You never quite know what to expect when you venture into an archaeological project. In 2002, we were commissioned to undertake an archaeological assessment at Barrington´s Hostel in the centre of Limerick city. Initially it was believed that the location had high potential for preserved medieval archaeology. However, after documentary research and the excavation of test trenches, it became apparent that the site had been heavily developed by cellared buildings in the 19th century and all traces of earlier archaeology had been destroyed.
However this wasn’t the end of the story! The massive scale of the buried foundations was intriguing so we decided to explore the nature of these 19th century remains further, in order to determine just what kind of building stood on this site in the not so distant past.
The first edition of the Ordnance Survey map depicted a very strange looking building on the site around 1840. Historical research identified that this was none other than the Monte de Piété. This building served as a charitable pawn shop built by the Barrington family to support a nearby hospital. The Barrington´s were a wealthy local family who were renowned for undertaking charitable works and helping the poor of Limerick. Having determined the nature of the building that once stood on the site, we decided to look in more detail at all documentary sources pertaining to the building. On closer inspection we found to our amazement that the façade of the original pawn shop survived within the fabric of the wall forming the site boundary on Mary Street.
The name of the Monte de Piété and its concept originated in 15th century Italy, where it was associated with the charitable activities of the Franciscans as an alternative to more organized and extortionate money lending. The classical-style limestone building in Limerick, begun in 1836, and replete with a copper cupola, pillars, railings and a small grass enclosure, stood in the grounds of the hospital immediately southeast of where Barrington´s Hostel stands today. This was the first such institution in Ireland and was considered a great innovation at the time. In 1840 a Mr. Porter used the example of the Limerick Monte de Piété to advocate the widespread adoption of such institutions. In reality, it failed to make a profit and in 1845 it was closed. In the following years it was converted into a convalescent hospital and finally a police barracks. The building was demolished in 1847.
This grand design, albeit a failure, demonstrates an early attempt by a wealthy family to ease the suffering of the lower echelons of society in 19th century Limerick. It is also a stark reminder of the social divisions rife in Irish society at the time, as well as representing an early example of social conscience. The results of the work at this site were published in the North Munster Antiquarian Journal No. 47, 2007 by Rubicon Heritage Service’s Managing Director Colm Moloney under the title ‘The Mont de Piété: Archaeological Evidence for a 19th century Pawn Shop in Limerick’.