No-one knows for certain how the name of an Irish Mid-Western city came to be associated with the short, irreverent, often bawdy verses of the limerick.
Some people believe that it came from the school of poets who lived in Croom, Co. Limerick in the nineteenth century; their specialisation was short satiric verses. The genre became a fixture in Victorian times, due in no small part to the author of nonsense verse, Edward Lear.
In the history of Irish literature the town of Croom, in Co. Limerick, is celebrated as the meeting place of the 18th century Fili na Maighe, the Gaelic poets of the Maigue. This was the original birth place of ‘the Limerick’. The Maigue poets, writing in their native Irish, produced a great body of poetry, and the custom was widely adopted in other locations in Limerick City and County. Soon the neighbouring Counties of Cork, Clare and Tipperary began to pen the satirical verse.
Two anthologies on the subject, published this century, list 42 poets and Irish scholars (part-time poets) of County Limerick who were known to have composed Limericks. The themes of these early works included love-poems, drinking songs, poems on national affairs, and satires on public figures.
Two of the first, and most famous, exponents of the Limerick poem were poet and publican Sean O’ Tuama (1706-’75), and his friend Andrias MacCriath (1710-’93). O’ Tuama and MacCraith grew up together in Kilmallock, Co. Limerick and were educated in one of the many hedge schools of the time, with a traditional education incorporating Latin and Greek studies.
O’ Tuama later became a publican and word of his hospitality grew, as did the popularity of the Limerick. Poets in North Cork, Clare and Tipperary began to pen the verses. O’ Tuama and his friend fell out and as a result scathing Limerick verses were written by them to castigate the other. O’ Tuama wrote:
"I sell the best Brandy and Sherry
To make all my customers merry,
But at times their finances
Run short as it chances,
And then I feel very sad, very".
To which MacCraith replied……..
"O’Tuama! You boast yourself handy,
At selling good ale and bright Brandy
But the fact is your liquor
Makes everyone sicker,
I tell you this I your good friend, Andy".