On the Nail

John Johnson Marshall
Chapter X (2) - Start of Chapter

In the words of the song to the air of “Garryowen” occur the lines:—

“ ’Tis there we’ll drink the nut brown ale,

And pay the reckoning on the nail—

No man for debt shall go to jail

From Garryowen a gloria.”

Of “The Nail” referred to, the following account is given in Lenihan’s “History of Limerick”—Robert Smith being Mayor in 1685, amongst other benefactions to the city also at his own cost set up in the exchange a brass table standing on a short pillar, and himself engraved this inscription on it: “Ex dono Roberti Smith majoris Limericencibus civibus.” It was afterwards placed in the new Exchange, and was called " The Nail,” being intended for a public place for paying down money on, though not applied to that use. It is still extant in the town hall.

This is supposed by many to be the origin of the “cash on the nail.” expression and “paid on the nail,” but the explanations associating it with Limerick or Bristol are too late in point of time to be of any authority in settling the question. In Nash’s Works, 1596, we have “Tell me have you a minde to anie thing in the Doctor’s Booke! speake the word and I will help you to it upon the naile.” In 1600, Holland trans. Livy, “(He) paid the whole debt down right upon the naile, unto the creditor,” so that the origin of the phrase still remains in obscurity.

The writer suggests the following as a reasonable explanation of the phrase. In bygone times when the coinage was badly neglected, base coin cropped up frequently in transactions between buyer and seller. When a shopkeeper detected a base coin amongst the money passing in payment or tendered by itself, he confiscated the spurious piece, and in order to effectually prevent it again getting into circulation, as well as a standing warning to others not to be trying to pass off bad money, took a hammer and nail, and nailed it to the counter where all could see it. The writer remembers in his younger days seeing coins so nailed in some of the smaller shops. Therefore in the days when base coin was common, the counters of thriving shopkeepers would literally be covered with coins thus nailed, so that a ready money customer would literally pay “cash on the nail.”