How a Proud Utah Son Won a Limerick-Writing Contest in Ireland

How a Proud Utah Son Won a Limerick-Writing Contest in Ireland

by Michael Patrick O’Brien, author of Monastery MorningsMy Unusual Boyhood Among the Saints and Monks

There is a statue of James Joyce in Dublin, Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize, and Frank McCourt got the Pulitzer. None of those great Irish writers, however, won a tour group bus limerick contest on the Emerald Isle.

No, it was this Irish-American from Utah who captured that particular literary distinction. Although I have always enjoyed writing prose, Ireland’s whitewashed cottages, thousand shades of green, and Guinness-on-tap brought out the poet in me. says I am 97% Irish, and our children are named Erin Kathleen, Megan Mary, and Daniel Patrick. Thus, we were in Ireland to see the auld sod, but also to visit good friends from Omagh, in Northern Ireland, whom we met through the Utah Ulster Project, an international peace project.

Our bus tour circled the lower half of the ancient island, starting in Dublin and winding its way through Glendalough, Waterford, Cork, Blarney, Killarney and Limerick before we headed north on our own in an old beat-up rental car.

During the trip, the guide announced the contest, with an undefined prize for the best original limerick describing the tour, and with the rule we could not use words that rhymed with “Nantucket.” My wife Vicki rolled her eyes and gave our three children that look that says, without words, “Watch out...your father is about to start behaving oddly.”

She was right. I embarked on an obsessive quest to discover the most poetic moment of the trip. It was not at our Dublin hotel, at the time near a pub which closed at 2 a.m., so I wrote:


“At the hotel Camden Court

your night is surprisingly short.

As the folks leave the pub

they cause such a hubbub

that your sleep it will surely abort.”


Perhaps that special moment would happen on the roadside near the ruins of St. Kevin’s monastery in Glendalough, when we met a family of wandering folk who make their living from singing songs and selling tin and metals? That bus stop led to this limerick:


“I met a young tinker today

with red hair and a donkey of gray.

He hummed me a tune

and I left far too soon

but waved fondly as I pulled away.”


Or maybe a musician (a harpist, of course) stationed at an overlook on the beautiful Ring of Kerry, by Dingle Bay, would inspire the winning entry in the contest? Thus:


“On a cliff by clear waters of Dingle

I paused with some friends just to mingle.

As a harp played a song

I sang softly along

and my feet skipped a jig to the jingle.”


The contest results remained in doubt until after we all had stood on the edges of the spectacular Cliffs of Moher and climbed the nearby O’Brien Tower lookout. Our tour guide then announced that the coveted prize went to a poem about a stop two days before at the Irish national park in Killarney.

Our family rode in a jaunting car (horse carriage) through the park, the lovely former Muckross estate, and to the old Ross castle on a lake, which we playfully explored as a light mist fell about us. A white and amber horse named “Whiskey” pulled the cart as my young son sat next to the driver. Afterwards, I wrote:

“At a place called Killarney park,

green shades shimmer, soft and dark.

Add a horse name o’ Whiskey

who trots lively and frisky

and your soul starts to soar like a lark.”

The bus cheered the contest announcement, and I collected my prize, a two inch statuette of a leprechaun playing a flute and standing next to a sheep. I proudly carried it, fittingly, to Limerick, where our weeklong bus tour ended.

We stayed there at the O’Brien ancestral castle called Dromoland, a five star hotel embellished with the family coat of arms─three gold and white lions on a red crest. Dozens of century-old paintings of dead people to whom we may be related decorated the castle walls.

I did not recognize any of them, but they seemed to know me. As I walked along the thick stone corridors bearing the portraits, I could almost hear ghostly whispers:


“He’s no Joyce, Heaney, or McCourt,

but please do not sell him too short.

He did well for all us

writing rhymes on a bus,

a fact we are proud to report.”



NOTE: This article was published in The Salt Lake Tribune on March 17, 2019


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