A Pandemic Puzzle

There’s nothing specifically Cornish about this article. And, in fact, before I (mostly) retired from the security business, I’d probably have posted it either on ESET’s blog or on a blog of my own devoted to scams, fake news and hoaxes, since it’s about a very recent poem that somehow became attributed to a different author with a similar name and was then claimed by someone else entirely. But let’s start at the beginning.

Kitty (Catherine) O’Meara is, according to an article in the Oprah Magazine,  a retired teacher and chaplain living in Wisconsin. She has a blog called The Daily Round, and on the 16th March 2020 she published an article there called In The Time Of Pandemic, consisting of the prose-poem which has gone viral (albeit in more than one form) and beginning “And the people stayed home…” – the first line seems to have become the de facto title as the piece has spread across the Internet. It evidently struck a chord. Apart from the many (mostly admiring) comments at the bottom of the article, further articles on her blog demonstrate how many people were inspired to perform it or collaborate in other ways.

But that isn’t when or where I first met it. So I also missed the claim by Italian journalist Irene Vella that O’Meara’s piece was a translation of her own poem. To which I can only say that I don’t see much similarity between the two pieces as shown here with what appears to be Vella’s own translation, certainly nowhere near enough to suggest plagiarism.

Like many others, I first encountered O’Meara’s poem on Facebook, but attributed to a 19th century writer called Kathleen O’Mara, complete with a backstory claiming that the original verse had been written in 1869, reprinted in 1919 at the time of the Spanish Flu epidemic, and even included a photograph of two ladies wearing suitably archaic clothes and facemasks. Well, I liked the poem, but wondered about a couple of things. While I don’t have the same grounding in literary analysis that Robert S. Becker apparently has, it did seem a little modern in concept, form and expression for 1869. Almost as if it had been written during the current crisis… Besides, over the years I’ve seen so many falsely attributed quotations (like the recent crop of plague-related ‘quotations’ from Samuel Pepys) – not to mention out-and-out hoaxes (like the malware hoaxes of yesteryear) and urban legends – that I tend not to take such things at face value. After all, while I’m now pretty much retired from malware/security research, I spent well over 30 years of my working life in that area: old habits die hard, and my natural curiosity and scepticism haven’t left me just yet. Besides, if I was citing a reprinted poem, I would at least say where it was reprinted: that sort of vagueness is characteristic of so many out-and-out hoaxes, that I really had to check it out.

A little digging turned up a nineteenth century writer called Kathleen O’Meara who was certainly writing by 1869, though she’s not known as a poet. Actually, I found several other more contemporary people with similar names, but I also found the Oprah Magazine article (and one or two others) that made it clear where the article really came from. And someone has already altered the  Kathleen O’Meara Wikipedia page to make it clear that it wasn’t her poem. While writing this article, I also came across the article by Robert S. Becker Travesty averted: An uplifting poem for the pandemic  already cited. While we seem to have taken much the same route, his thoughts are certainly worth reading. There is also a follow-up piece by Kitty O’Meara called In the Time of Pandemic, Part II which retains the essential optimism of the first piece while taking into account the presumed reluctance of the oligarchs to let the earth or mankind heal. I like it, but I must confess that I incline more to Sara Teasdale’s vision of a world where humanity has fought and plundered itself to extinction, though I fear we will take most of the birds and trees with us.

Much as I like Kitty O’Meara’s pieces (and I’ll probably do some further exploring on her blog), I suppose what really fascinates me is this: how (and why) did Kathleen O’Meara and Kitty O’Meara become so entangled in the hivemind?  Yes, the names are close enough for potential confusion, I suppose, and there are plenty of cases where there probably is genuine confusion. (For instance, when that old saying about ‘singing in the lifeboats’ is credited to Voltaire.) But then someone went to the trouble of inventing a provenance for the poem based on a false assumption.

  • Is artificially ageing the poem supposed to give it authority?
  • Does it derive from some genuine but misleading source that I failed to find?
  • Or is it just the old hoaxer thing of someone feeling superior because they’ve managed to convince others of something that is less than true?

I suppose the theory of ‘spurious authority’ would at least account for the number of people who have put up fake quotations from (e.g.) Samuel Pepys. Though Pepys actually did make quite a few observations that are very relevant to our present situation (thank  you, Nora Lucke for pointing them out!)

“…this disease making us more cruel to one another than if we are doggs.”

“But, Lord! how every body’s looks, and discourse in the street is of death, and nothing else, and few people going up and down, that the towne is like a place distressed and forsaken.”

“Lord! to consider the madness of the people of the town, who will (because they are forbid) come in crowds…”

Maybe we’re not so far removed from those long gone plagues and pandemics after all…

David Harley

Author: David Harley

Independent antimalware/security researcher/author/editor; musician/singer/songwriter

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