Have you ever wondered how limericks, those short, five-line rhyming ditties were named after one of Ireland’s counties?
I recently completed a post taking readers on a photographic tour of County Limerick, and as I was creating this piece I started wondering about the origins of these infamous little “Irish” poems.
Are they really Irish? And how did the name limerick come to describe these comical verses?
These questions were spinning around in my head as I wrote about County Limerick, so I thought it was a perfect time to explore the history and development of the limerick, Ireland’s most popular form of poetry.
At the end of this post, I’ve also included a free resource for parents, grandparents or teachers who would like to inspire their kids to turn a hand to writing their own limericks. Or if you’ve no kids to encourage to write, perhaps you would simply like to write a few limericks yourself. Download away, if that’s the case.
But before we take to writing our own limericks, let’s first learn a bit about the history of this poetry form…..
What Is A Limerick?
A Limerick is a short, five-line verse that follows a strict rhythm and rhyming pattern. The first, second and fifth lines rhyme with each other and have three phrases of three syllables each.
The third and fourth lines also rhyme with each other, but are shorter, having two phrases of three syllables.
In traditional format the first line introduces a person and/or a place. The main character’s name or the place name in question usually appears at the very end of the first line, establishing the rhyme for the second and fifth lines.
Early limericks usually utilized repetition of the first line as the fifth line, but overtime greater emphasis has been placed on a unique, punch-line packing finale for these little ditties.
Who Made Limericks Famous?
Edward Lear was an English artist, illustrator, writer and poet of the 19th century. In 1846 he published his Book of Nonsense, a compilation of short limerick poems. Here is one example of his witty verses …
“There was a Young Lady whose bonnet,
Came untied when the birds sat upon it;
But she said: ‘I don’t care!
All the birds in the air
Are welcome to sit on my bonnet!'”
~ Edward Lear 1846
The limerick was popularized through Lear’s book and Victorian England adopted the format, creating their own little ditties for entertainment. Here’s another example of Lear’s work…
There was an Old Man of Kilkenny,
Who never had more than a penny;
He spent all that money,
In onions and honey,
That wayward Old Man of Kilkenny.
~ Edward Lear 1846
Although Lear spread the word about limericks far and wide, he was not the original creator of this art form. As the name suggests the first writers of these ditties were Irish.
Who Wrote The First Limericks?
The Maigue poets hailed from County Limerick and they are attributed with creating the very first limericks.
The river Maigue flows near the town of Croom, home to Seán O Tuama, a local publican and poet. His good friend and customer was Aindrias Mac Craith, another member of the Maigue poets.
Now Seán wrote a little poem one evening about himself as an inn-keeper.
“I sell the best brandy and sherry
To make my good customers merry.
But at times their finances,
Run short, as it chances,
And then I feel very sad, very.”
~Seán O Tuama, 18th century Irish poet
Now, Seán’s good friend Aindrias took exception to this poem, assuming it was directed at him and his growing tab at the alehouse.
And so, like any good poet, he picked up his quill, and penned the following retort…
“O Tuomy! You boast yourself handy
At selling good ale and bright brandy.
But the fact is your liquor,
Makes everyone sicker,
I tell you that, I, your friend Andy.”
“Both your poems and pints by favour,
Are alike wholly wanting in flavour:
Because it’s your pleasure
You give us short measure,
And your ale has a ditch water flavour.”
~ Aindrias Mac Craith, 18th century Irish poet.
We don’t know how long this Irish grudge lasted between the two men, but when he died in 1775, Seán was keenly mourned by Aindrias.
And that’s how limericks were born, out of a grudge over alehouse debts, which I suppose makes them truly Irish.
You can read all about the Poets of the Maigue, in this book by Mannix Joyce. Thanks to Limerick library for making it available online.
Keeping Limericks Clean:
Now many a limerick has been written since the Maigue poets first wrote their friendly or not so friendly jibes.
However, over the years many, many limericks have been written that don’t meet editorial standards for this little corner of the world wide web. Here we strive to keep the written word wholesome, and there’s many a limerick that’s far from wholesome.
This little limerick sums up the humorous side of these little ditties …
“The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I’ve seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.”
~ Leonard Feinberg, The Secret of Humor, 1978.
Here’s a good one displaying the humor and skill of good limerick writing …
“There once was an old man of Lyme
Who married three wives at a time.
When asked, “Why a third?”
He replied, “One’s absurd!
And bigamy, sir, is a crime.”
~ William Cosmo Monkhouse (1840 – 1901)
And that’s all I’m going to say about the ribald humor that finds expression through this Irish verse form.
Famous Limericks Over The Years:
Here’s one of the most famous limerick’s in the world ….
“There once was a man from Nantucket,
Who kept all his cash in a bucket,
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man,
And as for the bucket, Nantookit”
~ Old American Limerick
Here’s one you may not realize is based on the limerick, but it’s one of the most famous English nursery rhymes.
“Hickory dickory dock.
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
And down he run.
Hickory dickory dock.”
~ Andrew Lang, The Nursery Rhyme Book, 1897
The number of syllables in each line is a little shorter than usual, but the AABBA rhyming pattern is based on a limerick.
And so you see, the limerick truly is a versatile little verse format.
Write Your Own Limericks:
And so, why not take a hand to composing your own little limericks.
I remember getting limerick writing homework as a child. I dare say the nuns got quite a chuckle from some of our Dublin poetry back in the day.
Here’s my recent attempt at a limerick to describe my blogging endeavors…
“There was an old dame in Kentucky
Who at writing was quite a rookie,
She dreamed up a blog
While out for a jog
And now she is ever so lucky.”
Now I’m not known for my jogging abilities, but I desperately needed a rhyme for blog, so I adhered to the old Irish words of wisdom…. never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Here’s another recent composition …
“There was an old man called McCarney
Who was born in the small town of Blarney
He never stopped talking
Even when he was walking
How we wish he was born in Killarney.”
We could get carried away writing limericks.
However, I believe it is a great way to introduce kids to poetry, rhyming and rhythm, and many teachers utilize limericks in the classroom to this very day.
Free Limerick Writing Printables To Download:
For anyone who would like a lesson plan about limericks I created a free printable for downloading.
It includes some Irish themed framed templates for any hopeful limerick writers to record their poetry. The complete packet is downloadable, but each framed template can be printed separately for any teacher who may wish to distribute them in the classroom.
Feel free to share this link with friends, family and any teachers or homeschooling parents who may find them helpful.
Happy limerick writing to all!
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)