Michael Whelan


  1. Biography
  2. Why Should We Read and Study Whelan?
  3. Literature & Analysis
    • “The Fair New Brunswick Hills”
    • Analysis of “The Fair New Brunswick Hills”
    • “Leslie Allen”
  4. Questions and Considerations for Reflection
  5. Strategies for Teachers
  6. Further Reading
  7. Copyright


Known as “the Renous River Poet” or “the Miramichi Bard,” Michael Whelan was born at Grainfield, NB on the Renous River on 27 April 1858. After teaching for a short time, he became a bookkeeper for local lumber operators, all the while sustaining his intellectual life by reading and writing. Whelan was one of the first Miramichi writers of note, his poetry celebrating the rich folk culture of central New Brunswick. While he wrote more than eighteen chapbooks on subjects such as his faith, the Catholic Church, and his Irish heritage, it was his folk poetry about New Brunswick and the Miramichi region for which he is best known. Whimsical and cheerful, that folk poetry often depicts the Miramichi as quaint, rural, and idyllic, even as his own life – later marked by poverty and alcoholism – testified to a much harsher reality. His most famous poem is “The Dungarvon Whooper,” which gained popularity after being included as a drinking song in the repertoires of Miramichi folk musicians. While Whelan’s verse describes a version of the Miramichi that later writers would challenge, his poetry holds an important place in the history of the region, for more than anyone else, he nourished a folk culture along the Miramichi that would eventually inspire a flourishing regional literature. He died in May 1937.

For a much more detailed biography of Whelan, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.

Why Should We Read and Study Whelan?

  • Whelan’s folksy representations of landscape and work in New Brunswick have contributed greatly to our sense of ourselves as a tree-bound, river-situated, hard-living, and God-fearing people. He thus takes his place among those artists and intellectuals who have defined, for good or ill, the New Brunswick identity.
  • His work is also an important source of Miramichi literary culture. Later writers such as Raymond Fraser, David Adams Richards, and Wayne Curtis are indebted to and draw from his work. In more direct ways, the growth of a culture of folk heritage in the area, still manifest in the annual Miramichi Folksong Festival as well as the Irish and Scottish Festivals, owes much to Whelan’s pioneering folk literature.
  • His work, finally, has stood the test of time in modern and post-modern ages. He is still remembered, still revered, still the subject of books and scholarly inquiry, and his folksongs are still sung around the Miramichi.

Literature & Analysis

“The Fair New Brunswick Hills”
(Hunting Song)

The sports have come again to shoot the monster,
      To capture a few caribou and deer
To sing and shout and dance and play the punster,
      To join in every jollity and cheer.
The hunters and their guides are going, calling
      The moose at early dawn, in morning chills,
Some standing, peering, others floundering falling
      Amid the far and fair New Brunswick Hills.

And some have come to far away Cain’s River,
      Which wits have named the modern Land of Nod,
(Whose dear old people, passed away forever,
      Have crossed the Great Divine and gone to God.)
On every hill you hear the rifles ringing,
      Each good gun never fails, but always kills,
They’ve got the game and now they’re going singing
      “Good-by, God bless the fair New Brunswick hills!”

Then here’s a health in clear, cold sparkling water
      To Uncle Sam and brave old Johnny Bull,
And all America’s dear sons and daughters,
      With three times three and hearts of friendship full,
And if they come again, dear friends and brothers,
      Or send some friends their place to take and fill,
We’ll welcome them, or for their sake, the others,
      Amid the far and fair New Brunswick hills.

Analysis of  “The Fair New Brunswick Hills”

Whelan’s “The Fair New Brunswick Hills” is an example of a New Brunswick pastoral. The poem also exhibits many of the qualities for which Whelan’s work is best known: it is folksy, conventional, and celebrates the Miramichi region and its people. Significantly, the poem offers an early description of “sports” tourism in New Brunswick, an important aspect of nineteenth-century New Brunswick society that continues to be relevant today. While Whelan’s use of highly conventional verse may seem unusual for today’s readers, the poem demonstrates his technical skill as a versifier.

Composed of three octaves (stanzas of eight lines) and employing a simple alternating rhyme scheme, “The Fair New Brunswick Hills” describes the jaunts of American and British “sports” (hunters and fishermen) to the Miramichi region. Beginning with the first stanza, the reader is told of the immense joy and light-heartedness of the hunting party. Singing, shouting, and dancing through the hills in search of moose, the men are childlike in their playfulness, with “Some standing, peering, others floundering falling.” Their merriment is absolute; they “join in every jollity and cheer.”

In addition to the hunters, the setting and wildlife is also fancifully described. The party has come to the Miramichi to hunt, and the language Whelan employs emphasizes the marvellous – the moose is described as “the monster” – while the variety of animals being hunted, including moose, deer, and caribou, suggests an abundance of wildlife. The fantastical vision of New Brunswick forests teeming with wildlife, including caribou, is quite accurate, as our forests used to have an abundance of game. The last caribou in New Brunswick was seen in the early 1940s.

In the second stanza, Whelan elevates the Cains River (a tributary of the Miramichi) to biblical significance, calling it “Cain’s River,” a reference to Cain of the Judeo-Christian story of Cain and Abel. (As described in the poem, the Cains is notoriously dark, its waters running black because of the river bottom and the overhanging trees.) In case the reader believes the humorous description of Cains River as “the modern Land of Nod” – the land to which the biblical Cain was banished by God – to be indicative of some sin among its inhabitants, Whelan reassures them with a parenthetical note: the “dear old people” of the Cains River, “passed away forever, / Have crossed the Great Divine and gone to God.” In addition to giving the reader a sense of Whelan’s own faith, the poem’s reference to Cain and to the virtuous inhabitants of the Miramichi are indicative of the religiosity of the region, the population of which is largely Irish Catholic.

Returning to the “sports,” Whelan describes the unfailing success of hunting trips along the Cains where “Each good gun never fails, but always kills.” Having killed their prey, the sports can leave the Miramichi and go home to the United States or Britain, singing praises for the region as they depart: “Good-by, God bless the fair New Brunswick hills!”

In the final stanza, Whelan toasts (“here’s a health to”) the Americans (“Uncle Sam”), the British (“Johnny Bull”), and “all America’s dear sons and daughters.” The poem concludes with Whelan proclaiming the hospitality of the Miramichi, promising to welcome back the hunters or any friends they should send in their place. On the whole, the portrayal of the Miramichi is a positive pastoral: all are happy as they wander through the utopian landscape.

It would be easy to dismiss “The Fair New Brunswick Hills” as naive and sentimental, but to do so would be to miss what the poem tells us about New Brunswick and the Miramichi, both past and present. In the first place, the poem helps to establish a mythology of “the folk” – the supposed existence in the region of a people who are content in their poverty, largely isolated from the outside world, and pleasantly unsophisticated.

Closely connected to the concept of the folk is the poem’s portrayal of New Brunswick’s tourism industry. Tourism, particularly hunting and fishing (or “sports”) tourism, has long been a part of Miramichi culture, and such visits to New Brunswick are a staple of the provincial economy, generating close to $1 billion annually. Under the banner of conservation, much of the Renous and Miramichi rivers are privately owned, and access to the rivers’ best fishing pools is reserved for a wealthy elite, many of whom come from the United States. “The Fair New Brunswick Hills” illustrates the history and origins of this practice. In fact, the poem itself is highly touristic, idealizing the Miramichi and advertising the region as a place for foreign tourists to reap the benefits of its rich natural resources while enjoying the hospitality of its quaint inhabitants.

More than anything else, however, the poem provides an early description of the Miramichi and the vivacity of its people. As such, it is part of a folk tradition that would provide the seeds for a subsequent literary culture. Though the later narratives of such writers as Raymond Fraser and David Adams Richards challenged Whelan’s buoyant depictions, central New Brunswick writers are indebted to Whelan for having given expression to a Miramichi ethos. Having said that, the next poem/song by Whelan (based on the true story of Leslie Allen) suggests the other side of the Miramichi experience that is well known to locals, and that forms some of the later focus of writers like Fraser and Richards.

“Leslie Allen”

A young man came from Moncton town
            When the autumn leaves were falling.
He came to win a hunter’s crown
            When the autumn woods were calling.

Beside the banks of bleak Black Brook
            Of evil reputation,
His party found a sheltered nook
            For rest and recreation.

Far from the town one fatal day
            Young Leslie Allen wandered.
Where did he go? Where did he stray?
            The public long have pondered.

Three hundred men and two bloodhounds
            His tracks have long been trailing;
They trailed o’er all the dreary round,
            But the search was unavailing.

The snow now lies upon the ground,
            What fate has him befallen?
But all within the dreary round
            Lies long lost Leslie Allen.

Questions and Considerations for Reflection

The sonnets of Charles G.D. Roberts (see Confederation Poets) were published at around the same time as Whelan was publishing his poems and folksongs. And Fredericton and Miramichi are not that far apart. Why is their work, then, so different? Such comparison will point out the diversity of cultures in New Brunswick as well as highlight the differences between the elite enclave of Loyalist writers in Fredericton at the turn of the century and the literary work of other, less privileged classes and ethnicities in the province. Which group is more representative of New Brunswick, and why do we continue to put forward the work of the Confederation Poets (Roberts and Carman) as the pinnacle of literary achievement in the province? In other words, what roles do class and canon play in literary judgement, and what should that tell us about the national reception of New Brunswick literature as a whole?

Whelan's poems/songs are very interesting for what they don’t say about the area, and thus are emblematic of the region’s economy more broadly. The poems serve as a stark reminder of the deindustrialization of the Miramichi, where only one in fifty mills remain operative. Today, lumber from the Miramichi watershed continues to be harvested, but it is now shipped to mills outside the region instead of contributing to local industry. The “sports” of Whelan’s poems, who, in his time, invested in mills and logging operations, now exploit the region’s natural resources for leisure, an action that echoes the political economy of the Miramichi. In ways that Whelan could not have known, then, his poems anticipate the shift from a reliance on resource and manufacturing industries to a more precarious service economy.

Strategies for Teachers

Strategy 1: Use Value (“The Fair New Brunswick Hills”)

Whelan’s poem compares favourably with Jacques Cartier’s earliest observations of the province. Both men wrote about an unusual bounty in the land, and common to each was New Brunswick's resource richness. Marxist critics describe this as imparting “use value” on a place, setting it up to be used or consumed. Of course, all tourism advertising functions in this way (consider the ads for Newfoundland). What is important to note, however, is that New Brunswick has always been thought of in terms of its “use value,” whether in the 1500s or in the contemporary eyes of shale-gas extractors.

Engage students in a discussion of what the implications for this “use value” are today, when, for example, a former New Brunswick premier like Frank McKenna is pushing so hard for New Brunswick to start drilling for shale gas. What are some arguments for and against commodification and exploitation of our shared natural resources? And, referring to evidence from the poem, what do students think Whelan’s position might be on this issue?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Speaking and Listening: Articulate, advocate, and justify positions on an issue or text in a convincing manner, showing an understanding of a range of viewpoints

Strategy 2: Attitudes to Tourism (“The Fair New Brunswick Hills”)

Ask students to compare and contrast Whelan’s welcoming embrace of tourists with the ambivalence of Wayne Curtis in “There Are Two Rivers Here.” Each clearly and deeply loves his home, but how is this love expressed differently?

Extension: Have students investigate the way New Brunswick as a province, or their region of New Brunswick, is currently advertised to tourists. For example, in 2016, the character of “Warm Norm” was developed to represent the folksiness of northern New Brunswick (see link). Is there any relationship between the current marketing and Whelan’s representations of the province?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts

Strategy 3: Put to Music (“Leslie Allen”)

This verse is sung to the familiar tune of “Barbara Allen,” a Scottish ballad that has been internationally popular for centuries. There are countless versions of “Barbara Allen,” with variations in the setting and names.

  1. If there are musical students in your classroom, ask if they would be willing to play the accompaniment and/or sing “Leslie Allen.” Alternatively, play a version of “Barbara Allen” to see if students can pick up the tune, then recite “Leslie Allen” as a group. Do students find that the musical accompaniment, and/or comparison to the story of Barbara Allen, adds a new dimension to their understanding of Whelan’s poem?
  2. Ask students to consider how Whelan created a distinctly New Brunswick poem out of European source material. What elements of the poem identify New Brunswick as the setting? Can students think of other examples of how New Brunswickers have brought or adopted traditions, words, practices, themes, etc. from away, and transformed those into something that is identifiably local?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Reading and Viewing: Note the relationship of specific elements of a particular text to elements of other texts

Further Reading

Hamilton, W.D. Dictionary of Miramichi Biography. Saint John: Keystone Printing, 1997.

---. “Michael Whelan: Poet of the Renous.” Miramichi Papers. Fredericton: Micmac-Maliseet Institute, University of New Brunswick, 1987.

McKay, Ian. “The Idea of the Folk.” The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1994. 3-42.

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 (October 1953): 242-48.

Whelan, Michael. The Dungarvon Whooper and Other Songs of the Miramichi. Renous River: N.p., 1928.

For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Whelan, see his New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.


The poems above have been in the Canadian public domain for 50 years after publication and 50 years after the author’s death. As such, they are no longer protected by copyright in Canada. However, the poems may still be under copyright in some countries. Readers outside Canada must comply with the respective copyright laws of the country in which they live.

“The Fair New Brunswick Hills” appears in Stubborn Strength: A New Brunswick Anthology. Ed. Michael O. Nowlan. Don Mills, ON: Academic Press Canada, 1983. 10. “Leslie Allen” appears in Songs of Miramichi. Ed. Louise Manny and James R. Wilson. Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1970. 129.

All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.