A crusader’s wife slipped from the garrison
And had an affair with a Saracen;
She was not over-sexed,
Or jealous, or vexed,
She just wanted to make a comparison.
In the course of a lengthy career writing science fiction stories, nonfiction and novels, Isaac Asimov published several volumes of what he called “lecherous limericks.” Some readers may remember his:
“On the beach,” said John sadly, “there’s such
A thing as revealing too much.”
So he closed both his eyes
At the ranks of bare thighs,
And felt his way through them by touch.
Among other notable writers who have delighted in the limerick are Mark Twain, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Walter de la Mare, Aldous Huxley, Conrad Aiken and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Notability is not, however, a prerequisite. The following lyric may leap to mind even if its author, Thomas Moore, remains largely unremembered:
The time I’ve lost in wooing,
In watching and pursuing,
The light that lies In women’s eyes
Has been my heart’s undoing.
Moore, an early 19th-century Irish poet who lived most of his life in London, wrote about his native land with great feeling, which brings us to the limerick’s Irish connection. It’s a reasonable assumption that any verse with this name must have emerged from Ireland’s LimerickCity. Well, nearly. As the Irish might say, “It did, and it didn’t.”
To settle the matter, I traveled to the heart of limerick-land, the tiny village of Croom (pop. 1,000), ten miles south of Limerick City. Just a few steps from a short stone bridge over the Maigue, a swift river that features prominently in the origins of the limerick, I met two local historians, Mannix Joyce and Sean de Creag. Both are former schoolteachers and county council officials. De Creag, who lived most of his life in Croom, now sells newspapers and magazines; for the past 58 years, Joyce has written a weekly column on local history for the Limerick Leader.
De Creag led us down the road and through the open door of a pub. “This is the snug where the ladies of the village would come for their toddies,” he said as we ordered glasses of the local cider. The windows of the sunny room looked out onto a farmyard with cackling chickens and a sleek dark rooster mounted on the top rail of a fence in the middle distance.
During the three-hour tutorial that followed, I became increasingly aware of the rhythmic sounds surrounding us: the chickens outside the window, the Maigue murmuring through the village, dogs barking. The cock on the fence rail, with uncanny timing, frequently punctuated the last line of an especially clever limerick with his piercing call.
Joyce arrived with a handful of scholarly materials, explaining to my dismay that few Irish people today walk around with limericks on the tips of their tongues. Even so, limericks remain deeply entrenched in Irish popular culture. In the early 20th century, limerick contests were taken so seriously that furnished homes and lifetime annuities were awarded to winners.