Notes from a launch: ‘Rules of Engagement’ by Michael J. Whelan

Rules of Engagement by Michael J. Whelan, Doire Press 2019, was launched on 8 Oct 2019 at the County Library Tallaght, Irleand, during the RTed Line Book Festival. The following is an edited version of a speech Michael gave at the launch.

We as a Country, a State, a People are currently in the Decade of Centenaries 1913-1923 remembering 1916, the Irish Revolution, Civil War and World War One and all of the complexities of that period that manifest themselves even now in our time and space and political atmospheres.

The poems and themes in this collection are about conflict and the anxieties of growing up a child of a soldier in a military family and also, to some extent, witnessing the cruelty of the world as a United Nations Peacekeeper and studying it through the prisms and experiences of an Irish soldier realising the narratives of war, while at the same time being an Irish citizen, a parent, a husband, a peacekeeper and trying to be, and at some level a witness trying to write poems. So in a very real sense I am scared and this book is my fears and therefore it is also very much about Peace and taking stock of what humans are capable of, and what we are doing to this world we live in.

All human interaction and history is based on and around conflict, it’s how we realise problems and discourse, it’s how we resolve issues. The major issue is when we resolve conflict through violence and armed violence. As soldiers / members of the Irish Defence Forces, who have carried out thousands of peace support missions around the world, we are encouraged to be advocates, which is what I am trying to do through poetry. I try to advocate for the people who inhabit that space and their families, to show the public, through my own but especially the collective experiences, to show you in my way the emotion and what it’s really like.

 – Michael J. Whelan


Two poems from Rules of Engagement

For Tony Roe – after a visit to the battlefields, 2011

Today I stood above the Aegean Sea
listening for echoes I could not hear.
The silent tempo of the ground
resonates still on unnatural landscapes.

The zig-zag lines where dead men toil
dug deep into blood smeared soil,
buried now with their bones
on beaches and gullies where once
they fought the Turk,
stormed the shores and hills as if thrown
against the wind by Agamemnon himself.

The silence bade me look towards Troy
across the Straits from Helles,
I still could hear no voice, nor thunder in the sky
except the launching waves
pushing ancient pebbles up the beach to rest,
where once they drowned the hearts of men.

Then behind me I could feel it,
the noise of peace and echoes of war
in a thousand monuments to the dead,
stretched out in marching order.
And there, watching me, my shadow
took on the spectre of a ghost and spoke,

Like Hector I was the defender
brave and virtuous – but of Irish stock,
I am the soldier my country forsook.

And in response I said:

I have come at last to pay my respects,
I have come to take you home.


In the Periphery
Irish United Nations area of peacekeeping operations during Israeli Lebanese wars, 1990s</small

over the tannoy, it’s 4.30 in the morning,
I can feel the distant rumble already, like an orchestra of activity
we shake the night fever from our heads,
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 ruins of the Crusader’s castle,
the sound of crickets in the wadi is about me like constellations,
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 bad news 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 personal 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 innocents 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 collapsing 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 sprinkles
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.

Shortlisted in the Voices of War International Poetry Competition 2018 – University College Dublin Decade of Centenaries


Michael J. Whelan is a historian and soldier-poet living in South Dublin, Ireland. He deployed as a United Nations Peacekeeper with the Irish Defence Forces to the conflicts in Lebanon and Kosovo in the 1990s. He holds a Master of Arts Degree in Modern History from NUI Maynooth and is keeper of the Air Corps Military Museum and collector of oral history for the Military Archives of Ireland Oral History Programme. His poems are published in Australia, Paris, Mexico, USA, UK, South Africa, Indonesia and Ireland and included in And Agamemnon Dead: An Anthology of Early Twenty First Century Irish Poetry, (Paris 2015) & The Hundred Years War: Modern War Poems (Bloodaxe UK) 2014. He was selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions series and was 2nd Place Winner of the Patrick Kavanagh & 3rd in the Jonathan Swift Awards. He has featured on T.V. and radio and at literary festivals and his debut collection Peacekeeper was published in 2016 by Doire Press. He second collection Rules of Engagement (Doire press) was published in October 2019 during the Red Line Book Festival.
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