In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson discusses the early history of the submarine. According to Larson, the submarine was regarded as an "iron coffin" until the work of John Philip Holland, an Irish engineer.

Larson says (page 57): "A famous 1898 cartoon, based on a photograph....shows Holland emerging in top hat [actually it may have been a derby] from the hatch of one of his submarines with the caption "What, me worry?" For the photograph on which the cartoon may have been based, see Wikipedia, John Philip Holland

I have not been able to find the cartoon; nor have I been able to find if the phrase was in use before 1898, or if it originated in the cartoon.

(See also Richard Compton-Hall The Submarine Pioneers: The Beginnings of Underwater Warfare, Chapter Three.))

1 Answer 1


According to John E. Hett, Publisher and Editor of The Journal of MADness, they have their origins in anti-Irish racism prevalent in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century in Great Britain and the US. http://www.madmumblings.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=3592

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    Having read the excellent link you found, I would be more specific and say the phrase has its origin in a stereotype associated with anti-Irish racism. Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 14:01
  • I do agree with you and thank you for the correction, for the sake of splitting hairs, most racism is based in stereotypes. Is it not?
    – Rob BB3
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 16:56
  • I was wondering whether I was splitting hairs when i made the comment. Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 19:48
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    According to "Dead Wake", Holland emigrated to America and began designing undersea vessels with the goal of helping Ireland defeat the British navy." (How Ireland was going to take on the British navy was not explained.) Holland was highly regarded for his engineering innovations at the time of the photo and cartoon, so if "What, me worry" originally was anti-Irish, the use of it in the cartoon must have been ironic.
    – ab2
    Commented Nov 26, 2015 at 21:06
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    The link times out for me (can you post a webarchive link as a backup?), but anyway John Philip Holland built the first US Navy submarine. Prior to that, his research in the 1770s was funded by the Fenians (Irish republican organization). As such it would have been Irish republicans, not Ireland itself, taking on the British navy. But that's pretty far-fetched.
    – smci
    Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 23:01

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