Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Never forget to remember ...

Image courtesy Graduate Theological Union Library, Berkeley CA
Of course, the twenty-four-hour news cycle has long ago moved on, but call back -- if you can -- the kerfuffle over Donald Trump's awkwardly-chosen "Irish Proverb," recited by him on the occasion of the traditional St. Patrick's day visit by the Taoiseach (Prime minister) of Ireland, in this case Enda Kenny. The reaction from the plain people of Ireland was immediate and blunt: they'd never heard of it. A bit of poking about by journalists showed it had been included as an "Irish" saying in a number of manuals for speech-givers, which likely explained why the president's team had chosen it -- and then there was the Nigerian poet (now a banker) Albasheer Adam Alahassan, who'd published a version of it in a school journal back in the 1990's. How delightful the irony would have been, had this been true and Trump inadvertently quoted a Muslim poet? But alas, it was as well that Alhassan turned to banking as a career, for his little poem turned out to have been copied from other, still earlier sources. Mashable's Sasha Lekach dug deeper than most, tracing it back to a 1936 appearance in The International Stereotypers & Electrotypers Union Journal, where it was apparently attributed to Harold Keating. This was a blind alley, though; Keating was merely the author of the column, and the poem added as filler. Lekach also dug up a slightly earlier one in the Gazette and Daily, published in York, Pennsylvania on March 3, 1936.One of these sources apparently attributed it to one "Levi Furbush," and an appearance in a magazine named The Cheerful Letter.

This was a turn of ill luck, though, as The Cheerful Letter turns out to be a very obscure publication. Begun by a group of Unitarian women during the time of the Spanish-American war, its original work was to send individual "cheerful letters" to soldiers in hospital. By the early twentieth century, it had evolved into a modest periodical, appearing monthly, with regular columns and features. And yet, though published in Boston, no Boston library had more than a few scattered issues; even the archivist of the Unitarian Universalist Association -- once I tracked him down -- had to admit that he had no idea where one could find a copy. The WorldCat system, indeed, listed only three libraries with the periodical: Harvard Divinity (when contacted, it turned out they had only a handful of issues), the New York Public Library, and the Graduate Theological Union Library in Berkeley, California.

This week, I was very glad to hear from a librarian there that they indeed had a substantial run of The Cheerful Letter, and that they'd located the poem, attributed once again to Levi Furbush. There, nestled above an inspirational quote from J.P. Morgan, and above the newsletter's masthead, was the long-sought "Irish" saying that, for a day or two, had intrigued and amused the world -- and here, with the library's permission, I give it to you.

UPDATE (June 5 2017): It turns out that the poem's appearance in The Cheerful Letter is not the earliest known -- this issue actually dates to July of 1937. I'm working again to see whether there may by any other earlier instances than that in the Gazette and Daily

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