Peacekeeper and Rules of Engagement by Michael J. Whelan

Our writers give voice to what it means to be Irish in a changing Ireland.

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(click to view cover)



By Michael J. Whelan

2016 / 80 pages / €12
ISBN: 978-1-907682-46-9
Cover photos: Michael J. Whelan

(click to view cover)

Rules of Engagement

Rules of Engagement

By Michael J. Whelan

2019 / 80 pages / €12
ISBN: 978-1-907682-70-4
Cover photo: Michael J. Whelan

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MICHAEL J. WHELAN joined the Irish Defence Forces in 1990, serving on tours of duty as a United Nations Peacekeeper. He has received the General Officer Commanding Irish Air Corps Award, the Paul Tissandier Diploma and the Tallaght Person of the Year Award (Arts & Culture section). Michael’s poetry has been widely published, including in The Hundred Years’ War: Anthology of Modern War Poems (Bloodaxe) and his work was the subject of a centenary of the Great War exhibition entitled Landscapes Of War & Peace 1914-2014: War Poetry & Peacekeeping. He won 2nd Place in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Awards, 3rd Place in the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Awards and a commendation in the Carousel Creates Creative Writing Awards, as well as having received an Arts Bursary from South Dublin Arts Office. In 2012 he was selected to read at the Poetry Ireland Introductions series.

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Michael Longley reading Peacekeeper with Michael J. Whelan looking on.



It is the quiet time.
We have disturbed a hornet’s nest.
Sandbags give shape to the sand.
We fill them in pairs,
one holding the mouth open
the other bending into a bridge over the earth,
the spade lifting grains of time as they pour away,
escaping like blood from an open wound.
The rest is just history
shovelled down the neck of a hungry war feeding
on souls, a monster that’s never satisfied.

We rest now and then,
catch our breaths, switch tasks,
wipe silver beads from our foreheads with burnt forearms,
stretch our backs, curse the Gods and warmed bottled water.

We fill sandbags with the erosion of time.
Pile them, shape them and square them off
around the bunker.
Life is shorter for the hornet.

I think of its shiny green body,
remembering how it dug into the sand, pushing with its legs,
as we are digging now with shoulders arching in the sun.
The hornet is dead.

The bunker has a doorway in the shade,
a portal to the underworld
when the sky is filled with lead
and we become creatures of the dark.

The Family

There were nine of them.
Eight children under the age of ten,
existing in the rough shell
of a house with a hole in its roof
and a young mother, whose
sanity had run out.

I stood there in the bowel of
her existence,
slack-jawed in the middle
of that frozen room,
rifle under my arm.
It was Christmas time at home.

How do I sort this out?
No one can threaten hunger with bullets.

Tiny hands were in my pockets.
I gave her my watch.


Blood Stealing All the Snow

Early snow laid quiet the land,
kept still in silent slumber,
streams curving under frozen shields
caressed the virgin wonder
and scars of war upon the earth
were hidden to the sky,
for in that morning’s dawning breath
both man and bird could fly.
But in the woods bold soldiers woke
a bear from angry sleep,
their marching songs fuelled his hate,
brought bloodlust to his teeth.

And in the field a stomping mare
feared her awful fate,
biting and kicking she fought to live
until the fateful claw
that laid her quiet on the ground,
blood stealing all the snow.
As she died her heat rose up
like steam from all her wounds,
her organs bled the air above
and soldiers warmed their hands.


My first real lesson in a warzone was
about the loss of pride, not innocence.
That came later — I think.
It happened on the second day
of my tour of duty in South Lebanon.
The Israelis were shelling the Irish Batt’
area, welcoming the new crowd,
the Red Arses with a bang!

I bombed through the camp
vaulting towards the Comcen to
grab my rifle, flak-jacket and helmet.
I figured I would need them
in case the ‘shit hit the fan’ and besides,
if I was going to die I wanted
to look like a proper casualty.

It was still daylight and some
‘Old Sweats’ spied
my heroic strides. The torture was
fierce but I lived through the slagging
and learned to never look scared
in a warzone, especially
with vets around.