18 February 2017

Glimpses of Limerick’s
old Exchange in the wall of
the cathedral churchyard

The surviving ground floor arcade of Limerick City Exchange, seen on Nicholas Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Walking around Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, and the adjoining churchyard last week, I noticed a blind arcade of Tuscan arches and columns, and wondered what they were and what building had they once graced.

I followed the cathedral boundary walls and railings around Bridge Street and Nicholas Street to find all that remains of the former 17th century Limerick City Exchange. The Exchange was first built in 1673, close to Saint Mary’s Cathedral, to house the city’s covered market and council chamber. It was built at the expense of William Yorke, Mayor of Limerick, who gave it to the city corporation.

That first Exchange was demolished in 1702 and was replaced by a new larger building to allow for the development of wider streets in the city. A plaque on the cathedral wall reads:

This Exchange Was Rebuilt At Expense Of The Corporation Of Limerick The First Year Of The Reign Of Queen Anne Anno Dom 1702 William Davis Esquire Mayor Rawley Colroys Robert Wilkinson Sheriffs.

A new Exchange was built by the Limerick architect Henry Denmead (1744-1788) in 1777-1778 at a cost of £1,500. The new foundation stone was laid on 25 June 1777, and Denmead’s ‘re-edification’ was carried out in hewn stone front, with seven Tuscan columns and balustrade and a new council chamber.

The council chamber was 40 ft in length, 30 in breadth and fift15een feet high, finished in the Ionic order.

The Exchange at Limerick, by an anonymous engraver, published in ‘Picturesque Views of the Antiquities of England & Wales’ 1786 (Image: Archiseek.com)

The Limerick-based architect, James Pain (1779-1877), whose other works include Castletown Church and the former Rectory at Askeaton, was paid £432.17s 5d for repairs and alterations to the Exchange in April 1815.

His brother, George Richard Pain, carried out additional repairs in June 1819 at a cost of £182.1s 2½ d.

Samuel Lewis later describes it as ‘one of the chief ornaments of the old town.’ He noted in 1837 that the front is of hewn stone, and is adorned with seven Tuscan columns connected by a handsome balustrade. ‘The council-chamber is a fine room of the Ionic order; and there are various convenient municipal offices.’

The Exchange fell into disuse in the mid-19th century after a new town hall was built across the bridge in Rutland Street.

The building was later used as an evening national school. The 1872 Ordnance Survey shows the building was in use as a national school, and the floor plan shows a single unified space opening onto Nicholas Street and three small secondary rooms to the rear.

A passage or corridor to the west appears to have given access to the Cathedral churchyard, and the building to the rear looked onto the walled graveyard. A lane, now gone, called Grid Iron Lane, ran along the east side elevation of the building, returning at right angles to meet Bridge Street.

All that remains of the Exchange now is a row of Tuscan columns in the boundary wall surrounding the churchyard of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, and the name of a local street, Exchange Street.

The single-storey limestone exterior wall is clearly visible from the Nicholas Street side. This blind arcade of six arches is formed by seven half-engaged Tuscan columns standing on a limestone base, breaking to a centre arch and end bay to the west. In the space of the six arches between the columns, there are coursed rubble limestone in-fills.

Exchange Street, off Nicholas Street, recalls along-lost building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

At either end is an ashlar limestone pier engaged with the end columns, giving a strength of composition to the broad intercolumniation.

The area fell into progressive decline during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Much of Nicholas Street was rebuilt in the mid-20th century following the mediaeval terrace plots of Englishtown.

The Nail was kept in the Exchange until it was moved to the Museum in 1907. The Nail is made of limestone covered with copper, and it was the custom to lay down or pay down the money in all transactions on this ‘Nail’ - hence the old saying ‘paying on the nail.’

The surviving ground floor arcade of Limerick City Exchange, seen from churchyard of Saint Mary’s Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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