Michael J Whelan - Rules of Engagement

By Hayden Moore

Founder of the Irish Air Corps Museum, Michael J Whelan has brought out his second collection of poems entitled ‘Rules of Engagement’ detailing his experiences as a UN Peacekeeper on tours of Lebanon and Kosovo.

Holding an MA in Modern History from NUI Maynooth, Michael enlisted in the Irish Air Corps in 1990 and is currently serving as the curator of the Irish Air Corps Museum in Baldonnel Aerodrome.

Michael J Whelan on a tour of Lebanon compressor

Michael on a tour of Lebanon

Michael hails from a military family and with his father a soldier, he was raised in Cathal Brugha Barracks, McKee Barracks and Griffith Barracks among others before eventually arriving in Tallaght when he was 12 years old.

Currently living in Old Bawn with his family, Michael spoke with The Echo this week to give us an insight into the frustrations that soldiers feel on UN peacekeeping missions, bearing witness to violence in war-torn countries and how his late mother’s words inspired him to write down his experiences.

Your poem ‘Bombing’ details ‘the Israelis shelling the Irish Batt’ on just the second day of your tour of duty in South Lebanon. How old were you and what was running through your mind at the time?

I was 23 and a bit inexperienced at the time –it was just before my 24th birthday.

There was a slow build-up to it; it wasn’t like it was just out of nowhere. We could see it coming because they were shelling in the distance, next to us.

They were about to sound the alarm; they do this thing called groundhogging were everyone runs into these bunkers. I just started running to grab my gear, almost panicking and it was totally stupid at the time.

Michael J Whelan on duty as a UN Peacekeeper compressor

Michael on duty as a UN Peacekeeper

What are the themes of ‘Rules of Engagement’?

It’s a collection of poems written about the Irish peacekeeping abroad in the Lebanon and Kosovo.

The Irish Defence Forces have been over in the Lebanon for 40 years now and as far as I know I’m actually the first Irish soldier to publish a collection of poetry about military service abroad in over 100 years since the likes of Tom Kettle and Francis Ledwidge, but in the context of the Irish army. I come from a military family, I’m the son of a soldier, so there are poems about that and leaving home, family, leaving your wife and kids to “man the fort” as they say – there’s a good bit in it.

Does witnessing war first-hand like you have flip the way you think about things, and how so?

It definitely brings to bear everything in life, it does give you a certain level of appreciation and a sense of where you are in the world because you’re witnessing people fighting from an outsider’s perspective.

I’m interested in the narrative of Irish soldiers abroad and the role  Irish soldiers play because Lebanon is part of who we are as Irish soldiers now, it’s part of our identity and history – and the poems detail that.

I want to go back to the start, what initially inspired you the join the army?

My father was a soldier, both my grandparents were soldiers during what we called The Emergency in Ireland during World War II.

My great-grandfather was in the British Army during the first World War and my great-uncle was also in Africa during World War II. Both my brothers were also soldiers. I always wanted to be a soldier and not for the sake of fighting, but to have some discipline in my life.

Michael J Whelan in his UN Peacekeeper uniform during the 1990s compressor

Michael in his UN Peacekeeper uniform during the 1990s

Is there a certain type of training that you have to do to be deployed as a United Nations Peacekeeper?

Yes, there are different things you have to learn – the procedures of how to fight in a war and survive but not for use, we’re obviously there for peace.

We’re learning all of these protocols and procedures to keep the peace there, but we do all of the tactical work to get a greater understanding of what’s going on and how to deal with it.

You can be going out there frustrated because you see so much injustice going on that is obviously very hard to see and you’re not allowed to do anything. You’re trying to get in-between and help, and you’re just a witness to the war.

Did you ever expect that the things you saw while on duty would inspire you to have two published poetry collections about your time?

Not back then, no, not at all. Traditionally soldiers don’t talk about their experiences – it’s like you don’t want to be burdening other people and you find it hard to be open.

Before my mother died in 2008, because of my interest in history I would be telling her stuff and she would always say ‘why don’t you write it down?’.

When she died, I remembered her words, she left that there for me and that made me want to do something.

What can people expect from your latest poetry collection ‘Rules of Engagement’?

Well, in a decade of centenaries, I’m hoping it can be an advocate for people and families who have experienced war or have been in the army to talk about their experiences because soldiers are just ordinary people, family experiences are on the periphery.

There are also poems that reference the Great War and the poets who witnessed it (Kettle, Ledwidge, Sassoon etc).

I visited the battlefields and cemeteries of the western Front and Gallipoli numerous times, so some poems are inspired by that. The themes in the collection also reference the ethnic cleansing and violence and their aftermaths that peacekeepers witness while on international peace support missions and the frustrations they feel at situations they meet.

Also, the book is dedicated to the memory of Commandant Tony Roe – all author’s royalties are being donated to the two Defence Forces Veterans’ charities in his honour – the Irish United Nations Veterans Association and the Organisation of National Ex-Service Personnel.

‘Rules of Engagement’ can be picked up from www.doirepress.ie for €12.

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