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?

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Painting of “O’Malley Home” by Robert Henri circa 1913

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

“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.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1911 William Butler Yeats published the essay “J. M. Synge and the Ireland of His Time” in the London periodical “The Forum”. Prominent Irish dramatist and author John Millington Synge had died two years earlier in 1909 at the young age of 37. Yeats was impressed with the vivid tales in Synge’s book “The Aran Islands”. Yeats contended that Synge loved “all that stings into life the sense of tragedy”:²

He loves all that has edge, all that is salt in the mouth, all that is rough to the hand, all that heightens the emotions by contest, all that stings into life the sense of tragedy; and in this book, unlike the plays where nearness to his audience moves him to mischief, he shows it without thought of other taste than his.

Thus, Yeats connected Synge to “the sense of tragedy”, but Yeats did not mention temporary periods of joy. In September 1911 Yeats’s remark was reprinted in “Waukegan Daily Sun” of Illinois:³

“He loves all that has edge, all that is salt in the mouth, all that is rough to the hand, all that heightens the emotion by contest, all that stings into life the sense of tragedy.” Thus Mr. Yeats has written of his friend, Synge. It is the poet’s graceful way of saying that “Synge has red blood in him, and could deliver plays with a punch.” We are speaking the Broadway jargon.

In 1991 Oliver Stone used a version of the expression under examination while discussing Jim Morrison as mentioned previously. Stone’s comment appeared in the “San Francisco Chronicle” and the “San Francisco Examiner”:⁴

“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.’”

In 1993 columnists Dolores and Roger Flaherty of the “Chicago Sun-Times” published a book review which included the quotation attributed to Yeats:⁵

The Townes bring to mind a description of a countryman by poet William Butler Yeats: “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

In 1994 Jack Connor published “Leahy’s Lads: The Story of the Famous Notre Dame Football Teams of the 1940s” which contained the following passage:⁶

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, once wrote, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

In August 1994 “The Signal” newspaper of Santa Clarita, California published a column by Bob Rankin who was the pastor of a local church. The piece presented a variant using the word “depressed”. The attribution was anonymous:⁷

As the old Irish adage goes: “Being depressed, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

In March 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Greenberg published a column in the “Arkansas Democrat-Gazette” of Little Rock, Arkansas. Greenberg constructed a fictional bar and grill proprietor named Mr. Riley who employed a variant expression with “transient” instead of “temporary”. Greenberg used modified spelling to represent the dialect of Riley. The attribution of the saying was uncertain:⁸

“I can’t raymember whether ’twas George Bernard Shaw or O’Hennessy the streetcar conductor who said that, bein’ Irish, he had an abidin’ sense of tragedy, which sustained him through transient periods of joy. ’Twas a great comfort to him, tragedy. Took his mind off his troubles.”

In May 1995 Mike O’Malley who was President of Hoffman Estates Village in Arlington Heights, Illinois employed the saying without attribution:⁹

“Being Irish, we have an abiding sense of tragedy that sustains us through temporary periods of joy,” O’Malley said, “and tonight is one of those periods of joy.”

In September 1995 “The New York Times” published a profile of bestselling author James Finn Garner who had a sign which displayed the saying:¹⁰

What has dulled his enjoyment of his best-seller status and pocketful of royalties is what he described as his inextricably Irish Catholic sense of doom. That, too, is evident in a quotation by W. B. Yeats on his bulletin board. It reads. “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

In 1996 the statement appeared as an epigraph of the book “Chasing Grace: Reflections of a Catholic Girl, Grown Up” by Martha Manning:¹¹

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

Also, in 1996 bestselling suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark delivered a commencement speech at Providence College. Clark employed an instance of the saying with the word “transient”:¹²

Yeats, being Irish, had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustained him through transient periods of joy. With all due respect I suggest you reverse the order — have an abiding sense of joy.

Interestingly, Mary Higgins Clark did not credit the statement to Yeats; instead, she applied the statement to Yeats. A passage like the one above would have facilitated a misattribution via inattentiveness. However, QI has not yet found a similar passage occurring before the earliest matches which begin in 1991.

In 2001 “Surprised by Children: A Memoir” by Harold Myra included a description of a calligraphic artwork in a gift shop in Wisconsin. The framed text displayed the following variant message:¹³

A Norwegian has an abiding sense of TRAGEDY which sustains him through temporary periods of JOY

In 2009 columnist Ted Diadiun of Cleveland.com explored the provenance of this expression. He concluded that the attribution to Yeats was dubious because he was unable to find any solid citations:¹⁴

First casually, and then with more vigor, I searched in vain, in books and on the Web. I asked several university professors, including one of the foremost Yeats scholars in the country. Some had heard of it; none had ever seen the original work. After a while I began to theorize that somebody must have said that ABOUT Yeats. Unfortunately, I can’t prove that, either. If you can, I’d love to hear from you.

The point is this: You’ll find 20,000 instances on the Internet of people who “know” Yeats wrote that. But all they really know is that there are 19,999 others who “know” the same thing.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. There is no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to William Butler Yeats. Oliver Stone credited a version to Yeats in 1991 more than fifty years after the poet’s death.

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)

[2] 1911 August, The Forum, J.M. Synge and the Ireland of His Time by W. B. Yeats, Start Page 179, Quote Page 190, Mitchell Kennerley, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[3] 1911 September 26, Waukegan Daily Sun, Aldis Theater Unlocks Doors To Irish Drama, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Waukegan, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)

[4] 1991 March 3, San Francisco Examiner, Section: Datebook, Oliver Stone Lights a Fire by Edward Guthmann (Chronicle Staff Writer), Quote Page 21, Column 1, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)

[5] 1993 March 7, Chicago Sun-Times, For Love of Misery — An Irish-American Family Wallows in Mire of Its Own Tragedy by Dolores Flaherty and Roger Flaherty, Quote Page 15, Chicago, Illinois. (NewsBank Access World News)

[6] 1994, Leahy’s Lads: The Story of the Famous Notre Dame Football Teams of the 1940s by Jack Connor, Chapter 14: Looking Back — Coaches, Quote Page 276, Diamond Communications, South Bend, Indiana. (Verified with scans)

[7] 1994 August 6, The Signal, Focus On Faith: Five steps to unhappiness by Father Bob Rankin, Quote Page A10, Column 2, Santa Clarita, California. (Newspapers_com)

[8] 1995 March 17, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, St. Patrick’s Day at Riley’s by Paul Greenberg, Quote Page 8B, Little Rock, Arkansas. (NewsBank Access World News)

[9] 1995 May 18, Daily Herald, Section: Neighbor, Column: Hoffman Estates, Author: Joanmarie Wermes, Quote Page 1, Arlington Heights, Illinois. (NewsBank Access World News)

[10] 1995 September 28, New York Times, At Home With James Finn Garner: On Pens and Needles by Mary B.W. Tabor, Start Page C1, Quote Page C8, New York. (ProQuest)

[11] 1996, Chasing Grace: Reflections of a Catholic Girl, Grown Up by Martha Manning, (Quotation appears as an epigraph), Quote Page vii, HarperSanFrancisco: An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)

[12] 2000, Onward!: 25 Years of Advice, Exhortation, and Inspiration from America’s Best Commencement Speeches, Edited by Peter J. Smith, Year: 1996, Speaker: Mary Higgins Clark, Institution: Providence College, Quote Page 255, Scribner, New York. (Verified with scans)

[13] 2001, Surprised by Children: A Memoir by Harold Myra, Chapter: Afterword, Quote Page 163, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Verified with scans)

[14] Website: Cleveland.com, Article title: Who said Google knew it all? (Hint: It wasn’t Yeats), Article author: Ted Diadiun, Timestamp on website: May 4, 2009 at 12:30 p.m., Website description: Covering news, sports, and entertainment of Cleveland and northeast Ohio in partnership with The Plain Dealer. (Accessed cleveland.com on March 20, 2023) link

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Quote Investigator®

Garson O'Toole specializes in tracing quotations. He operates the QuoteInvestigator.com website which receives more than 4 million visitors per year