,

counting days and mourning their dead,

the young flung to the corners of the Earth.


Beneath your silence quietly we pass

through battered streets,

guns pointed at the ground,

peppered walls keep your story.


Loud in flags of nations but enfeebled

by ghostly eyes whispering fear from the dying

our patrol follows the paths worn by many,

afraid to disturb their memories.

Our footsteps bear no echo

on this broken road.


Michael J. Whelan

Published recently in the USA as part of a sequence  in ‘From the Cradle of Civilization: Contemporary Arabic Poetry”, the fifth edition of Life and Legends’ http://lifeandlegends.com/cradle-civilization/

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Bunker S. Lebanon, 1994. Photo: Michael J. Whelan




In the darkness

you feel it

hunting you,

smells your blood,

vibrations pulsing

through the valley

like a beast.


Michael J. Whelan


Published recently as part of a sequence  in ‘From the Cradle of Civilization: Contemporary Arabic Poetry”, the fifth edition of Life and Legends’ http://lifeandlegends.com/cradle-civilization/

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An Irish peacekeeper’s war poetry

Michael J Whelan’s collection Peacekeeper draws on his experience as an Irish soldier serving with the UN in Lebanon and Kosovo

I saw all that I witnessed, I just didn’t realise I was absorbing it and though it was hard and sometimes it is still difficult to reconcile to the world I lived in I hope at the end of my days to be able to say this was one of the good things I did with my life.

Distant Whisper

Do you remember
how drops of water
trickle down stone walls
in the wadiis of south Lebanon,
as they have for a thousand years,
over contours, between grooves,
slowing on rough rendering?

How it reminded you of the west of Ireland,
white lines on her hills?

Do you remember
liquid moving like a teardrop,
trickling in a whisper of life,
the hum of a bee, or an insect
living in its own significance,
going about its business
as time stands still
long enough for you to study
the erosion of war,
knowing that a belt of Point Five ammunition
fired at you could turn this feature to rubble
in an instant?

Do you remember thinking
if you die here today – behind this old wall,
trickles will go on forming slow grooves
and you will be that distant whisper?


In the orphanage a child
cowers from cursing men outside.
She wants to climb back into
her dead mother’s womb
and hide inside its warm, soft,
un-edged safety,
where no explanation is needed
or reason to hide under splintered
staircases or run the gauntlet to basement
bomb shelters, existing minute to minute
with strangers until the dawn arrives with her
deliverance and she refuses to be born.

Broken Spade

You lay in your frozen field, slack-jawed at how you
came to be there, your mouth caked in last year’s mud,
limbs twisted about your body as if in the midst of some
remembered dance or tempered at your rotting crops,
bent over in disgust, yielding in the half light and startled
at the cold – they have never felt.
This harvest, un-reaped and yet reaped upon you
hides the stale shoe and crushed spectacles,
the broken spade that hastily covered you in the soft
clay you loved, now steeled hard against the sharp sky.

I imagine the fears of your kin as they searched the high
golden horizon that summer day.
They might have felt the distant calamity that took you
following the bullet casings along the beaten track,
and I wonder if they found you,
then I see the scars of cluster bombs and scorched
stalks of your petrified labours and there, there in the shrapnel
of this bitter harvest I behold your seed,
torn apart but reaching out to the one who bore them.

Michael J Whelan is caretaker of the Military Aviation Collection at Baldonnel. He holds an MA in modern history from NUI Maynooth. His poems have won second place in the Patrick Kavanagh and 3rd in the Jonathan Swift Awards. Peacekeeper was published in 2016 by Doire Press and is available from good bookshops at €12. 

Massive thank you Martin Doyle for publishing this article see original here http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/an-irish-peacekeeper-s-war-poetry-1.2897917?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=twitter

'Peacekeeper' by Michael J. Whelan. Poetry collection published by Doire Press - April 2016

‘Peacekeeper’ by Michael J. Whelan. Poetry collection published by Doire Press – April 2016

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I will be taking part in this event to celebrate the 50th issue of A New Ulster (Ed. Amos Grieg)
With David Rigsbee 
and Peter O’ Neill, where I will also read and discuss poems from the Peacekeeper collection (Doire Press), which were first published in ANU. Please come along to what promises to be a fantastic event in Books Upstairs on D’Olier Street, Dublin City at 6.30pm next Tuesday evening 15th November 2016.

Hope to see you there

See details below

Michael J. Whelan - poet, Lebanon 1994

Michael J. Whelan – poet, Lebanon 1994




Celebrating the 50th issue of A New Ulster
With David Rigsbee,
Michael J. Whelan and Peter O’ Neill

A New Ulster magazine was established in 2012 and is celebrating its 50th issue this month. To mark this milestone, some of the magazine’s most prolific contributors will come together to read and discuss their poetry and translations. On the night we’ll have guest of honour, American poet and translator of Joseph Brodsky, David Rigsbee, as well as poets Peter O’Neill and Michael J. Whelan. A New Ulster magazine promotes contemporary literature across all 32 counties, publishing poetry, fictional prose, translations and transversions, reviews, interviews and art works from writers and artists not only from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but from the USA, UK, and the EU making it a truly international literary journal which, in its four intensely packed years, has made it truly a force to be reckoned with.

David Rigsbee is the author of School of the Americas and Not Alone in My Dancing:  Essays and Reviews, as well as the forthcoming Dream Baby (Lapwing) and This Much I Can Tell You (Black Lawrence Press). He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships in Literature and awards from The National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Academy of American Poets. He is the author of critical studies of Carolyn Kizer and Joseph Brodsky and has coedited Invited Guest:  An Anthology of Twentieth Century Southern Poetry.  He lives in New York.

Michael J. Whelan is a historian and award-winning poet. A serving member of the Irish Air Corps, he is currently curator and keeper of the Irish Air Corps Military Aviation Museum & Collection at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel. He is the author of two history books and his poetry has been published in Ireland, Mexico, Paris, the UK and included in The Hundred Years’ War –Anthology of Modern War Poems (Bloodaxe UK). His debut collection ‘Peacekeeper’ (Doire Press, 2016) is the first of its kind to reference the role of Irish citizens on international peace support missions.

Peter O’ Neill is the author of six collections of poetry, most recently Divertimento The Muse is a Dominatrix(mgv2>publishing, France) and Sker (Lapwing). He edited And Agamemnon Dead, An Anthology of Early Twenty First Centurywith Walter Ruhlmann (mgv2>publishing). He is the founder of Donkey Shots, an avant garde poetry festival which takes place in the spring in his home-town of Skerries, north county Dublin, where he also hosts The Gladstone Readings.


Tickets are  €5.92 and available at the Eventbrite link below



Tue 15 November 2016

18:30 – 19:30 GMT



Books Upstairs,

17 D’Olier Street

2 Dublin



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Recent review of Michael J. Whelan’s PEACEKEEPER by Daniel Wade

Peacekeeper, by Michael J. Whelan, Doire Press, 12.00, ISBN: 978-1-907682-46-9

'Peacekeeper' by Michael J. Whelan. Poetry collection published by Doire Press - April 2016

‘Peacekeeper’ by Michael J. Whelan. Poetry collection published by Doire Press – April 2016

Review by Daniel Wade.

In a 1732 letter addressed to Charles Wogan, Jonathan Swift wrote admiringly of the legions of displaced Irishmen who served in various European continental armies following the 1691 Treaty of Limerick (and whose mass departure from their homeland is known to history as the ‘Flight of the Wild Geese’), praising in particular the bravery of their decision to enlist: “I cannot but highly esteem those gentlemen of Ireland, who, with all the disadvantages of being exiles and strangers, have been able to distinguish themselves by their valour and conduct in so many parts of Europe, I think above all other nations.”

It is true that the Irish have a long history of fighting other nation’s wars. From the galloglaigh or ‘gallowglass’ corps of elite mercenaries deployed to assorted conflicts across mainland Europe in the 1500s, to the 40,000 documented Irish ex-pats who fought for the Union and the 20,000 who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, the Republican and Blueshirt volunteers who signed up to fight one another in the Spanish Civil War, as well as the thousands who swelled the British Army’s ranks in WWI (and indeed, the countless more who wore a British Army uniform down the centuries), not to mention the 5,000 members of the Defence Forces who enlisted to fight in WWII, following Ireland’s officially neutral position in that particular conflict, and who were later branded deserters by the Irish government of the day upon their return. This isn’t even including the pioneering work undertaken by Irish-born war correspondents such as Peter Finnerty and Sir William Howard Russell, who covered the Napoleonic wars and the Crimean war respectively, as well as Samuel Beckett, who volunteered with the French Resistance in WWII and was awarded a Medaille de la Resistance for his efforts.

The nuance and increasingly complex gradations of Irish identity that resulted in this mass involvement with the military affairs of other nations is perhaps best summed up by Christopher St. Lawrence, the 10th Baron Howth and a captain in the Earl of Essex’s army during the Nine Years War, who, frustrated by the ridicule he received as both an Irish-born peer and a loyal follower of the Crown, declared: “I am sorry that when I am in England, I shall be esteemed an Irishman, and in Ireland, an Englishman. I have spent my blood, engaged and endangered my life, often to do her Majesty’s service, and do beseech to have it so regarded.”

To this end, it is no surprise that Irish poetry has rarely shied away from addressing bloodshed and the full effects of warfare. The Tain Bo Cuailnge arguably counts as the definitive Celtic war saga, while Piaras Feiritear, who fought in the Confederate Ireland wars, ranks as an invaluably early example of a soldier-poet writing in the Irish language. In the contest of the Easter Rising, Padraic Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh were each published poets, and the outpouring of poetic tribute to them subsequent to their executions, from authors as disparate as James Stephens, Katherine Tynan, AE and Francis Ledwidge, proved once more that poetry is instrumental in making sense of bloodshed’s aftermath throughout the nation’s most historic events.

Meanwhile, in the trenches of WW1, Tom Kettle and the aforementioned Ledwidge (both avowed nationalists) would become known for their poignant verses, if not for their direct depiction of the war itself, and would come to symbolise the loss of the Irish involvement of in the trenches. W.B. Yeats repeatedly addressed the thorny and troubling effects of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War upon Irish life during both their duration and aftermath in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, ‘The Second Coming’ and the long poetic sequence ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ (and also infamously refused to write about WW1 in ‘On being asked for a War Poem’).

Later on, the growing sectarian tensions that would eventually culminate in the Northern Irish Troubles and the growing crisis of same is later on tackled by a plethora of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley (the latter in particular noting time and again the lingering after-effects of battle on his father, who had seen service in WW1). Yet for all this, and in spite of exquisitely exhaustive anthologies such as the 2009 Gerald Dawe-edited Earth Voices Whispering:An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-1945, there is no longstanding equivalent tradition of Irish war poets to equal the pantheon ofthat encompassed Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, Gurney and Thomas.

Despite all this, and despite the long-standing stereotype of the ‘Fighting Irish’ embodied by the G.K. Chesterson line concerning the alleged inborn Gaelic readiness for battle:


For the great Gaels of Ireland

Are the men that God made mad:

For all their wars are merry

And all their songs are sad…


it is actually Ireland’s long association since the founding of the State with overseas peacekeeping operations that has proven to be its most prominent and exemplary martial endeavour on record. Following Ireland’s 1955 entry into the UN, the Irish Defence Forces has found itself involved in various peace support and crisis management missions, chiefly in the Middle East.  Irish peacekeeping missions, under the various auspices of UNFICYP (the Congo), UNDOF (Syria-Israel Border) and UNIFIL (Lebanon), to name but a few are examples of this tradition. Indeed, the recent return of Irish troops from the 50th Infantry Group, on April 7th, to Dublin Airport after a six-month deployment to the Golan Heights on behalf of UNDOF, indicates the currency of this aspect of Ireland’s international relations. Since the beginning of these operations, there have been 85 recorded deaths among Irish military personnel.

Hence, the debut collection of Tallaght-based poet Michael J. Whelan, entitled Peacekeeper, is the first such volume of poetry to address this fascinating if often-overlooked aspect of Irish history and current affairs. Whelan himself is a former member of the Irish Defence Forces and has seen service in South Lebanon and Kosovo as an Irish United Nations support operative. Because his poetry has the added credential of being authored by a former member of the Irish Defence Forces, it draws immediate comparisons with the poignant and often harrowing poetic accounts of modern warfare by contemporary American war poets Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) and Kevin Powers (Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting), both veterans of the Iraq War. As such, it is a slim and unassuming volume, but certainly not a trivial one.

Whelan is no propagandist, but nor is he condemnatory. He certainly details the horrors and attendant upset a war-zone will induce, and does so with an admirably unflinching eye. His poetic voice is that a survivor and an eye-witness, not of a triumphalist. The complex nature of being a soldier fighting to preserve the peace in a combat zone is an ever-present source of tension within the book. The work is brutal and thankless, yet necessary. There is no glory to be expected. Indeed, early on in the collection he writes,


I come in peace not victorious or triumphant

no palms will be thrown under my feet

when I enter the City of David. 


His poetry serves as a valuable and even historically-significant document of the Irish soldier’s experience in peacekeeping work. Arguably, Whelan proves that those most qualified to talk of war and war’s alarms are those who see it from the coalface, as in ‘Portal’, when he writes: “The rest is just history/shovelled down the neck of a hungry war feeding/on souls, a monster that’s never satisfied.”

Whelan makes it clear that he and his fellow soldiers are in as much as danger as those they either sent in to protect or fight. The human cost is never far away. The danger is ever-present, and is devoid of any glamour or adrenalin-inducing thrills that might be expected in a warzone. Whelan makes it clear that, for the peacekeeper, every footstep taken is risk for the peacekeeper whose only armour/was the feeble weave of a blue flag. Their status does not shield them from being shot or bombed (“Our presence does not halt their conflict), and in fact gives them a clear indication of both sides being equally lacking in compromise:


“…we who keep the middle ground will feel

the vibrations of their vengeance.”


In ‘Moral of the Story’ which details the shooting on an IDF checkpoint by a runaway squad of Hezbollah fighters fleeing the Israeli army, he states:


Peacekeepers in Lebanon may not always

hold the centre ground but they are always

caught in the middle.


Combined with these moments of heightened chaos, the boredom of down-time is mixed with the ever-present anxiety of sudden, random outbursts of carnage, as in the poem ‘Funeral’, where the speaker’s enjoyment of a televised World Cup match is interrupted by the sudden attack of Resistance fighters: “all commentary lost in emotions,/I reach for my helmet and gun,/in a moment the shells will start falling.”

But perhaps most poignantly is the aftermath of such encounters, as exemplified in ‘Prishtina’, wherein the speaker finds himself having to confront a seriously injured comrade after a detonation, and, in a space of a few short seconds, getting a glimpse of his and everybody’s mortality:


It was only a moment

but he looked into me.

Could see me as clearly

as I see him after all this time,

his eyes piercing my soul, 

digging deep.


This poem easily ranks among the collection’s best. It most clearly demonstrates Whelan’s ability to bring alive the most harrowing of scenes with the most economized of language. The helplessness of the situation described above is lessened only the mutual, unspoken understanding the two men come to have, an understanding which perhaps could not have been reached in less traumatic circumstances. The poem’s conclusion is terse and superficially matter-of-fact, but the reader is left with no doubt as the effect such an encounter will leave on the speaker: “I couldn’t help him/but I know he sees me,/like I can see dead people.”

As already stated, there is no prettification or avoidance of the sanguine realities of warfare in Peacekeeper. The imagery Whelan makes use of is visceral, uncompromising, cinematic and yet, the reader instinctively feels, somehow true to life, reaching a stark vividness on a par with the horrific nightmare-verses of Wilfred Owen. A boy buried in rubble is found by his grandmother: “his shrapnel body lashed to the ruins/and mixed with false promises,” fresh rain falls “to wash away the footprints of killers/and the hopes of the hurting,” a fatal wound is “the ball of his knee hanging,/attached by loose skin and gristle/and wrapped in a bloody white shirt.

But to counterbalance the carnage are the evocative landscapes in which Whelan the soldier finds himself deployed to. Binaries are in the very nature of peacekeeping, insofar as soldiers fighting to keep the peace is in itself a contradiction in terms. The sheer physical beauty of the Lebanese countryside acts as a fragile counterbalance to the carnage threatening to engulf it.

It is contrast that informs the collection’s longest poem and easily its thematic mission statement, Paradox of the Peacekeeper in the Holy Land, a prolonged and moving meditation on the long, diverse and complex nature of the land he has been sent to. Myth, history and current affairs are each brought to bear: Lebanon is “where Gilgamesh cleaved the cedars for his ships” as well as a place where “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.” In stanzas such as these, we see the landscape serve as a witness and a theatre to the chaos that has tainted and moulded its history, a history which Whelan knows is ongoing, where chariots are replaced by tanks, yet with the effect of these war-machines being much the same:


This is the land of the Canaanites,

the Phoenecians who traded from these beaches and ports

and I know it can never be as it was.

Alexander’s siege of Beirut can still be heard,

in the tracks of a tankthat replaced the chariot,

the bullet that replaced the arrow,

the rise and fall of empires.


Overall, Peacekeeper is a challenging, robust debut collection and a clear result of years of contemplating and traversing such disturbing terrain where violent death is an everyday occurrence. With these poems, Michael J. Whelan has achieved something very singular that deserves to be read by soldier and civilian alike.

Irish U.N. foot-patrol, Tibnine Castle, S. Lebanon 1994. Photo: Michael J. Whelan(L)

Irish U.N. foot-patrol, Tibnine Castle, S. Lebanon 1994. Photo: Michael J. Whelan(L)


Daniel’s review was originally published on writing.ie see  http://www.writing.ie/readers/peacekeeper-by-michael-j-whelan/

and on danielwadeauthor.com


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