Michael Whelan

Posted by Sue Leonard on Saturday 28th March 2020

Michael Whelan recently published his second collection of poetry, Rules of Engagement. He’s a serving member of The Irish Defence Forces and writes of his experience in the Lebanon and Kosovo – and it doesn’t make for comfortable reading. These are powerful, visceral poems, describing how it feels to come across War Graves and ravaged villages; he writes of his helplessness, giving a forensic insight into the life of a peacekeeper.

Not all the poems depict army life. A keen observer of nature, one of the poems, describes a battle between birds, showing how their violence matches that seen on any battlefield; another poem, The Angels Plot, tells, poignantly, of the death of his baby brother.

One poem is written from the grave of Wilfred Owen, but when I describe the author as a war poet he demurs.

“The peacekeeper is a kind of misnomer.” he says.  “I am not a war poet. I’ve been to places where wars are occurring, but I haven’t killed anybody; I haven’t had to fight. I haven’t been to war. It’s peacekeeping poetry really.”

Michael admits that his poetry surprises people and gives me the impression that his creativity isn’t always understood. surprises many people.

“I do get slagging off people in the army.”

The army does, however, appreciate his current work as the lead collector of all history for the Irish Defence Forces; he has won numerous prizes for this; but it was the literary world who recognised his creative talent. He won 2nd place in the Patrick Kavanagh poetry awards, and 3rd in the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Awards and he was Tallaght Person of the Year in the Arts and Culture section.

Michael comes from a family up soldiers. His great grandfather fought in the First World War; and his grandfather was in the Irish army in World War 2. His father served in the Irish Army in the seventies, so he is fourth generation.

“One of my great uncles deserted the Irish army and went off to fight in the British army; he was in North Africa. I interviewed him before he died, and his last order was to send his medals to me. I also have my great grandfathers’ medals, my grandparents, and my own. I take them with me when I go to give talks in schools.”

Growing up for Michael, was tough.

“I grew up in the center of Dublin and it was a bit rough. I was being bounced between two hard places all the time, school and my family. My father could be a bit of a disciplinarian, and I always felt under pressure in school. I didn’t take to education. I regret that now.”

After a year on the dole, Michael followed one of his brothers to London. He worked in Watford and Middlesex as a commie chef.

“I worked in the kitchens of Marconi, a weapons manufacturer. It was a great eye opener. Travel is always a good education I think.”

Coming home to Ireland, Michael was keen to join up.

“I always wanted to be a soldier – until I joined. But the training was a bit of a shock. Military training is designed to change you – it’s indoctrination.”

One of the poems in the new collection, battle inoculation, gives a graphic description of being in a trench, shot at with thousands of rounds, then finished off with mortars, to prepare them for the Lebanon, where there was a lot of shelling going on.

“Even so, arriving in the Lebanon in 1994 came as a shock.

“You go out there and you don’t know what you’re getting into. These people are suffering, and you want to try and help them, but there’s only so much you can do.”

The Lebanon was extraordinarily dangerous; but Kosovo, where Michael served in 2000, was tougher still.

“It was coming at the end of the war against the Serbs, and everything was bleak and grey. It was winter. I was witnessing the end of the war crimes, and there was a big buildup of NATO troops. I was in an Irish transport company at the beck and call of the force commander. We could be directed to help the British one day and Americans the next.  You’re in the places where the violence occurred.

“The war had such a cataclysmic effect on these villages. You’re coming across these children whose parents might have been killed. and you could be searching for mass graves. You’re observing all this whilst you’re just trying to get the job done.”

It was tough, being away from home, too.

“I was 4 years married when I went to Kosovo. And I left a three-year-old son behind.  While I was there my young son was very sick. I felt very guilty about leaving them.”

It wasn’t until Michael returned home, that he realised how badly the whole experience had affected him.

“I’m not saying I had post-traumatic stress, but it does have an effect on you. I became sick.”  He was, eventually, diagnosed with Hemiplegic migraine – a debilitating condition that still, sometimes, affects him today.

Around this time, Michael started doing a degree in history, at night in Maynooth. And he realised that Irish military history was not well documented.

“When I worked at Baldonnel in aviation, there was documentation there from the last century, and from the RAF as well.  I asked if I could pull the history together, and twenty years later it turned into this massive great collection.”

Keeper of the Irish Air Corps Military Aviation Museum and Collection, Michael has held many prestigious positions, such as being appointed Chief of Staff to the Editorial Committee for the 1916 Anniversary Commemorations in 2006 and the United Nations 50th anniversary of peacekeeping publications in 2008.  He has written several history books over the years, but when it comes to documenting his own experiences, he finds he can do so more powerfully in verse..

“I’m trying to capture those experiences for other people, and I get more impact writing poetry. You are using the least amount of words; you’re just giving the picture, and the emotion is there. You don’t have to tell the whole story.

“Peace Keeping is a massive big thing in Ireland, and it hasn’t been explored. Irish foreign policy is built around the shoulders of Irish soldiers, men and women. We’re not a war making nation, not like England or America, but Irish peacekeeping has been constant. It’s still very big for our population and a great many families have been affected. 49 Peacekeepers have been killed.”

Michael went back to Lebanon, to interview people there about their experiences.

“It was the 40th Anniversary of troops going to the Lebanon, and there are still Peacekeepers serving there.”

All these years later, Michael is haunted by the experience.

“And I still feel guilty. Did I do the right thing by going away and leaving my wife and child? I thought I was doing something good at the start – and I actually did do something good, yet I still ask did anyone in Kosovo benefit from my being there? I know they did, but I’m always trying to reconcile the experience.”

Writing the poems has helped Michael.

“When you put your experiences onto paper, it makes you look at it in a different way. You put the memory to bed. I was able to park some things about that part of my life. But I also feel like an impostor. I’m not really an Irish soldier – and I don’t want to call myself a war poet. I’m just a poet writing about these things.”

Rules of Engagement by Michael J Whelan is published by DOIRE press. €12.00. 

Published in The Irish Examiner on 15th February.

© Sue J Leonard. 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

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