Michael Whelan by W.D. Hamilton

Information on Whelan by W.D. Hamilton in Michael Whelan: Folk Poet of Renous River, A Collection of his poetry, selected and edited by Michael O. Nowlan, New Ireland Press, 1990

In a letter from Lord Beaverbrook to Whelan (n.d.):
“I remember your poems very well in the columns of the Union Advocate [Newcastle-Miramichi] when I was a boy, and I admired your work greatly.”  (p. 132)

In a letter from Hon. R.B. Bennett, only Prime Minister from New Brunswick (n.d.):
“I have read your poems and articles in the Chatham World [Chatham-Miramichi]and always with enjoyment.”  (p. 141)

“He walked and hitchhiked wherever he went,” remembered one woman. “There weren’t many cars in those days,” she added, “so he took what he could get, including a horse and wagon.” According to Father Robert Grattan, Michael travelled “the length and breadth of the Miramichi valley” with “bunyoned feet” encased in “ordinary rubbers” secured with “ordinary string.” “For those who knew him personally,” he stated, “he was their rubber-shod poet, selling copies of his various poems to anyone who would give him a dime.”

Most physical descriptions of Michael emphasize his height. Dorothea Cox, after speaking with a number of people who remembered him, described him as “a tall, lanky man, wearing an old cap and trousers too short by inches – trousers ‘measured in a snow-drift,’ as the local phrase has it.” According to Joseph Kehoe, who once taxied him from Grainfield to Blackville with his horse and wagon, “Mick was about six feet, seven inches tall – and of a lovely appearance.” Another man described Michael as having been “three axe handles tall and as wiry as a spring trap.”

Michael lived in the Newcastle-Chatham area in his later years and thus became estranged from his family and home community. It is evident that in his old age, at least, Michael had few, if any, true friends or loved ones among his many acquaintances on the Miramichi – and when he was no longer able to support himself, he had to enter the county home (or alms house) in Chatham, where he died on May 10, 1937. The North Shore Leader [Newcastle-Miramichi] of May 21 carried the following obituary:

"Michael Whalen (sic), the well-known poet of the Miramichi, passed away at Chatham on Monday, May 10th, at the advanced age of seventy-nine years.
The deceased gentleman was born at Renous River, a son of William and Mary (Carey) Whalen, natives of Ireland (sic), and was the last member of his family. He was famous all over the Miramichi for his poetry, especially extolling the beauties of the Miramichi River and the Renous District. Life has been a hard struggle for Mr. Whalen for poetic aspirations do not produce much in hard cash and no doubt he had many bitter days, but he was always cheerful and deeply appreciative of those who did him a kindness. He was an extremely well read man, with a real touch of Irish wit and his conversational powers were broad. The funeral was held on Tuesday morning to St. Michael’s Cathedral, where Requiem Mass was celebrated by Rev. Dr. Pichette. Internment was made in St. Michael’s cemetery."

The obituary writer delicately avoided mentioning the fact that “the deceased gentleman died in the poor house and that his remains were consigned to a pauper’s grave.  (pp. 141-142)

It is evident from Michael’s writing that he experienced a great sense of loss over the death of his parents and the departure of so many of the other members of hsi family [to the United States], but it has been suggested that much of the grief and sadness expressed in Michael’s early work was caused by the death of Margaret Singleton, with whom he is said to have been in love. This occurrence supposedly fixed Michael’s journey on a bachelor’s path throughout life and also marked the beginning of his well-known affection for the bottle. “Michael never drank before that,” stated one informant, “and he never stopped afterwards.” Father Grattan stated with a touch of Irish humor that Michael was allegedly addicted to “A drop of the Creature [which he] often ingested as medicine to warm the blood of the weary traveller.” Michael has nothing at all to say in his writing either about his drinking habit or the tragic love affair which is said to have altered the course of his life.         (p. 132)

During his lifetime, Michael was a successful folk poet, and fifty years after his death he remains a hero within both the Miramichi folk tradition and the Irish Catholic tradition of the province. (p. 143)

Although the exact place in St. Michael’s Cemetery, Chatham [now part of Miramichi City], where Michael Whelan was buried is not known, a group of concerned citizens raised money for a tombstone to show their “respect and appreciation of this true Poet of Renous and the whole Miramichi area.” In 1981 a memorial stone was erected in St. Michael’s Cemetery in his honour.

W.D. Hamilton
c. 1900
CANADA Northern New Brunswick, New Brunswick, Northern New Brunswick, CANADA
© 1987, W.D. Hamilton, Mi'kmaq-Maliseet Institute, UNB. All Rights Reserved.

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