Cork plundered two late match-winning goals at the Gaelic Grounds but they looked a shell of the side that contested last year’s All-Ireland final.
Limerick took the game to them, with Ian Ryan particularly impressive. Having been 0-06 to 0-05 behind at half-time, the Shannonsiders strode into a 0-12 to 0-09.
The hosts showed plenty of grit, having had Seanie Buckley dismissed. And Cork also had Donnacha O'Connor sent-off before their revival.
But just when the Rebels looked beaten, Daniel Goulding and Graham Canty both pounced on defensive errors to score those crucial goals.
Losing to Cork for the third successive year, this was another day of heartbreak for Mickey Ned O'Sullivan's men in the Munster championship.
In front by three points with less than two minutes remaining, a double mistake by Limerick goalkeeper allowed Goulding and full-back Canty find the net to give Cork a flattering victory.
This was a thrilling encounter with both sides losing a man for second bookable offences in the second half - indeed Buckley was red just six minutes after the restart.
Cork full-forward O'Connor was sent to the line after 57 minutes in a game which saw 12 yellow cards brandished, seven to Cork.
Limerick made the brighter start and led by 0-03 to 0-01 after 13 minutes with Michael Crowley scoring two points and John Cooke the other, while Cork's opening point came from the industrious Pearse O'Neill.
John Hayes and Ian Ryan exchanged points and the sides were level at 0-04 each after 24 minutes. They were squared up again at 0-05 apiece before a point from Hayes gave Cork their half-time advantage.
Both sides hit four wides during the opening period with Cork, who lined out with seven survivors from last year's All-Ireland final, missing a couple of early chances.
A fisted point from Nicholas Murphy could easily have been turned into a goal, while Limerick also missed out on a major when Shannon rugby star Stephen Kelly raced through and blazed wide of Alan Quirke's goal.
Hayes was arguably Cork's best player in the first half; he finished it with three points and was proving hard to handle for his marker Diarmuid Carroll.
When Murphy notched the opening point for Cork on the resumption, it looked a little ominous for Limerick.
They pulled a point back through Crowley but then came the dismissal of Buckley.
The experienced Canty was chosen to be the roaming player for Cork but it was Limerick who reacted best to the dismissal and man-of-the-match John Galvin put over a point to tie the game.
A Crowley point saw Limerick nip ahead again and it was a full 14 minutes before Cork had their first score of the half - a well-taken effort by Goulding.
Donnacha O'Connor had Cork back in front but then followed a spell of total dominance for Limerick with Ian Ryan chipping over two points in between missing an easy free from close range.
A superb point by Kelly had Limerick 0-12 to 0-09 ahead and on the brink of a shock win.
However, those two goalkeeping errors by Kiely, who had earler made a marvellous save to deny Goulding, paved the way for the late goals that dashed Limerick's hopes of a first Munster final appearance since 2004.
On both occasions, the goalkeeper went high to gather the dropping ball but each time he was unable to retain possession.
Goulding celebrated his own goal as it tied up the game again. And he did likewise when the other goal was scored; admitting afterwards that it was Canty and not Hayes who got the crucial touch.
Yet the individual stars were on the Limerick team with Galvin and Ian Ryan certainly not meriting being on the losing side.
Considering that it was their first championship outing, Cork will be more than happy to have got away with the win.
Murphy and Hayes were their top players but they will have to show vast improvement to beat Kerry in the Munster decider on July 6.
LIMERICK: S Kiely; D Carroll, J McCarthy, S Gallagher; P Browne, S Lavin, P Ranahan; J O'Donovan, J Galvin (0-01); S Kelly (0-01), J Cooke (0-01), S Buckley; M Crowley (0-04, 0-01f), K O'Callaghan, I Ryan (0-05, 0-02f).
Subs used: S Walsh for Carroll (half-time), D Phelan for O'Donovan (39 mins), J Ryan for Cooke (43), E Keating for O'Callaghan (57).
CORK: A Quirke; D Duggan, G Canty (1-00), B O'Regan; N O'Leary, G Spillane, P Kissane; N Murphy (0-02), A O'Connor; P O'Neill (0-01), F Goold, S O'Brien; D Goulding (1-01), D O'Connor (0-02, 0-02f), J Hayes (0-03).
Subs used: K O'Connor for Kissane (inj) (41 mins), J Masters for A O'Connor (inj) (52), C McCarthy for Goold (61), P Kelly for O'Brien (63), M Cussen for Goulding (70+3).
Referee: Gearoid O'Conamha (Galway)