Posts Tagged ‘Michael J. Whelan -Author’


Irish Peacekeeper - Lebanon 1990s. Photo: (c)Michael J. Whelan

Irish Peacekeeper – Lebanon 1990s. Photo: (c)Michael J. Whelan




Irish United Nations area of peacekeeping operations during Israeli Lebanese wars, 1990s



over the tannoy, it’s 4.30 in the morning,

I can feel the distant rumble already,

we shake the night fever from our heads,

an orchestra of activity, grab our weapons, flak-jackets, helmets,

sling identity discs around our necks, half dressed

we shuffle like the waking dead towards the bomb shelters.


I can feel her heart beating. I am so alive right now, can sense the fruit bats

finding their way back into the bowels of the Crusader’s castle,

the sound of every cricket in the wadi is about me, I picture the delicate cobweb

harp strings in the corner of my bunk, smell eucalyptus on the air.

I know the history of each leaf falling from the Cedar tree, the black faced men

in darkened rooms planning war, the pawns who perish in their violence

and I wonder what my parents are doing at this very moment,

what time it might be at home if an officer arrives to their door.


The stars are drawing my eyes, the moon vibrates in the periphery as I rush.

It’s not raining but a raindrop touches my eyelid, runs down my face.

I’m thinking now about her lips, the perfume of her wrists.

There is enough time to gather up the local civilians and so we go,

under flashing lights and blue flags our troops escort them to the shelters,

soldiers mix with refugees, one or two carry children on their shoulders,

another wraps an infant in her own body armour.


Yesterday the Resistance attacked the compounds on the hilltops using the mist for cover,

tank fire and mortars chased them back through the villages.

This morning is the Occupier’s reprisal, but when the dawn comes

these few innocent’s will not be seen, they are safe, we will keep them

beneath the overcrowded sandbags. At times the screaming child rattles my brain,

makes me want to climb back out for peace and quiet – an illusion!


I close my eyes to see my lover. I imagine the solitude of our garden, I hold onto it.

Then comes the reign of fire, the whooomphs of artillery, the staccato of bullets

and I remember from experience the plumes bursting upwards from their falling houses

like pillars of salt rising on the Dead Sea, spilling into the sky along all of their horizons.

In this strange cave-light, on every vibration, sand falls like gold dust onto a mother’s face.

I make myself small, we could be in here for hours, even days.


I feel so alive and I ask the universe if it sees the woman

waiting for me in the future, who hungers for me,

the one I hunger for, my need of her touch?

Outside, the Gods are deciding who lives and who dies,

the shelter keeps the hum of prayers to Christ and to Allah,

fathers feed worry beads through their fingers.

Death is prowling the perimeter; and we have no permission to fight.


(c)Michael J. Whelan


This poem was shortlisted in the University College Dublin ‘Voices of War’ International Poetry Competition for the Centenary of the Armistice 2018 in the Irish State’s Decade of Centuries commemorations and is published on their websites on New Years Eve 2018.

See – https://www.facebook.com/voicesofwar2018/photos/a.594079697691846/618256728607476/?type=3&theater

Also – http://centenaries.ucd.ie/events/voices-of-war-international/


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Irish Peacekeeper - Lebanon 1990s. Photo: (c)Michael J. Whelan

Irish Peacekeeper – Lebanon 1990s. Photo: (c)Michael J. Whelan




(Rifleman John Curley, U.N. Observation Post 6-40 – Haddathah,

 Irish Area of Operations, South Lebanon – 1989)



Everyone was shooting before anyone was killed.

Sometimes you have to defend yourself.

Your body was tense, selecting through your battle sights

the one trying to kill you, his bullets

kicking up dirt on their way to your head,

you never took the shot.

Being a Peacekeeper in a warzone

and being prepared to use your weapon

was a lesson you learned very early.


Later, when you smashed their Russian

made machine-gun to bits on a rock,

you were only venting your rage at the carnage.

Two AMAL dead and five Irish injured

after a stand-off at a U.N. checkpoint

over who was to keep possession of the thing.

Flesh has no resistance to bullets

aimed by dead freedom fighters

squeezing triggers as they fall.

You still see it all.


After the fire-fight blood filled your vision.

It poured from the floor of an APC,

where two of your friends lay wounded,

their bodies punctured.


You worked on them as they screamed,

rolling the most serious onto his side to drain his lungs,

while he pleaded with you to keep him alive

to see his daughter.


When you destroyed the machine-gun that day,

with blood on your face and on your hands,

everyone remembered how a human skull

is disintegrated by a rifle switched to automatic

and no one dared stop you.


Michael J. Whelan


AMAL – Lebanese Resistance

APC – Armoured Personnel Carrier


Published in A NEW ULSTER Magazine, issue 60, Sept’ 2017

see https://issuu.com/amosgreig/docs/anu60

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Rifleman Shay Singleton, South Lebanon 1988 (Copyright – used with permission).



(Rifleman Shay Singleton, U.N. checkpoint 6-38 Alpha, Haddathah Village,

 Irish Area of Operations – South Lebanon,  winter 1988)


I will always remember

that Peacekeepers, like Icarus, sometimes soar

too close to the flames of a violent sun,

that warriors are drawn by the gods

to the night-time’s phosphorous tracer

bouncing like molten solder

under a welder’s torch,


that glory and honour take many forms,

and a Greek falling at Thermopylae

was as real and important to antiquity

as you buying shoes for a near barefoot child

and your reading these words now.


So these lines are for the soldier you were,

for that Peacekeeper all those years ago

because you’ve often wondered

if the months you spent in that burning land

were worth the time away from home

and your family’s fret,

what the things you did and witnessed meant,


for though all warriors seek the glories of the Spartan

and armies, for millennia, have ploughed the soil of Lebanon,

history shows that enemies aren’t always victims of a war,

the poor and innocent too are taken by the sword.


But, even warriors are known to save lives,

like the day you refused to let a schoolboy die

or the greatest pain explode among that winter’s classroom,

or his home.

Though he thought better

than gift a secret hand-grenade to you – an Irish soldier,

you gave him every dollar you could muster from your pockets

for the deadly contents of his bag.

Michael J. Whelan


Published in A NEW ULSTER Magazine, issue No. 60  – September 2017

see https://issuu.com/amosgreig/docs/anu60

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Young boys near village Mass-grave, Kosovo 2001, Photo – (c)Michael J. Whelan


Children of the War

(Peacekeeping in Kosovo)


Once, on the outskirts of a future memory,
we stopped our convoy
on a narrow road
near a fallen tree.
I was in the lead vehicle
bringing supplies to a forgotten village
the war had touched,
our first time on that ground.
The tree blocked the route
as if booby-trapped.

There was movement in the woods
as we pushed through,
we didn’t shoot.
It was good to see them,
we drove by and they came in to view
hands raised high- begging.
The ambush turned out
to be scared children
weary of uniforms,
we gave them chocolate
for their little victory.
There was nothing to fear
though they didn’t know it
when they saw us coming
and in the long run of things
their tactics worked –
their smiles keep me awake sometimes.


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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Damaged house Kosovo, 2001. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

Damaged house – Kosovo, 2001.  Photo: Michael J. Whelan


In the depths of your despair
I come,
With these eyes I see
those who would purge you,
desecrate your identity,
your existence.
With these same eyes
I see your vengeance
meted out, tenfold.
I see the scars,
the landscape,
the missing,
the future.
I will leave this place
and one day bear witness
to your glories.

Michael J. Whelan

Published in Tinteán online magazine – an initiative of the Australian Irish Heritage Network https://tintean.org.au/2017/01/06/poetry-12/

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This article/review of PEACEKEEPER was published Tuesday August 2016 in the Leinster Leader Newspaper


A Review by Liam Kenny

Michael J. Whelan, 2016, Peacekeeper, Doíre Press,

Casla, Co. na Gaillimhe.

ISBN: 978-1-907682-46-9.


Voice of the soldier-poet

Local newspapers are good at reflecting the nuances and characteristics of the community they serve. The reports of meetings, court-cases, politics, profiles, incidents, matches, launches, local notes and much else create a nuanced picture of everyday life in the locality covered by the paper. It is often been said that to reconstruct Dublin in the early 20th century a reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses would provide all the working drawings needed by way of its multi-layered descriptions of people and places. Much the same can be said about the local newspapers. To view the files of this paper from, say, a hundred years ago, is to surround oneself with the ebb and flow of life in a past generation.

Making friends: Peacekeeper and poet Airman Michael Whelan chats with local children in Kosovo

All of this appreciation of the strength of local newspapers also points up a weakness. While papers are strong in covering the activities of the population within the local area they do not have the reach to document the experiences of local people in foreign settings. It’s as if the interest value melts when a local passes over the county boundary. Perhaps this reality explains why the experiences and service of the Irish women and men on peace-keeping missions throughout the world has gone largely untapped by local newspapers.




With the presence of the Curragh Camp in the county, and going back some years, the active military stations in Kildare town and Naas, there were inevitably many hundreds of soldiers from the locality wearing the blue beret of the United Nations.  It was an awareness of this commitment that prompted the Leinster Leader to send a journalist to the Lebanon in 1989 – the first regional paper to do so — and report on the reality of life for Lilywhite soldiers north of the contested Lebanon-Israel border.

The emphasis in the Leader reportage was to convey a sense of connection and explore how the service of two or three generations of army families meant that there was a familiarity with the geography and culture of the Middle-East which had not been registered by writers on the home front. It soon became apparent that place-names such as Tibnin, At Tiri and Roshaniqra were as familiar around the kitchen-tables of soldiering families in Kildare as were Brownstown, Moorefield and Ballymany.

Creating a sense of connection across such different cultures is often best achieved through the sensibilities of poetry rather than the less malleable word structures of prose.  Taking up the poet’s pen for some years now has been Ireland’s first soldier-poet of the modern era – Michael Whelan who is stationed at Casement Aerodrome, a little north of the Kildare-Dublin county boundary. An accomplished student of military history – he holds an M.A in History from Maynooth University and is curator and champion of the Air Corps museum – he is steeped in the culture and tradition of the Irish Defence Forces. His intellectual scope covers an even wider range through his service on peace-keeping missions under the melting sun of a Lebanese sky and the sharper climes of the Kosovan hills. The imagery and colour of local life and the brutal sights and sounds of gunfire and death form contrasting but interwoven themes in his poetry.

His latest collection of poems entitled “Peacekeeper” published by the Doire Press, Inverin, Co Galway blends the grit of peacekeeping with sensitivity for local people suffering as uncaring warlords vent lethal fury.   This quality of emotional generosity in the face of death and destruction is identifiable in a striking poem titled “Grapes of Wrath” which was inspired by the notorious Qana massacre when in April 1996 Israeli artillery deliberately poured lethal shellfire onto a small village under UN protection where Lebanese refugees had sought sanctuary from the fighting.

Michael Whelan writes of the aftermath:


“A soldier climbs from the rubbled limbs

and discarded faces, his eyes caked black with tears,

his hands at arm’s length clutching the newborn baby

that looks like a headless doll.”


A frequently cited characteristic of the Irish peacekeepers is their ability to – using that word again – “empathise” with the people in their area of operations. Beneath the radar of their armed peacekeeping duties are their thousand-and-one kindnesses which try and bring relief to the desperate existence of men, women and children whose lives have been atomised by war. In his poem “Peacekeeper” he writes of being among the frozen hills of Kosovo at Christmas and visiting the home of a local family – eight hungry children and their mother “whose sanity had run out.” He is faced with the disturbing contrast of the privations of the family compared with the Christmas plenty being enjoyed by families in Ireland at the same moment. His conscience troubles him with a question:


“How do I sort this out?

 No one can threaten hunger with bullets.”


But what can he do – a lone peacekeeper witnessing the broken humanity caused by political forces way beyond his ability to influence? The situation claws at his conscience for a response and it is one that comes with generosity:


“Tiny hands were in my pockets.

I gave her my watch.”


While such instances go to the heart of peace-keeping it would be wrong to characterise the collection as being dark and depressing. The collection is leavened with lyrical verse perfumed with the aromas of Lebanon’s cedar-scented hillsides. The skin warms with his powerful depictions of the blaze of the sun against the background of azure skies. His poem entitled: “An Irish Peacekeeper on the Coast Road Driving South from Lebanon to Israel” flows with the sensuousness of the environs:


Eyes closed and I’m there

cruising along the coast road

in the back of a white soft-topped UN jeep,

rifle at my knee, sun warming my face

burning my outstretched arm.

in the open window.”


A reading of Michael Whelan’s poetry has the great value of impressing on the mind the ancient and multi-layered civilisation of the Middle East. While to many, the place-names of that region are nothing more than the ticker tape flicking across a TV screen reporting the latest atrocity the poet delves deep into the stories of a people who inhabit the cradle of the civilised world. In “Paradox of the Peacekeeper in the Holy Land” he writes:


“In Lebanon I sought redemption

like the pilgrim at the cross of Helipolis,

on the Bekaa’s great range where Bedouin caravans met

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


Poets come from many backgrounds – farmers, teachers, home-makers, and full-time writers but the voice of the poet-in-uniform is one which has been absent from Irish bookshelves. Now with the publication of “Peacekeeper” Michael Whelan has claimed a space for the soldier-poet in the literary consciousness of the nation. Series no: 499.


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Hi all, this is the first published review of PEACEKEEPER and is available also on the Doire Press website, details below!

'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 of PeaceKeeper by Michael J. Whelan
– by Rob Buchanan

Let’s get something out of the way. Sometimes readers are put off by poetry collections which seemingly hinge on one theme. The military for example. Fortunately Michael J Whelan’s debut offering Peacekeeper has enough variety in its presentation of scenarios, its reportage and its reminiscences to maintain interest and guarantee it many rereading’s whether or not the topic war is your usual predilection.

Much could be made of the unique perspective that Whelan’s previous profession brings to the subject. He served in the Irish Defence Forces as a UN peacekeeper in South Lebanon and Kosovo. But it’s as important to realise that the poet’s authority comes as much from his own fatherhood and humanity as from his military role. Equally the uses of metaphor and perspective seen throughout the collection are as informed by his other profession, as a military historian. There’s a fascination for small details, bits of beauty and grace. And a certain uneasy neutrality and detachment.The poems show a respect for the locals as fellow fathers and sons, wives and daughters, tinged with regret at their aggression as combatants in interminable disastrous warfare. Violence directed both toward each other and the peacekeepers.

Frequently grim this first collection from Whelan has enough peppering’s of beauty to keep it from being a masochistic carnival. There is neither a glorification of war nor a fetishisation of weaponry. When guns and bombs are described it is almost as if read from a bestiary. Works like “Distant Whisper” and “Through the Steyr AUG….” elegantly point out the near mystical quality of how a gun can undo the miracle of life. Mostly we see the combatants in a non-judgmental pragmatic perspective of the outsider. When the conflicts are viewed in the context of comparison with the poet’s home in Dublin Whelan just about maintains an unsentimental longing. There is neither the flowery existential despair of Sassoon nor the baroque metaphysics of Brooke. We are seeing the inglorious chaperoning of local savagery instead of the blazing guns and wholesale slaughter of world war yet even outside the confluence of global history, we are in the rock pools whose tempests are no less terrible for their scale.

Whelan’s soldier boots are metaphorically and literally firmly on the ground, whether it be the desert sands of Lebanon or the grimy rubble of Kosovo. The language doesn’t run away with him. The text is usually short, especially when presenting the understated vignettes of wonder or horror. There are rare scenes of near normality like “Showing the Flag” that offer contrast. The verse is often sophisticated while keeping a vulnerability about it. The colour palette shifts from the sandy yellows and whites of arid deserts in the Middle East tinged with biblical mysticism to the grungy greys and blacks of urban Eastern Europe flavoured with the depressing familiar tasted of war.

Perhaps the title of the collection itself most laconically describes the predicament of the underlying theme. Peacekeeping. The transience and fragile nature of security. Whether its manifested in the vulnerability of children in the face of conflict or the chaos and physical disorder that can be wrought by explosives and shifting allegiances. The irreparable undoing of destruction and disorder and the Sisyphus-like task of the UN Peacekeeper trying to separate and restore. The paradox of all the effort being only a temporary denouement, a sticking plaster over a wound that mankind will inevitably scratch open again for a new generation to bloody. The geopolitical as well as the moral position of UN Peacekeepers in these foreign lands is best summed up by the final line of the poem “Moral of the Story”: Peacekeepers [in Lebanon] may not always hold the centre ground but they are always caught in the middle.

Khalil Gibran , ever the witness and watcher of men, is oft quoted and fittingly so. The Lebanese poet was notoriously indirect with his messages and parables much like the code talking Middle Eastern nationals is alluded to in “Irish Martyrs in Lebanon.” Likewise the allusions to biblical locations and their supposed bucolic Arcadian properties are held in contrast to the conflicts in those much promised lands. There are so many stark stories and low key gory details that stick in the mind. But beyond those there are some stand out pieces which will linger long after the understandable repulsion of the blood. “Critical Outcome” has the reader drawn psychically as well as physically in to the brain of a prone soldier, mentally wincing as he imagines being shot in the head. It triggers a primal reflex, self-preservation and leaves you wondering how you would feel lying there. A companion piece for that poem would be “Mosaic” where we see the all too visceral reality which spawns the fearful scenarios that soldiers torment and protect themselves with. Again in both of these pieces there is an attempt at detached explanations of the weapons. A disassociation, even shame at bearing them. “Broken Spade” and “Question” are haunting tombstones that have a timeless quality.

“Tour of Duty”  is a great example of how uncomfortably close we can come to losing our cosy safety as the reader and being superimposed by Whelan in to a time and place where corporeal security is as fragile as sanity. Where the human body is placed prey-like before the awe inspiring weapons. The weapons have no conscience and are blameless. Violence creates chaos, and the uncertainty subverts domestic life. Even the seemingly solid protection of homes, institutions are unsafe because they are prey to bombs and bullets as readily as flesh is. An interesting metaphor for the unwinnable exercise of rebuilding and defending is offered by the sandbags in “Portal.”

“An Irish Peacekeeper on the Coast Road….” includes another quote from Gibran, and it imbibes the immediacy of the sense experiences of travelling through ancient lands towards a biblical city. It places the timeless nature of the role of a liberating or peacekeeping soldier. The misunderstood and sometimes naïve outsider who treads the thin neutral line between sworn enemies. In the observance of his thankless and deadly task it’s easy to forget that this foreigner is also a tourist of sorts. He is a visitor who is not immune to the beauty and history that is inseparable from the theatre of war he performs in. He is a young Irish father abroad. Wide eyed, candid and self-consciously terrified at times. “Phosphorous Dreams” and “Wild Juice” further elaborate on this dimension of the husband attempting to reintegrate and demob. The realities of PTSD are nodded towards. Even so we are left wondering at how frequently the soldier’s dream of home only to return home and dream immediately of being back in battle, for better or for worse. There are unforgettable images in “Grapes of Wrath” and “Chocolate” but less on the nose. As a father himself Whelan’s sincere sense of empathy for the most vulnerable victims of war, children, is apparent in pieces like the aforementioned Chocolate and Deliverance and especially heart wrenching in “The Soldier’s Face”. The last six lines of “Liberators” in particular is almost post-apocalyptic. Although sympathetic and almost righteous the tone never turns saccharine.

Occasionally disturbing, frequently enlightening and always beautiful Whelan’s verse is deceptively simple even when studded with military tech and biblical illusions. It’s easy to imagine how close to home this collection will hit for both those involved in the military and their families. There will be many previously inarticulate memories and emotions stirred up and perhaps it may even lay certain ghosts to rest when readers see a kindred spirit and realise their own nightmares and treasured memories are part of the burden of peacekeeping. But no military experience is required to take value from this collection. Neither triumphalist glorification of war or apologist travelogue of exotic lands, there is still a humanity which makes the grueling bleakness worthwhile. Peacekeeper is not a pleasant read, and it shouldn’t be. Whelan’s is a vivid and unique voice with an insightful vulnerable masculinity. I look forward to reading more from Whelan in the future.


see http://www.doirepress.com/writers/m_z/review_of_peacekeeper/

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