This is a St. Patrick's Day guest post by Stephen Goranson.
The five-line nonsense verses with AABBA rhymes existed long before they were called Limericks, it's generally agreed, but why they got that name lacks consensus.
Let's start with an example:
There was a young rustic named Mallory
Who drew but a very small salary.
He went to the show,
But his purse was so
That he sat in the uppermost gallery.
Tune: wont you come [up] to Limerick
Though this verse may not be the cleverest Limerick ever, it is, nonetheless, notable. First, it appeared, with some variations, in several publications in 1880, thus antedating the association of the name and the genre as given in OED by several years. Second, it appeared in North American publications (in the U.S. and Canada) only, as far as I can tell, rather than in England or in Ireland.
Might the English verse form have gotten its Irish name in America? Maybe, maybe not, but consider the entry on Limerick in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (Jonathan Lighter, editor). "Come to Limerick"–only in American slang–used to mean, more or less, to settle, to come to terms. Members of the American Dialect Society discussion list added to the three examples given in the Dictionary. They range in date from 1859 to about the end of the century. The first uses mostly relate to the looming and then raging U.S. Civil War; they later referred to more diverse put-up-or-shut-up situations. (More details to come in the comments, if interested.) There were many "Limericks" published then in America. I suggest the reference was to the end of the earlier Irish Civil War that was partly concluded with the Treaty of Limerick.
The OED quotes J. H. Murray–not to be confused with J. A. H. Murray, the OED editor (proof available on request)–in 1898 writing in Notes & Queries that Limericks were offered at convivial parties with the "come [up] to Limerick" chorus sung as a challenge for a new verse: in effect, offer another new one or surrender.
Admittedly, the above does not prove an American origin of the name. But here's another hint that the name did not refer to poets literally and literarily from Limerick, having left, as the Treaty allowed, in the Jacobite "Flight of the Wild Geese" to France. In 1881 the Church of England Bishop of Limerick, who was also a poet (and relative of author Robert Graves), received an honorary degree from Oxford. This is recounted by his son, also named Charles Graves, in "The Cult of the Limerick," Cornhill Magazine, Feb 1918, 158-66 (here 158):
"…he [the Bishop, in June, 1881] was greeted in the Sheldonian by cries of "Won't you come up, come up, Won't you come up to Limerick town?"–which we believe to be the correct form of the refrain. But the reason for the connection of the City of the Violated Treaty with this particular form of pasquinade remains, as Stevenson said of the young penny-whistler, 'occult from observation.'"
(myl) Above is a guest post by Stephen Goranson, who sent it yesterday — the fact that it didn't appear in time for St. Patrick's day is my fault.
The Wikipedia entry on Limericks quotes the following passage from the 9/17/1717 entry in the diary of the Rev. John Thomlinson, published in 1910 by the Surtees Society, as evidence for the early-18th-century origins of the verse form:
1717. Sept. 17th. One Dr. Bainbridge went from Cambridge to Oxon to be astronomy professor, and reading a lecture happened to say de Polis et Axis, instead of Axibus. Upon which one said,
Dr. Bainbridge was sent from Cambridge, — to read lectures de Polis et Axis; but lett them that brought him hither, return him thither, and teach him his rules of syntaxis.
The editors' footnote
indicates that the astronomer in question became Savilian Professor of Astronomy in 1619. So unless memories for inflectional infelicities at Oxford are very long indeed, the satirical verse about Dr. Bainbridge must have been composed early in the 17th century. The fact that Thomlinson could note this in his diary in 1717 — and that Wikipedia could reference it in 2017 — tells us that memories for satirical verses about inflectional infelicities are indeed very long. Soloecismus brevis, ars longa.
Ironically, if the cited verse is indeed meant to be in the anapestic form that came later to be known as a Limerick, then whoever wrote it needs some remediation in his rules of prosody and rhyme.
Also, a quick peek at Google Books reveals that one of the variants of the "young rustic named Mallory" verse was published in Grip, 12/11/1880, attributed to The New York News.