Quote Origin: Being Irish, He Had an Abiding Sense of Tragedy Which Sustained Him Through Temporary Periods of Joy

William Butler Yeats? John Millington Synge? Oliver Stone? George Bernard Shaw? Mary Higgins Clark? Martha Manning? Paul Greenberg? James Finn Garner? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: The painful history of the island of Ireland has produced numerous inhabitants with a melancholy disposition. This notion is reflected in the following humorously inverted saying:

Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.

These words have been attributed to Nobel prize-winning Irish writer William Butler Yeats, but I have never seen a citation, and I have become skeptical. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Several researchers have unsuccessfully attempted to locate this statement in the works of William Butler Yeats who died in 1939. The ascription is currently unsupported.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in a 1991 article in the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California. The piece contained remarks from U.S. movie director Oliver Stone who was releasing a biopic about songwriter and vocalist Jim Morrison of the rock group “The Doors”. Stone used the saying while describing the psychology of Morrison, and Stone credited the words to Yeats. Stone’s variant phrasing used the word “itinerant” instead of “temporary”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1991 March 3, San Francisco Chronicle, Oliver Stone Lights a Fire / Oscar-winning director brings Doors’ Jim Morrison to life by Edward Guthmann (Chronicle Staff Writer), Quote Page 20, San … Continue reading

“He was pessimistic by nature,” Stone adds. “He reminds me of something William Butler Yeats said about another Irishman: ‘He had an abiding sense of tragedy, occasionally interrupted by an itinerant sense of joy.’”

Citations crediting Yeats also appeared in 1993, 1994, 1995 and afterward. QI believes that the ascription to Yeats is incorrect, but a citation before 1991 probably exists. At this time, the originator remains anonymous.

Additional details are available in the article on the Medium platform which is available here.

Image Notes: Painting by Robert Henri circa 1913 of “O’Malley Home” located on Achill Island in County Mayo, Ireland. This public domain image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Jesse Sheidlower, Mary Murphy, James C. Pappas, Charika Swanepoel, and Jason Zweig, whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.


1 1991 March 3, San Francisco Chronicle, Oliver Stone Lights a Fire / Oscar-winning director brings Doors’ Jim Morrison to life by Edward Guthmann (Chronicle Staff Writer), Quote Page 20, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News)

Want a Friend in Washington, Get a Dog

Harry Truman? Samuel Gallu? Gordon Gekko?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love dogs and live near Washington D.C. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to former President Harry Truman who experienced some bruising political battles and said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Could you please investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: That is an enjoyable quote that appeals to the multitude of dog fanciers. But, it is very unlikely that it was said by Harry Truman. Further below the origin of the saying is discussed, but first a comment about the fate of a dog named Feller is instructive. The dog was given to Truman while he was in the White House and a contemporary newspaper account in 1948 describes what happened [TRD1]:

Continue reading Want a Friend in Washington, Get a Dog

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