Michael Whelan was born at Grainfield on the Renous River, Northumberland County, New Brunswick on 27 April 1858. He was the son of William Whelan and Mary Ellen Keary. Although his mother was a native New Brunswicker, his father was born in County Laois, Ireland. According to historian W.D. Hamilton “the members of Michael’s family were common country people of the time who carried on a subsistence type of farming, laboured in the lumber woods, and enjoyed the simple pleasures of home life” (401).
There were at least eight children in William Whelan’s family: seven boys and one girl who grew to adulthood. Another girl, memorialized in Michael’s poem “Margarita,” died at three years of age. Michael had ambitions of being a schoolteacher but, according to Hamilton, “his circumstances did not permit him to acquire the necessary qualifications.” Although he did teach for a short time on a local license, he “became a bookkeeper with lumber operators in the winter months and an odd-job man in the summers. Hamilton reports further that he “gratified his intellectual needs by reading, and by writing verse.” His initial publication outlets were limited to the local weekly newspapers, especially The Union Advocate, which was also the source on which he depended to publish his first book of poems in 1895.
Whelan never married so there are no direct descendents in New Brunswick, but great nephews and nieces today carry the Whelan name. He died in Chatham, New Brunswick on 10 May 1937, and he was buried in a pauper’s grave in St. Michael’s Cemetery. According to Hamilton, he “was viewed as an almost tragic figure on the Miramichi. A warm, gentle, intelligent man, he kept up a cheerful facade despite an addiction to alcohol and an ever increasing impoverishment which saw him spend the closing years of his life in the county almshouse.”
In 1980, Thomas Whelan (no relation) headed a drive to raise funds for a tombstone to honour the folk poet, whom he had met in 1930. It was dedicated at a special ceremony at St. Michael’s Cemetery in September 1981. The speaker, Father Robert Grattan, credited Whelan for being “the Bard of Renous,” a man who, “like so many of his predecessors, had to die in order to … live on in the hearts of posterity.” Fr. Grattan further said that though Whelan was a man forgotten, buried in an unmarked grave, he was a man who captured the pulse of the pioneers and carefully recorded it in verse and song.
Although the memory of Michael Whelan was restored through the erection of the tombstone and the accompanying media attention, Whelan’s poems continued to be hidden away in attics and archives. His poetry was little more than a memory until Farrell McCarthy, founding president of the Irish Canadian Cultural Association of New Brunswick, spoke at the opening of Canada’s Irish Festival on the Miramichi in July 1989. McCarthy said “our cultural life could be enhanced by making at least one person of our Irish cultural heritage better known, and that person is Michael Whelan.” McCarthy’s challenge was met with the publication in July 1990 of Michael O. Nowlan’s Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River, which brought together over one hundred of Whelan’s poems.
No exact count has been made, but Whelan wrote an estimated 250 poems in eighteen chapbooks. Many are repeated in three or four books, some with slight revision, others with considerable revision. His first book, Poems and Songs (1895), was his most extensive at ninety-seven pages. The others range between ten and thirty-six pages.
Whelan wrote best about his beloved Miramichi region and its people. Many of his poems are memorial tributes to friends, acquaintances, politicians, or historical figures. He also wrote fervently about war, particularly World War I, and, as a devout Roman Catholic, he wrote about God and leading figures in the church, namely popes and bishops. Some of his religious poems deploy prayer-like incantations. Many poems in each of the categories above illustrate his love of Canada, and a few show that he did not neglect his Irish roots.
He also wrote prose, evident in many letters and opinion pieces in The Union Advocate and especially evident in Timely Topics (1932), which treats a variety of common subjects such as the metric system, old age pensions, and disarmament. In prose, he comes across as a visionary well-ahead of his time. In a brief preface to Timely Topics, he writes “I have mingled prose with poetry and hope to issue next year a little volume of history of the highest interest.” Such a book was never realized.
Timely Topics is a curious little book of two editions that gives us insight into the textual challenges of cataloguing Whelan’s work. The first release of the book is dated May 1932; the second is dated September 1932. The May edition has one poem, “Busy Bees,” that does not appear in the later work. The arrangement of the material also differs, as do some of the poems’ titles. The title poem that opens the May edition, and functions as an introduction, appears on page eleven of the September edition. W.D. Hamilton points to other inconsistencies in his bibliography of Whelan’s work. He lists The Call of Chirst [sic] and Other Poems (1922), presumably from the purple-grey-covered copy at the UNB Archives, and the copy in the Legislative Library in Fredericton, which spells “Christ” properly in an edition bound in beige.
We will never know how many of each of his books Whelan had published or how many times he went back to printers for additional copies. He obviously made changes from edition to edition, not only to correct errors but also to revise poems he appeared to be unhappy with. For example, the poem “Our Forefathers on the Beautiful Banks of the Miramichi” (The Dungarvon Whooper 1928) appears as “Beautiful Banks of the Miramichi” in Piracy, Prophecy, Politics, and Poetry (1929). The second more compact poem is the better one. Another example is “The Farmlands” and “The Farmlands (Revised).” There is much in his extant editions that suggests he regularly reworked his poems.
W.D. Hamilton was the first to give Whelan’s poetry critical attention. In “Michael Whelan: Poet of the Renous,” he examines many of the poems and their revisions. He suggests that Poems and Songs “shows Michael to have been a writer of exceedingly serious verse of a religio-patriotic kind—in praise of God, the Catholic Church, Great Britain, Ireland, the United States, Canada, the Miramichi area in general, and the Renous in particular.” He also comments on the folk tradition, writing that “‘The Dungarvon Whooper’ became the most famous of Michael’s songs, after it had been admitted into the repertoire of the Miramichi folksingers of the time.”
Hamilton singles out for attention “In Memoriam:” Men and Women of Miramichi, N.B. (1923), which contains “more than twenty memorial pieces on people of Newcastle and Chatham and different communities along the South West branch of the river who died between 1900 and 1922.” “[A]n important reason for its appeal,” he says, “is that a number of the verses in it are less sombre and pretentious than Michael’s early memorial [work].” For Hamilton, Whelan’s poem “The Cry of Labour,” written in October 1902 and published in The Maid of Miramichi (1924), “expressed more heartfelt conviction in his writing about the plight of the common man than in his work on any other theme … his labour views were rooted in the more radical labour philosophy of the time.”
Hamilton concludes that “from a rigidly literary perspective” Whelan “was not a true poet at all” because so much of his verse was “imitative,” but qualifies that “it is not necessary to defend his work in conventional literary terms … [because] he was a successful folk poet [who] remains a hero within both the Miramichi folk tradition and the Irish Catholic cultural tradition of the province.”
In reviewing Michael O. Nowlan’s Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River in 1990, critics Fred Cogswell and George W. Lyon agreed with Hamilton’s assessment. Cogswell writes that “the purpose and fashion of poetry has changed radically within the last century … [and] it is now functional rather than decorative in form and inclined to value originality over tradition.” Cogswell goes on to celebrate the publication of Folk Poet for “resurrecting the large and important area of New Brunswick social life that Whelan’s poetry represents.” George W. Lyon affirmed Cogswell’s view and added that “a more complete and analytical study of the community context in which Whelan wrote [is needed] as well as a more extensive biography of the poet himself.”
Michael Whelan, the folk poet of Renous River, was an individual very much of his time who did the best he could despite limitations in background and opportunity. His legacy is his poetry, and his presence in verse defines the man as thoroughly as will any biography. He was a simple man of profound sensibility: he did not strum a guitar nor did he have an entourage to accompany him as he trod the roadways of New Brunswick in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. He penned his verse, read when requested, and sold his small books throughout the Miramichi and other regions of the province. Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River was important in resurrecting his name. As a result of the collection, Whelan’s poem “Christmas Bells” (The Book Beautiful 1930) has been set to music and recorded by Susan Butler of the Miramichi. There has also been a theatrical tribute to Whelan’s work written and directed by Bernie Colepaugh of Renous, a great, great nephew of the poet. His verse is remembered and recited to this day, and in a region of the province that celebrates its literary heroes, Whelan is still revered as one of the originals.
Michael O. Nowlan, Winter 2011
Bibliography of Primary Sources (Chronological)
Copies of Whelan’s books are scattered among many New Brunswick libraries, but no library has a complete set. The abbreviations in parentheses below indicate the libraries holding copies: LL (Legislative Library, Fredericton); UNB (University of New Brunswick Archives and Special Collections, Fredericton); MA (Mount Allison University Library, Sackville); NBM (New Brunswick Museum, Saint John); OML (Old Manse Library, Newcastle). The latter are now presumed to be in the York Regional Library branch in Newcastle.
Whelan, Michael. Poems and Songs. Newcastle, NB: The Union Advocate, 1895. (NBM, OML, LL, MA)
---. Queen of the North and Forty Other Songs and Sonnets. Newcastle, NB: The Union Advocate, 1914. (OML, UNB)
---. Songs of the World War. Newcastle, NB: Advocate Press, 1916. (UNB)
---. The Pioneers and Other Poems. Newcastle, NB: The Union Advocate, 1917. (LL)
---. The Great Miramichi Fire, 1825, The Polar Heroes, and Fourteen Other Poems. Chatham, NB: The Gazette Office, 1921. (NBM, OML, UNB, LL)
---. The Call of Christ and Other Poems. Chatham, NB: The Gazette Office, 1922. (OML, UNB, LL)
---. “In Memoriam”: Men and Women of Miramichi, N.B. Renous River, NB: n.p., 1923. (UNB, LL)
---. The Maid of Miramichi and Other Poems. Chatham, NB: The Gazette Press, 1924. (OML, UNB, LL,MA)
---. The Great Miramichi Fire of 1825 in Story and Song, With Other Poems. N.p.: n.p., 1925. (UNB, LL, MA)
---. The Sacred Silence and Other Songs. Chatham, NB: The Gazette Press, 1925. (UNB)
---. The Garden of God and Other Poems. Renous River, NB: n.p., 1926. (UNB, LL)
---. Canada: Queen of the North: The All Canadian Edition for the 60th Anniversary of Confederation. Chatham, NB: The Gazette Press, 1927. (OML, UNB)
(A second edition of this book can be found in OML and LL.)
---. The Dungarvon Whooper and Other Songs of the Miramichi. Renous River, NB: n.p., 1928. (OML, UNB, MA)
---. Some Heroes of History. Renous River, NB: n.p., 1928. (NBM, UNB, LL, MA)
---. Piracy, Prophesy, Politics and Poetry. Chatham, NB: The Gazette Press, 1929. (UNB, LL, NBM)
---. Slogans and Other Songs. N.p.: n.p., 1930. (OML, UNB)
---. The Book Beautiful. Chatham, NB: The Gazette Press, 1930. (NBM, OML, LL)
---. Timely Topics. N.p.: n.p., May 1932. (UNB, LL). Rpt. Timely Topics. N.p.: n.p., September 1932. (OML)
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Cogswell, Fred. “Collection of Folk Poetry Evokes Nostalgia.” Rev. of Michael O. Nowlan’s Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River. The Daily Gleaner [Fredericton, NB] 14 Dec. 1990: 8.
Butler, Dave. “Collection of Poetry Focuses on Miramichi.” Rev. of Michael O. Nowlan’s Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River. The Times-Transcript [Moncton, NB] 6 Oct. 1990: 14.
---. “Energy Impressive.” Rev. of Michael O. Nowlan’s Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River. Miramichi Leader Weekend 3 Aug. 1990: 7.
Gowan, Derwin. “Poet Has a Home in Miramichi Hearts.” Rev. of Michael O. Nowlan’s Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River. The Telegraph-Journal [Saint John, NB] 7 July 1990: 38.
Grattan, Robert (Rev.). Manuscript of address at dedication of a tombstone for Michael Whelan, Sept. 1981. Michael O. Nowlan fonds. MG L43, series 4, box 6. Archives & Special Collections. U of New Brunswick Libraries, Fredericton, NB.
Hamilton, W.D. Dictionary of Miramichi Biography. Saint John: Keystone Printing, 1997.
---. “Michael Whelan: Poet of the Renous.” Miramichi Papers. Fredericton: Micmac-Maliseet Institute, U of New Brunswick, 1987.
Jardine, Beatrice. “Whalen’s Poems in Book.” Rev. of Michael O. Nowlan’s Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River. Miramichi Leader Weekend 27 July 1990: 4A.
Lyon, George W. Rev. of Michael O. Nowlan’s Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River. Canadian Folklore 14.2 (1992): 179-82.
Martin, Lois. “Collection of Michael Whelan’s Poetry Worth Owning.” Rev. of Michael O. Nowlan’s Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River. Northumberland News 5 Sept.1990: 5.
Nowlan, Michael O., ed. Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River. Fredericton: New Ireland Press, 1990.
Pearce, T.M. “What Is a Folk Poet?” Western Folklore 12.4 (Oct. 1953): 242-48.