Limerick, Copperheads, nonsense, etc.

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Sun Jan 25 15:02:57 UTC 2009

The attestations of "come to Limerick" during the US Civil War, meaning
surrender and the like, are predominantly, if not exclusively, from the
Northern side.

One of the earliest books, if not the earliest book, of 5-line nonsense rhymes
to be published in the US (in 1863, reprinted in 1864ff) is Ye Book of
Copperheads (Philadelphia: Frederick Leypoldt, 1863 [available on Sabin
Americana]), which also supports the Northern cause, against Copperheads. The
name Limerick does not appear in this book.

Following the US Civil War, with its references to the Irish Civil War
conclusion in 1691, some uses of "come to Limerick" are used in jocular or
nonsense settings. E.g. :

1872 I tole her the time had come to stop foolishness, an' she mus' come to
Limerick an' be mine.
Macon GA Weekly Telegraph 8-2   322

1896 he's been keeping company with her for goin' on three years, an' I guess at
last she made up her mind to bring him to Limerick [or throw him out the window]
Philadelphia Inquirer 9-27 v135 no 89 p32

1907 [a couple locked up in a room] If after a month they had not come to
Limerick they got the writ [of divorce]
Lexington KY Herald 7-28

The 1898 Notes & Queries entries by M.H. and J. H. Murray have been questioned.
Belknap even entertained the possibility that the contributions were a "put-on"
to get publicity for the Cantab periodical, but then he dropped the proposal.
Belknap and Baring-Gould and Liberman all apparently agree that J. H. Murray is
not J. A. H. Murray. J. H. Murray elsewhere in N.& Q. had non-lexicographical
contributions and gave 100, Lothian Road, Edinburgh as his address.

I sensed an internal contradiction, or at least a tension in J. H. Murray's 1898
text, even before reading Belknap, who goes further with doubts than I think
necessary, though the chorus is so far unattested (Jonathan Lighter brought
this up in the archives previously). J. H. Murray claims there was a singing
game with these verses and a chorus inviting to come to Limerick, but then he
somehow fancies that the name Limerick might have been given to the verses by a
"scurrilous London weekly." My tentative guess is that he got the "come to
Limerick" link with the verses right, but may have less reliable testimony in
some other aspects of his story. Besides the Irish name Limerick, there is
little reason now to think Limerick stanzas were an Irish invention. The name
may have gone from Ireland to the US to the UK.

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society -

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