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Dictionary of Miramichi Biography

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WHELAN, MICHAEL (1858-1937)

WHELAN, MICHAEL, folk poet; b. Renous River, 27 Apr 1858, s/o William Whelan, a native of Co. Laois, Ireland, and Mary Ellen Keary, a native of New Brunswick; unmarried; d. Chatham, 10 May 1937.

Michael Whelan was one of eight or more children of a humble Irish Catholic home on the Renous River. His ambition was to become a schoolteacher, but he lacked the necessary educational background and financial resources. He did teach for a short time on a local license, but such employment was hit-and-miss and poorly paid.

Instead, Whelan became a bookkeeper with lumber operators in the winter months and an odd-job man in the summers. He gratified his intellectual needs by reading, and by writing verse, for which the only ready outlet was the local weekly newspapers. After many of his verses had appeared in the Union Advocate over a period of fifteen years or so, he made an arrangement in 1895 for the Advocate Press to bring out a bound collection entitled Poems and Songs. This was financed by advertisements in the book itself and by subscriptions taken from readers prior to its release. It was not until 1914 that a second volume appeared, but from that date onward slim booklets came out at the rate of one or two a year, until there were no fewer than eighteen titles in print. They were all produced at local printing shops and sold door-to-door by their author for pennies apiece.

Ponderous religio-patriotic verse, solemn memorial tributes to persons who had recently died on the Miramichi and elsewhere, and occasional humorous and satirical works made up the bulk of Whelan's output, scattered lines from which are quoted elsewhere in this volume. As he grew older most of the selections in the booklets were reprints or only slight revisions of work issued previously.

Whelan's verse does not stand up well to critical scrutiny, but his memory is cherished within both the Miramichi folk tradition and the Irish Catholic cultural tradition in the province. This is not only because he persevered in publishing and distributing his verse, but because he was viewed as an almost tragic figure on the Miramichi. A warm, gentle, intelligent man, he kept up a cheerful facade in spite of an addiction to alcohol and an ever increasing impoverishment which saw him spend the closing years of his life in the county almshouse and be buried in a pauper's grave.


[b] church records [d] Advocate 19 May 1937 / Nowlan