Writer’s Block With Michael J Whelan

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to Michael J Whelan about PEACEKEEPING, POETRY and transforming EMOTIONS INTO WORDS

Photograph by Eoin Rafferty

Historian, author and soldier poet Michael J. Whelan is the first of his breed since the last two Great Wars, and the days of Thomas Kettle and Francis Ledwidge. In 1990 Michael enlisted in the Irish Defence Forces; serving on tours of duty as a UN Peacekeeper in South Lebanon, as well as the Peace-Enforcement mission to Kosovo. Motivated by the sights he has witnessed, the writer has channeled the complexity of his emotions into beautiful words on the page.

Michael holds an MA in Modern History from NUI Maynooth, and has collected the Paul Tissandier Diploma and the Tallaght Person of the Year Award (Arts & Culture section).

As a poet, Michael’s work has been prolifically published and Peacekeeper (2016) is his first collection. He was runner-up in the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Awards, was third place in the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Awards and has received an Arts Bursary from the South Dublin Arts Office.

Brian Lynch, a judge for the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Awards, has given great praise for Michael’s contribution to the medium. He says, “Warrior values have been overwhelmed by the cruelty of mechanised warfare. Whelan served in the Middle East and the Balkans and everywhere he went he saw the monster ‘sending the shaken to the underworld.’ This is a voice that cries out to be heard.”

Michael J. Whelan is currently a keeper of the Irish Air Corps Military Aviation Museum & Collection; he has also received the General Officer Commanding Irish Air Corps Award. He lives in Tallaght with his family. www.michaeljwhelan.wordpress.com.

Peacekeeper (€12) is published by Doire Press and available from all good bookshops

On home

I live in Oldbawn, Tallaght, County Dublin with my wife, son (19) and daughter (15). I have lived in various parts of Tallaght for over 35 years, arriving when I was about 12 years of age. My neighbourhood is quite settled, there’s an abundance of mature trees of various kinds and a park within a few minutes’ walk of the house, which contains an amazing amount of foliage and wildlife – especially birds. I love watching birds. I grew up with the Tallaght Hills rising up from where I lived and I still live in an area that seems nestled just beneath their colours, which are part of my identity I guess.

On roots

We are originally from Ballyfermot where my parents and their families lived. Because of my fathers’ job the family had a lot of moving homes and schools to contend with, which was difficult at times but I think has contributed to the way I interact with the world. When I walk through the streets of Dublin City I am engrossed by its history, smells and all of its cultures both ancient and current – I love it!

But it’s the Tallaght Hills, the skies that meet them at certain times of the year, aircraft from the aerodrome flying over, the local rivers and histories and people that stand out for me when I think about the area. Sometimes I feel as if I have three separate cultural identities – the military, the Dublin and the Tallaght sections of my mind, my thinking. I know a lot about the history of the areas and as a result I often find myself trying to see where my parents, my own children and my experiences fit into the greater story.

On the military

I come from a family tradition of soldiering; my father and two of my younger brothers were soldiers, both my grandfathers served in the Irish Army during the Irish Emergency period in the 1940s, my great-grandfather was in the British Army in German East-Africa during the Great War and his son – my great uncle – was in North Africa during World War II fighting the German Afrika Corps and Italian forces. I am a member of the Irish Air Corps, with over 27 years service and currently based at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel where I am the historian and curator of the Military Aviation Museum collection. My days consist mostly of collecting, cataloguing and preserving Air Corps and civil aviation historical artifacts and documents, guiding tours, providing outreach, lectures, supervising volunteers, writing articles and a myriad of other related things. At Baldonnel and in the military in particular I have witnessed the greatest of human endeavours and achievements through search and rescue operations, the emergency air ambulance service, peacekeeping and soldiering and a lot of the tragedy that goes with it.

On creating

I don’t really have a particular space for writing/working in; we have an office space in the house with a computer, which we all use. When I begin writing anything, especially a poem, it’s in one of the many notebooks I keep nearby. My creative space is the back garden mostly, surrounded on all sides by high trees and bushes. I love it out there, lots of small birds and colours. I get lost easily, it’s very peaceful. When I peak in behind the bushes where the robin keeps its nest, it’s almost alien the way the sunlight gets dappled through the branches and leaves onto the world. There are a thousand different dimensions of existence in every square foot of the back garden and for most of my life before poetry I never saw such things as these. I think poetry helps me see and what I see helps me write. My wife has created a couple of little snugs out there and I find that just writing down and describing what I’m seeing while I’m in them gets my imagination going.

The office has hundreds of books, mostly history and some literature. I keep the poetry books there too but separate. My B.A. and M.A. awards for history from NUI Maynooth are mounted on the wall because it took a lot of effort to earn them, also some photographs from my tours of duty in Lebanon and Kosovo. I also have family photos and the original cheque for the first poem I was ever paid for (uncashed but two very important signatures on it). If the office and back garden aren’t available and I need some space I usually go to the kitchen window or for a long walk.

On bookshops

Tallaght doesn’t really have an independent bookstore any more, I hope this situation changes soon. My family usually travels into the city centre to Chapters on Parnell Street or to Books Upstairs on D’Olier Street and The Winding Stair on the Quays. The staff in these bookstores are fantastic and very friendly.  I have read at some poetry events there too. One of the great things about the independent bookstore is that you make great contacts and friends there and with the store itself. It sounds weird but it’s true. I was born in 1970 but when I’m in these bookstores, I am nostalgic for the Dublin and the Ireland of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

On his nightstand

I am currently reading a Bukowski collection and I dip into the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge’s poems regularly but right beside them all is a collection of Wilfred Owen’s War Poems edited by Jon Stallworthy, which I have owned for many years. I have brought this collection to France and read from it over Owen’s grave and photographed it on his headstone. I even picked a poppy from the location where he was killed and keep it in the book; as I have with Ledwidge’s book to Flanders. Owen didn’t live to see his first book published. I have visited the battlefields and cemeteries of the Great War many times and it is a landscape that haunts me because of the many things it represents. Owen’s book is part of that and I think that he and the other poets of the time have helped me understand my own experiences and those of other Irish soldiers serving as peacekeepers with the United Nations and other agencies in conflict areas abroad. That is why I keep the books near for the sense of history and the window into the humanity.

On peacekeeping

I think seeing and experiencing countries that I would not normally have had the opportunity to visit has been one of the most rewarding elements. Although it was always under difficult circumstances I am happy that I volunteered. There were times of extreme danger, heavy shelling and flashpoints where the violence spilled over and peacekeepers – Irish soldiers – came under hostile fire. If one thing stands out above all others, it was the children I witnessed in the rough winter days in Kosovo. We were tasked with repatriating human remains from mass graves to identification centers and later to families or supplying food and building materials to remote villages on both sides of the divide, which had been victims of ethnic cleansing and violence. The children were innocent of everything but paid the greater costs. Many times, their parents were missing or killed and buried nearby, the kids living in extreme poverty – the last uniforms they saw before ours were most likely those destroying their villages, then we arrive and give them chocolates, sweets and smiles. We were a strange sort of liberator; imagine how this messed up those kids. Those faces broke my heart many times, still do.

On poetry’s magic

Poetry, I think, gives us an immediacy of feeling, of emotion and story entwined. There is depth – unknown depths sometimes that are revealed every time the poem is read, even to the poet who wrote it. Emotion is one of my favourite things about poetry. It’s scary; always surprising the way a line or word catches you off guard when your breath isn’t prepared. It’s like it was designed that way. A whole story and all its ultimate connotations can be captured in a short poem of only a few lines, less is more and the poet can bring the reader to a moment in time far, far away and leave him or her there. Sometimes we never really walk away from a certain poem. They live inside you, become part of you, they are that powerful. The poem is your insight, your education almost. I don’t think any other medium can achieve this except maybe for music and song. I have always been an anxious person but since returning from Lebanon and Kosovo and being in the military so long, that anxiety has expanded. Poetry helps me examine the world. It’s a spiritual thing I suppose – which I need.

@SophieGrenham

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