Need Money?

Yes, there always is the bank, the ATM works with a heavily burdened credit card too, then there is the trusted (and often all-too-trusting) credit union, and your friendly neighbourhood moneylender (who just happens to know some muscular types in tracksuit bottoms and with pitbull terriers). Or there is the venerable business transacted under the sign of the three golden balls … rare these days, in Dublin I know just two locations actually marked in this traditional way:


The pawnbroker … you give him some of your possessions as a surety (a pawn, or a pledge), you get cash as credit, later you can buy your stuff back … with interest, of course. And if you don’t come back or can’t pay, the pawnbroker sells off your pledge. Usually with a nice, tidy profit. As he’ll never, ever, give you the full value (or anything near to it) in the first place.

An ancient profession – pawnbrokers were active in China more than three millennia ago, were making money in ancient Greece and Rome. And even despite the church’s ban on loans and interest, the medieval monks went into the business. As, technically, it could be described as selling and reselling and so on.

But why the golden balls … or spheres?

The symbol denoting a pawnbrokers’ shop, three golden (or yellow) spheres, may actually be traced back to the Medicis – and hints at Lombardy. Where pawnshop banking originated, and was later christened “Lombard Banking”. But then three golden spheres were a symbol medieval Lombard merchants used in general … not the Medici arms. An alternative explanation goes further back. And links the pawnbrokers’ sign to Saint Nicholas (who also is the patron saint of pawnbrokers). There is a story that Bishop Nicholas gave a poor man’s three daughters bags of gold so they could get married.

Whatever the history … is the pawnshop still a valid source of money?

Yes and no – you’ll never get full worth, so you might be better off flogging it on eBay. But it is an easy way to get at least a bit of cash out of old stuff. Though you might later find Aunt Mairead’s old oil painting that you never had the intention of buying back and got € 25 for … on sale at Sotheby’s for a cool million.

One thing that can be said in favour of pawnshops: they are operating openly, have to hand in their accounts, keep an open ledger. Much safer to deal with them than with Joe from the other estate who just happens to have this spare cash and wouldn’t you like a new sofa and, yeah, don’t worry, easy repayments with just tiny bit of interest … and which leg would you like us to break first?

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