Limerick bringing the funny five-line format home

Limerick City’s poetry competition wants to bring the funny five-line format home. Must it be vulgar? asks Jonathan deBurca Butler

AS part of next week’s Tailteann Nua Festival, the University of Limerick is holding a poetry competition highlighting the city’s most famous literary export, the five-line ‘limerick’ poem.

The ‘Bring your Limerick to Limerick’ competition is bringing the five-line format poem back to its (alleged) place of origin. This is in association with The Limerick Writers’ Centre, who run all-Ireland ‘limerick’ competitions. The organiser, Lisa Gibbons, says that this year’s festival has an international flavour.

“We’ve had people from 17 different countries enter,” Gibbons says.

“We got one in this morning from Switzerland. They’re really random countries; we have one from Trinidad and Tobago. It’s great that it’s so far-reaching.”

The global appeal of the competition might present logistical difficulties. The closing date for entries is Jul 30 and the 40 finalists will be asked to come to the city to perform.

The 40 finalists will do so in front of three judges: Dr Eoin Devereux and Dr Michael Griffin, from the language and cultural department in the University of Limerick, and poet John Liddy.

The judges will be looking for what Gibbons calls a pun and a very strict rhyming scheme, “where the first and second line rhyme, the third and fourth rhyme and the last rhymes with the first and second”.

Marks will be given out of ten.

Come Saturday, one lucky writer will be crowned World Champion ‘Limerick’ Poet and will be handed a cheque for €1,000; that works out as €200 per line — not a bad day’s work.

To coincide with the competition, The Limerick’ Writers’ Centre commissioned local historian, Matthew Potter, to write a history of the ‘limerick’ and its association with the area.

“What was surprising about this book was that there wasn’t anything on the subject actually published in Limerick before,” says Potter.

“There was a dearth of information on the ‘limerick’ from other sources. But, for instance, when tourists came to town, they would often inquire in book shops and tourist sites about its origin and there was nothing there. So this book has kind of filled that void.”

Actually pinning down the true origin of the ‘limerick’ is rather difficult. As Potter says, there are four or five plausible theories.

“The most straightforward theory is that the Maigue Poets of Croom invented the form in the 18th century,” he says.

“But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. Another, more likely explanation is that later, in the late 19th century, WB Yeats and others, claimed or reclaimed the form from Edward Lear, and other English exponents of the form, and claimed it for the Maigue Poets and then added the name.

“Another theory has it that it’s connected to the Irish brigade who went to France in the wake of the Treaty of Limerick, but it’s hard to pin down.”

Although the Maigue poets may have been involved in naming or perfecting the form, they did not invent it.

According to Potter, the structure of the ‘limerick’ has been popular since the 13th century.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is the only poetic form to originate in the English language.

The ‘limerick’ is, of course, no stranger to controversy. Often, it is seen as the party piece of the sailor or the dirty old man; a sort of medieval version of a 1960s Carry On film.

“There’s a sort of division of opinion on whether the true ‘limerick’ is bawdy and vulgar or whether it can be clean,” says Potter. “Some scholars claim that it’s not a proper ‘limerick’ unless it’s filthy, while others claim it can be both. In fact, there’s a ‘limerick’ that actually talks about that.”

“The ‘limerick’ can be furtive and mean, You must keep her in close quarantine, Or she sneaks to the slums, And promptly becomes, Disorderly, drunk and obscene” Whether dirty or clean, the ‘limerick’ is one of the most recognisable rhythms in English.

Starting this weekend, Potter and his colleagues hope to bind both ‘limericks’, the dirty and the clean, together in the minds of tourists and those interested in literature.

“We want to create an awareness of the connection between the place and the poem, so that Limerick can establish itself internationally as one of the few places that gave its name to a literary form,” says Potter. “Think Shakespeare and Stratford, Joyce and Dublin, Burns and Scotland. Now, think Limerick and the ‘limerick’.”



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