Peacekeeper, by Michael J. Whelan, Doire Press, 80p, €12.00, ISBN: 978-1-907682-46-9
Review by Daniel Wade originally for Writing.ie
In a 1732 letter addressed to Charles Wogan, Jonathan Swift wrote admiringly of the legions of displaced Irishmen who served in various European continental armies following the 1691 Treaty of Limerick (and whose mass departure from their homeland is known to history as the ‘Flight of the Wild Geese’), praising in particular the bravery of their decision to enlist: “I cannot but highly esteem those gentlemen of Ireland, who, with all the disadvantages of being exiles and strangers, have been able to distinguish themselves by their valour and conduct in so many parts of Europe, I think above all other nations.”
It is true that the Irish have a long history of fighting other nation’s wars. From the galloglaigh or ‘gallowglass’ corps of elite mercenaries deployed to assorted conflicts across mainland Europe in the 1500s, to the 40,000 documented Irish ex-pats who fought for the Union and the 20,000 who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, the Republican and Blueshirt volunteers who signed up to fight one another in the Spanish Civil War, as well as the thousands who swelled the British Army’s ranks in WWI (and indeed, the countless more who wore a British Army uniform down the centuries), not to mention the 5,000 members of the Defence Forces who enlisted to fight in WWII, following Ireland’s officially neutral position in that particular conflict, and who were later branded deserters by the Irish government of the day upon their return. This isn’t even including the pioneering work undertaken by Irish-born war correspondents such as Peter Finnerty and Sir William Howard Russell, who covered the Napoleonic wars and the Crimean war respectively, as well as Samuel Beckett, who volunteered with the French Resistance in WWII and was awarded a Medaille de la Resistance for his efforts.
The nuance and increasingly complex gradations of Irish identity that resulted in this mass involvement with the military affairs of other nations is perhaps best summed up by Christopher St. Lawrence, the 10th Baron Howth and a captain in the Earl of Essex’s army during the Nine Years War, who, frustrated by the ridicule he received as both an Irish-born peer and a loyal follower of the Crown, declared: “I am sorry that when I am in England, I shall be esteemed an Irishman, and in Ireland, an Englishman. I have spent my blood, engaged and endangered my life, often to do her Majesty’s service, and do beseech to have it so regarded.”
To this end, it is no surprise that Irish poetry has rarely shied away from addressing bloodshed and the full effects of warfare. The Tain Bo Cuailnge arguably counts as the definitive Celtic war saga, while Piaras Feiritear, who fought in the Confederate Ireland wars, ranks as an invaluably early example of a soldier-poet writing in the Irish language. In the contest of the Easter Rising, Padraic Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh were each published poets, and the outpouring of poetic tribute to them subsequent to their executions, from authors as disparate as James Stephens, Katherine Tynan, AE and Francis Ledwidge, proved once more that poetry is instrumental in making sense of bloodshed’s aftermath throughout the nation’s most historic events.
Meanwhile, in the trenches of WW1, Tom Kettle and the aforementioned Ledwidge (both avowed nationalists) would become known for their poignant verses, if not for their direct depiction of the war itself, and would come to symbolise the loss of the Irish involvement of in the trenches. W.B. Yeats repeatedly addressed the thorny and troubling effects of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War upon Irish life during both their duration and aftermath in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, ‘The Second Coming’ and the long poetic sequence ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ (and also infamously refused to write about WW1 in ‘On being asked for a War Poem’).
Later on, the growing sectarian tensions that would eventually culminate in the Northern Irish Troubles and the growing crisis of same is later on tackled by a plethora of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley (the latter in particular noting time and again the lingering after-effects of battle on his father, who had seen service in WW1). Yet for all this, and in spite of exquisitely exhaustive anthologies such as the 2009 Gerald Dawe-edited Earth Voices Whispering: An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-1945, there is no longstanding equivalent tradition of Irish war poets to equal the pantheon ofthat encompassed Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, Gurney and Thomas.
Despite all this, and despite the long-standing stereotype of the ‘Fighting Irish’ embodied by the G.K. Chesterson line concerning the alleged inborn Gaelic readiness for battle:
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad:
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad...
it is actually Ireland’s long association since the founding of the State with overseas peacekeeping operations that has proven to be its most prominent and exemplary martial endeavour on record. Following Ireland’s 1955 entry into the UN, the Irish Defence Forces has found itself involved in various peace support and crisis management missions, chiefly in the Middle East. Irish peacekeeping missions, under the various auspices of UNFICYP (the Congo), UNDOF (Syria-Israel Border) and UNIFIL (Lebanon), to name but a few are examples of this tradition. Indeed, the recent return of Irish troops from the 50th Infantry Group, on April 7th, to Dublin Airport after a six-month deployment to the Golan Heights on behalf of UNDOF, indicates the currency of this aspect of Ireland’s international relations. Since the beginning of these operations, there have been 85 recorded deaths among Irish military personnel.
Hence, the debut collection of Tallaght-based poet Michael J. Whelan, entitled Peacekeeper, is the first such volume of poetry to address this fascinating if often-overlooked aspect of Irish history and current affairs. Whelan himself is a former member of the Irish Defence Forces and has seen service in South Lebanon and Kosovo as an Irish United Nations support operative. Because his poetry has the added credential of being authored by a former member of the Irish Defence Forces, it draws immediate comparisons with the poignant and often harrowing poetic accounts of modern warfare by contemporary American war poets Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) and Kevin Powers (Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting), both veterans of the Iraq War. As such, it is a slim and unassuming volume, but certainly not a trivial one.
Whelan is no propagandist, but nor is he condemnatory. He certainly details the horrors and attendant upset a war-zone will induce, and does so with an admirably unflinching eye. His poetic voice is that a survivor and an eye-witness, not of a triumphalist. The complex nature of being a soldier fighting to preserve the peace in a combat zone is an ever-present source of tension within the book. The work is brutal and thankless, yet necessary. There is no glory to be expected. Indeed, early on in the collection he writes,
I come in peace not victorious or triumphant
no palms will be thrown under my feet
when I enter the City of David.
His poetry serves as a valuable and even historically-significant document of the Irish soldier’s experience in peacekeeping work. Arguably, Whelan proves that those most qualified to talk of war and war’s alarms are those who see it from the coalface, as in ‘Portal’, when he writes: “The rest is just history/shovelled down the neck of a hungry war feeding/on souls, a monster that’s never satisfied.”
Whelan makes it clear that he and his fellow soldiers are in as much as danger as those they either sent in to protect or fight. The human cost is never far away. The danger is ever-present, and is devoid of any glamour or adrenalin-inducing thrills that might be expected in a warzone. Whelan makes it clear that, for the peacekeeper, every footstep taken is risk for the peacekeeper “whose only armour/was the feeble weave of a blue flag”. Their status does not shield them from being shot or bombed (“Our presence does not halt their conflict”), and in fact gives them a clear indication of both sides being equally lacking in compromise:
“...we who keep the middle ground will feel
the vibrations of their vengeance.”
In ‘Moral of the Story’ which details the shooting on an IDF checkpoint by a runaway squad of Hezbollah fighters fleeing the Israeli army, he states:
Peacekeepers in Lebanon may not always
hold the centre ground but they are always
caught in the middle.
Combined with these moments of heightened chaos, the boredom of down-time is mixed with the ever-present anxiety of sudden, random outbursts of carnage, as in the poem ‘Funeral’, where the speaker’s enjoyment of a televised World Cup match is interrupted by the sudden attack of Resistance fighters: “all commentary lost in emotions,/I reach for my helmet and gun,/in a moment the shells will start falling.”
But perhaps most poignantly is the aftermath of such encounters, as exemplified in ‘Prishtina’, wherein the speaker finds himself having to confront a seriously injured comrade after a detonation, and, in a space of a few short seconds, getting a glimpse of his and everybody’s mortality:
It was only a moment
but he looked into me.
Could see me as clearly
as I see him after all this time,
his eyes piercing my soul,
This poem easily ranks among the collection’s best. It most clearly demonstrates Whelan’s ability to bring alive the most harrowing of scenes with the most economized of language. The helplessness of the situation described above is lessened only the mutual, unspoken understanding the two men come to have, an understanding which perhaps could not have been reached in less traumatic circumstances. The poem’s conclusion is terse and superficially matter-of-fact, but the reader is left with no doubt as the effect such an encounter will leave on the speaker: “I couldn’t help him/but I know he sees me,/like I can see dead people.”
As already stated, there is no prettification or avoidance of the sanguine realities of warfare in Peacekeeper. The imagery Whelan makes use of is visceral, uncompromising, cinematic and yet, the reader instinctively feels, somehow true to life, reaching a stark vividness on a par with the horrific nightmare-verses of Wilfred Owen. A boy buried in rubble is found by his grandmother: “his shrapnel body lashed to the ruins/and mixed with false promises,” fresh rain falls “to wash away the footprints of killers/and the hopes of the hurting,” a fatal wound is “the ball of his knee hanging,/attached by loose skin and gristle/and wrapped in a bloody white shirt.
But to counterbalance the carnage are the evocative landscapes in which Whelan the soldier finds himself deployed to. Binaries are in the very nature of peacekeeping, insofar as soldiers fighting to keep the peace is in itself a contradiction in terms. The sheer physical beauty of the Lebanese countryside acts as a fragile counterbalance to the carnage threatening to engulf it.
It is contrast that informs the collection’s longest poem and easily its thematic mission statement, Paradox of the Peacekeeper in the Holy Land, a prolonged and moving meditation on the long, diverse and complex nature of the land he has been sent to. Myth, history and current affairs are each brought to bear: Lebanon is “where Gilgamesh cleaved the cedars for his ships” as well as a place where “so much metal has been fired in this cauldron/from arrowheads and spears to icons and the corrupted jagged shards of bombs,/shrapnelled landmines and bullets.” In stanzas such as these, we see the landscape serve as a witness and a theatre to the chaos that has tainted and moulded its history, a history which Whelan knows is ongoing, where chariots are replaced by tanks, yet with the effect of these war-machines being much the same:
This is the land of the Canaanites,
the Phoenecians who traded from these beaches and ports
and I know it can never be as it was.
Alexander’s siege of Beirut can still be heard,
in the tracks of a tankthat replaced the chariot,
the bullet that replaced the arrow,
the rise and fall of empires.
Overall, Peacekeeper is a challenging, robust debut collection and a clear result of years of contemplating and traversing such disturbing terrain where violent death is an everyday occurrence. With these poems, Michael J. Whelan has achieved something very singular that deserves to be read by soldier and civilian alike.