“There once was a man from Nantucket…”
You’ve probably heard this one, but how do the rest of the lines go? And what rhymes with “Nantucket,” besides “bucket”? If you’re of a certain disposition, you can probably think of a few colorful options. The line was first published in 1902 and has become a famous starter for American limerick poems.
The limerick takes a fairly structured form: five lines, with an AABBA rhyme scheme. The first, second, and fifth lines have three “feet” of three syllables each, while the third and fourth have two three-syllable feet. The lines are generally anapestic—an anapest being two short syllables followed by a long one. As a rule, limericks are unserious, nonsense verses, and the funniest are a little irreverant or downright crude. The best-known limerick is probably this one from Mother Goose:
Hickory, dickory, dock.The mouse ran up the clock.The clock struck one,The mouse ran down,Hickory, dickory, dock.
But how and where did the form originate? And how did it get its name?
Theories to answer these questions abound, and the majority of them have their roots in Ireland. Possibilities for the limerick’s name include a 19th-century parlor game in which participants spouted on-the-spot poetic verse, ending their compositions with the refrain, “Will you come up to Limerick?” and the Irish word leamairic or leabharaic, which means “trickster,” or “rhymer.” However, the likeliest theory does come from County Limerick itself, specifically Croom, a small village roughly ten miles south of Limerick City. Here, the 18th-century Maigue Poets (a group of teachers, priests, and literary-minded folks, named for the river on which Croom sits) had their gatherings in local inns, at which members were invited to recite or sing their verses. Of course, these poems were composed and recited largely in Irish, and often transmitted around the community or from generation to generation orally. English translations of their work did not begin to appear until the late 19th century.
Some mistakenly attribute the form to English poet Edward Lear, who certainly did popularize it. Lear’s Book of Nonsense (1846) features 112 limericks, and their structure sets the tone for what we now consider the traditional limerick composition. The first line introduces a person and a place (examples: an Old Man of Kilkenny, a Young Lady of Turkey, etc.), and often the place is named as the final word of the first line, thus introducing the rhyme scheme. Many earlier limericks repeated or rephrased the first line as the final line, as is the case in many of Lear’s poems. It is theorized that at the height of the Irish literary revival of the 1880s and 1890s, W.B. Yeats and George Sigerson began referring to the five-line poems as “limericks” to reclaim the verses from Lear and reattribute them to the Maigue Poets.
Gershon Legman, an American folklorist and critic who compiled a massive volume of over 1,700 limericks, lambasted the clean limerick, calling it a “periodic fad and object of magazine contests, rarely rising above mediocrity.” Whether or not all chaste limericks are mediocre, it remains true that the bawdiest are certainly the most memorable, and many famous writers, including Ogden Nash and Isaac Asimov, penned some of the brief, naughty verses.
Writer David Smith recounts a local Croom limerick at Smithsonian Magazine:
A sporting young lady of Croom,Led life to the full, I’ll assume.A poet by day,And by night a good lay,Thus from bed to a verse, to her doom.
Ribaldry has been an integral part of Irish humor since the pre-Christian era; it features heavily in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, an early Irish epic prose tale. The Táin, as it is commonly called, is the primary text in the Ulster cycle, a pre-Christian group of stories recounting the exploits of the mythological hero Cu Chulainn. The extant manuscripts of the Táin are written primarily in Old and Middle Irish and date back to the 12th century. Various prologues or pre-tales have worked their way into modern translations of the text, but the plot’s action generally begins with Medbh, the queen of Connacht, in bed with her husband, Aillil, comparing their respective wealth. Finding their fortunes to be equal, except for an exceptionally virile bull in Aillil’s stables, Medbh vows to steal Donn Cuailnge, a similarly fertile bull, ensuring her wealth equals her husband’s. Many Victorian translations prudishly ignore the text’s references to sex and bodily functions, and it was not until 1969, when poet Thomas Kinsella published his translation, that an English version of the text was available that accurately conveyed the tale’s sexuality and gruesome, often supernatural violence.
Unlike the Táin, the limerick’s brevity and its perceived low value make it instantly as accessible as it is easy to memorize (that anapestic rhythm is the ultimate earworm). They are similar to Irish bulls, humorously illogical statements for which the absurdity is often lost on the speaker. (Pretty much any famous Yogi Berra quote is a great example of a bull, like this one: “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t come to yours.”) Irish bulls, particularly, are categorized by vivid metaphors and often, a performed ignorance of the English that, on closer inspection, indicates a deep, quick-witted command of that language. (Writer Dominic Sandbrook recalls a Belfast taxi driver at the height of the Troubles exclaiming, “There’ll be people dying in this town who’ve never f—ing died before.”)
Bulls, limericks, and other undervalued bits of humor—particularly about taboo subjects like sex and death—are a welcome counter-argument to anyone who says Ireland and the Irish are ruled by the stoicism of the Catholic Church. And it should be no surprise that one of the purest and most concise forms of joke verse in the English language should arise from Ireland’s love of poetry, gab, and double entendre.
Do you have a favorite limerick? Share it with us in the comments below or write your own!