24 January 2018

Paying on the Nail for
centuries in Limerick

The Nail, once used for payments in Limerick Exchange, is now in the museum (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

One of the curious exhibits in Limerick Civic Museum is the Nail, which was once located in the Exchange in Nicholas Street, beside Saint Mary’s Cathedral.

This Nail, made of limestone and covered with copper, was set up by Robert Smith, the Mayor of Limerick, in 1685, to facilitate the exchange of money between trading parties.

Robert Smith is said to have engraved his name on the Nail with his own hand. The phrase ‘Paying on the Nail,’ meaning immediate payment, is said to be based on Nails such as this. But the Nail is not unique to Limerick.

The nails were common throughout Ireland and England, and these bronze pillars, can also be seen outside the Corn Exchange in Bristol and the Stock Exchange in Liverpool. The nails In Bristol were erected in Bristol from in a period from 1550 to 1631.

But the phrase is almost 100 years older than the Nail in Limerick, if not older. The expression is first recorded in English in 1596 in Thomas Nashe’s play Have with you to Saffron Walden ‘Tell me, have you a mind to anything in the doctor’s book! Speak the word, and I will help you to it upon the nail.’

In Philip Massinger’s comic play The City-Madame (1632), staged more than half a century before the Nail was set up in Limerick, one character welcomes the arrival of a ship that has given his master considerable profit, and makes the association with timeliness clear: ‘And it comes timely; For, besides a payment on the nail for a manor late purchased by my master, his young daughters are ripe for marriage.’

The Nail in Limerick was described by the blind Irish playwright John O’Keeffe in his Recollections (1826): ‘In the centre of Limerick Exchange is a pillar with a circular plate of copper about three feet in diameter, called The Nail, on which the earnest of all stock-exchange bargains has to be paid.’

Limerick merchants issued their own tokens in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and the private banks in Limerick issued their own banknotes into the 19th century.

But the Nail in Limerick fell into disuse when the Exchange was closed after a new town hall opened in Rutland Street in 1846, and the nail was then moved to the Town Hall.

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