The son of a shipyard worker, McWhirter is raised in a large extended family on the Shankill Road in Belfast. He and his extended family spend the war years and then weekends and the summers at their seaside bungalow in Carnalea, now a suburb of Bangor, County Down. In 1957 he begins a “combined scholarship” studying English and Spanish at Queen’s University Belfast, and education at Stranmillis University College, Belfast. His tutor at Queen’s is the poet Laurence Lerner, and he is a classmate with the future literary critic Robert Dunbar and the poets Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane.
After graduating, McWhirter teaches in Kilkeel and Bangor, County Down, and in Barcelona, Spain, before moving to Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada. After receiving his M.A. from the University of British Columbia (UBC), where he studies under Michael Bullock and J. Michael Yates, he stays on to become a full professor in 1982 and head of the Creative Writing Department from 1983 to 1993. He retires as a Professor Emeritus in 2005.
McWhirter is associated with PRISM International magazine from 1968 to 2005. He is the author and editor of numerous books and the recipient of many awards. His first book of poetry, Catalan Poems, is a joint winner of the first Commonwealth Poetry Prize with Chinua Achebe‘s Beware, Soul Brother. He is made a life member of the League of Canadian Poets in 2005 and is also a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada and PEN International. In March 2007, he is named Vancouver’s inaugural Poet Laureate for a two-year term.
McWhirter currently writes full-time and lives in Vancouver with his wife. They have two children and three grandchildren.