Historical events often figure in Irish limericks. Joyce told me about an outspoken Irish archbishop in Melbourne, Australia, who went around championing the Irish fight for freedom. “When the English learned he was coming this way,” Joyce said, “they feared he would stir up trouble. So the British Navy was dispatched to capture him on the high seas and take him to England. In the end, his capture proved a fiasco, largely because of the archbishop’s unflappable nature.” Joyce recited poet Beda Herbert’s 1971 limerick:
There was a high cleric named Mannix,
Monumentally cool amid panics;
A fleet he could fool,
He played it so cool—
An iceberg among the Titanics.
It is widely (and probably incorrectly) thought that Edward Lear invented the limerick. He certainly made it popular. The Oxford English Dictionary first defined the word limerick in 1892, four years after Lear’s death. But as O. E. Parrott makes clear in the opening pages of The Penguin Bookof Limericks:
The limerick’s birth is unclear:
Its genesis owed much to Lear.
It started as clean,
But soon went obscene.
And this split haunts its later career.
To underscore this point, de Creag thereupon rolled out a local limerick. In the timeworn tradition of limerick recitation, he said, it had been “told to him by someone”:
A sporting young lady of Croom,
Led life to the full, I’d assume.
A poet by day,
And by night a good lay,
Thus from bed to a verse, to her doom.
“He’s being modest,” said Joyce, smiling broadly. “I happen to know that my friend here sent that limerick to Norway where it was a great success. It was translated and published in Norwegian before returning to Ireland. We’re talking about an international poetic medium, you see.”
The five-line verse probably originated from the limerickmakers of Croom, known as the Maigue poets, who flourished in the 18th century. They were schoolteachers, priests and self-styled persons of letters, living within 20 miles of this southwestern Irish village. Their gatherings at inns and taverns were called poets courts, to which new members were invited by “warrants” to drink, recite, and often sing, their verses.
Their revels were a latter-day form of the ancient Irish bardic schools, conducted in Greek, Latin and Gaelic. Aware of official efforts to supplant Gaelic with the English language, the Maigue poets were protective of their native tongue, one reason that their poetry was little known until the middle of the 19th century, when English translations began to appear.
The Maigue poets apparently possessed prodigious memories, passing limericks and other poetry from one generation to the next orally, an ability that seems to live among Irish village poets to this day. “I once interviewed an elderly lady,” Joyce said, “who could create excellent poetic descriptions of small towns from a few details people would give her. She didn’t write them but spoke spontaneously. More than a year later—she was now well past 80—I visited her with a printed copy of the long poem she had first spoken to me. I offered to prompt her, but she would have none of that. ‘Oh no,’ she told me. ‘I remember it entirely.’ And she did. It was letter-perfect.”