By Michael Kenny

The signing of the Treaty of Mellifont in 1603 brought to an end a most violent and unsettled period in Irish history. In that year the accession of the Stuarts to the throne of England ushered in a new era in the story of Irish coins and coinage. The reign of Elizabeth I had ended with the issue of copper and base silver coins in 1601/02, and one of the first actions of James I in Ireland was to replace this emergency coinage with better quality silver shillings and sixpences. Produced in London rather than Dublin, these were smaller and lighter than their English equivalents but nonetheless vastly superior to the coins they replaced. They also highlight the growing dynastic and political ambitions of the Stuarts. The first issue, in 1603/04, referred to James as King of England and Scotland, while the second issue, 1604–07, referred to him as King of Great Britain. The reverse design, as on the coins of the Tudors, was a crowned harp. Here also the legend carried a political message. On the issue of 1603/04  it was TUEATUR UNITA DEUS (May God guard these united kingdoms) – a reference to the newly united crowns of England and Scotland. On the later issue the legend was HENRICUS ROSAS REGNA IACOBUS – Henry the roses, James the kingdoms – a reference to Henry VII uniting England after the Wars of the Roses and James I  uniting England and Scotland. These were the last official silver coins to be minted for Ireland until those of the Free State in 1928. In 1607 James decided to discontinue the series, decreeing that, from this point forward, Ireland’s needs were to be served by the contemporary English silver issues. The supply of silver was supplemented by the circulation of foreign coins, many of them from Spain and its South American colonies, but also from France, Portugal and The Netherlands.

The reign of James I also witnessed, in both Ireland and England, the introduction of copper farthing tokens, issued under royal licence. The obverse design showed a crown and crossed sceptres, while the reverse carried the crowned harp. This practice continued in both countries under Charles I. Because the farthings were of base metal, forgery was common, despite the lord deputy threatening ‘losse of ears or other corporal punishment’ for those caught counterfeiting (Colgan, p. 109).

The next major political upheaval to affect the coinage in Ireland was the Rebellion of 1641–52. As Catholic Confederates, Royalists, Parliamentarians and Ulster Scots fought for military and political supremacy, a bewildering array of emergency coins appeared in various denominations and metals. Design, shape and quality mattered little to the warring groups, whose main interest was in feeding armies and purchasing munitions. Most of the issues, therefore, consisted of roughly formed pieces of metal, carrying the denomination or weight of the coin and without the name of the issuing authority. In 1642, the Lord Justices in Dublin produced an issue of irregularly shaped silver coins, stamped only with the weight, in pennyweights and grains (subdivisions of the ounce). This followed a proclamation ordering the people of Dublin and adjacent areas under their control to hand in silver plate for minting into coinage. In 1643 a second coinage was issued, sometimes referred to as ‘Dublin Money’, this time with the denominations in Roman numerals. A further silver issue, known as ‘Ormonde Money’ after the Earl of Ormonde, was struck in 1643/44. Ormonde’s allegiance to the royalist cause was clearly indicated on the coins’ obverse, which carried a large crown over the letters CR (Carolus Rex). At around the same time, the Confederate Catholics issued a range of denominations in copper and silver from their headquarters in Kilkenny. The most noteworthy of these was the crudely struck ‘Blacksmith’s Half-crown’, so called because of the suggestion by a nineteenth-century numismatist that the design was the work of a blacksmith rather than an engraver.

The most unusual and historically significant coins of the period are gold pieces called pistoles and double pistoles, struck under the authority of the Earl of Ormonde in 1646. The name derived from a Spanish gold coin and they were minted from gold provided by Queen Henrietta Maria, the French wife of Charles I, for the Royalist garrison in Dublin. They carried simply an indication of their weight, front and back, and no other design or legend. They are the only gold coins known to have been struck in Ireland. Other emergency issues included ‘Siege Money’ [376], produced by cities and towns in the south of the country controlled by the Parliamentary forces. These were mainly copper halfpennies and farthings, often irregularly shaped, struck in Cork, Youghal and possibly in other towns, to alleviate the shortage of small change in the absence of regular coinage.

376. Copper farthing, ‘Seige Money’, Youghal, 1640’s © National Museum of Ireland

Cromwell minted no coins for Ireland, nor did Charles II until 1680. The void was filled by a mixture of traders’ tokens, copper farthings produced under licence and foreign silver, the value of the latter being generally calculated by weight. A token coinage of copper halfpennies and farthings known as ‘Saint Patrick’s Coinage’ appeared in the mid-1670s, probably issued by Dublin Corporation. One of the design motifs is of three castles, the arms of the city. Those tokens depict Saint Patrick with cloak and mitre. The halfpenny shows him holding aloft the shamrock, while the farthing shows him with patriarchal cross, driving away snakes.

In the 1680s, halfpennies were issued by Charles II and his successor, James II. In 1688 James II was deposed and arrived in Ireland the following year in an attempt to regain his throne. This heralded another violent and unsettled time in Irish history, which was reflected in the coinage of the period. Short of money, with an army to feed and pay, James decided to issue an emergency token coinage in base metal, to be redeemed for ster- ling silver after the war. Commissioners scoured the country for brass, copper, pewter and lead. The coins were made from what- ever metal was available, such as old cannon, church bells and gunmetal. The issue, which became known as ‘gunmoney’ [377], was minted in large quantities and initially consisted of half- crowns, shillings and sixpences. When supplies of metal began to run out in 1690, the sizes were reduced and the original large half-crowns were re-struck as crowns. There was also an emergency issue in pewter, including lower denominations of groats (fourpence), pence and halfpence.

377. Base metal half crown, “Gunmoney”, James II, 1690 © National Museum of Ireland

With the exception of the crown, the gunmoney coins showed the denomination in roman numerals on the reverse – XXX (30 pence or two shillings and sixpence) for the half- crown, XII (12 pence) for the shilling and VI (6 pence) for the sixpence. Their most interesting stylistic feature was that they carried not only the year but also the month of issue; this was intended to facilitate their gradual redemption later. Since James lost the war, however, the gunmoney coins became worthless. The victorious Williamites initially reduced them to their intrinsic metal value, so that the large half-crown was reduced to a penny and the large shilling to a halfpenny. Shortly afterwards they were demonetized, with disastrous consequences for those who had been forced to accept them as payment.

From the Williamite triumph to the end of the separate Irish coinage in 1826, the only official coins issued for Ireland were pennies, halfpennies and farthings. The design remained essentially unchanged. It showed the king’s head, with name and title, on the obverse. Each succeeding monarch faced in the opposite direction to that of his predecessor, so that George I and George III faced right, George II and George IV faced left. The only noteworthy numismatic event during this period was the agitation surrounding the coins known as ‘Wood’s Halfpence’. In 1722, William Wood, an English ironmonger, was given a patent to mint copper coins for Ireland. The Irish parliament objected and Jonathan Swift wrote his famous ‘Drapier’s Letters’, claiming that the scheme was fraudulent. The public boycotted the coins, forcing Wood to cease production. They were withdrawn and shipped instead to the American colonies. Wood received a handsome pension of £3,000 a year as compensation.

No coins were issued for Ireland between 1782 and 1805. The gap was filled by English coins, traders’ tokens, imitations and forgeries. The mining companies, especially those with direct access to the copper mines of County Wicklow, were particularly active as producers of trade tokens. In 1804 the Bank of Ireland had Spanish and Spanish South American dollars re-struck as 6 shilling tokens and followed this up with a range of smaller silver pieces, 30 pence, 10 pence and 5 pence, between 1805 and 1813. The 6 shilling token, designed by the celebrated engraver and medallist Conrad Heinrich Küchler, used as the reverse design an allegorical figure of Hibernia, seated with harp and palm leaf, inspired by the seal of the Bank of Ireland. The 10 pence of 1813, designed by Lewis Pingo, chief engraver at the Royal Mint, carried a wreath of shamrocks.

Following the Act of Union, the Irish and British exchequers were united in 1817 and the two currencies made equal in 1821. Pennies and halfpennies with crowned harp were issued under George IV in 1822 and 1823. The royal bust was designed by the famous engraver Benedetto Pistrucci, and the reverse crowned harp by another famous engraver, William Wyon. Finally in 1826 the separate Irish coinage was brought to an end. For the next hundred years the only coins allowed to circulate officially in Ireland were the standard British issues.

In 1926, the government decided to produce a coinage for the new Free State. A committee, chaired by the poet W.B. Yeats, was set up to suggest suitable designs. The harp, now uncrowned, was chosen for the obverse. A novel approach was taken to the reverse designs. It was decided that the motifs to be portrayed should have an association, not with history or politics, but with the fauna of the Irish countryside. The denominations were the half-crown, florin, shilling, sixpence, threepence, penny, half- penny and farthing. The first three were silver, the sixpence and threepence were nickel. The lower denominations were bronze. The reverses, starting with the half-crown [378], showed a horse, salmon, bull, wolfhound, hare, chicken, sow and piglets and woodcock. Artists from Ireland, Britain, Italy, Sweden, the US and Yugoslavia submitted designs, all with different interpretations of the agreed designs. Those of British designer Percy Metcalfe were accepted, with modifications. The new coinage was of a high standard technically and artistically and was well received by the public. In 1939 the obverse legend was changed from Saorstát Eireann to Éire, in line with the wording of the 1937 Constitution, but the designs were left essentially unaltered. In 1950 silver was abandoned in favour of cupro-nickel, but the designs were retained.

378. Design in plaster free state half-crown, 1928, by Percy Metcalfe, plaster © National Museum of Ireland

The next great change came with the decimalization of the Irish coinage between 1969 and 1971. Several denominations disappeared, others were renamed or changed in size, and two new denominations appeared. The half-crown, sixpence, three- pence and farthing were discontinued. A heptagonal fifty pence in cupro-nickel and a twopence in bronze were introduced. The harp remained on the obverse but a new reverse was produced on the bronze issues, designed by artist Gabriel Hayes (qv) and inspired by motifs from ancient Irish illuminated manuscripts. The woodcock, formerly on the farthing, appeared on the new fifty pence piece.

The Irish Mint was established at Sandyford, Co. Dublin, in 1976. Before this, Irish coins had been struck by the British Royal Mint. The currency became part of the European monetary system in 1979, breaking the link with sterling. In 1986 another new denomination was introduced, a twenty pence piece, again using Metalfe’s design and the horse from the old half-crown. In 1988 a special Dublin Millennium commemorative fifty pence piece was issued. Designed by Thomas Ryan RHA (qv AAI v), it featured the arms of the city. In 1990 the last and largest denomination of the independent Irish coinage made its appearance. The new one pound, also designed by Ryan, featured the Irish red deer, with the word ‘PUNT’ in the border above. By this stage the count-down to the euro had begun, but there was to be one final flourish in the story of Ireland’s coinage: a commemorative pound coin to mark the millennium in 2000. The competition was won by a Dublin jeweller, Alan Ardiff, assisted by designer Garrett Stokes. The reverse design was based on the Broighter boat, a beautiful gold model boat with mast, seats and oars, dat- ing to the first century bc, now in the National Museum of Ireland. The Broighter pound, issued in 2000, was the last coin of the distinctive Irish series.

The euro came into circulation on 1 January 2002, bringing one thousand years of Irish numismatic history to an end. The new currency had eight coin denominations. These were the 2 euro and 1 euro and six subdivisions of the latter, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 cent. The designs were chosen through competition and the members of the judging panel were provided by and drawn from the member states of the European Union. The winner was Luc Luycx, a designer at the Royal Belgian Mint. One side of the coin carried the denomination and a map of Europe, with the EU member states highlighted and slightly raised. The other side carried a symbol or symbols of each issuing country, chosen by that country. This was surrounded by a band of twelve stars, a motif taken from the EU banner. Ireland retained the harp, thus maintaining a stylistic and symbolic link with the independent Irish coinage. The depiction of Europe has since been changed and modified as many more states have joined the EU, but the harp remains as the symbol representing  Ireland.

SELECTED READING Philip Nelson, The Coinage of Ireland in Copper, Tin and Pewter, 1460–1826, Liverpool, 1905; Coinage of Saorstát Eireann 1928, Dublin, 1928. Official government report on the proceedings of the coin committee; D. Stevenson, ‘The Irish Emergency Coinage of James II’, in BNJ, XXXVI, 1967; Peter Seaby, Coins and Tokens of Ireland, London, 1970; G.L. Barrow, The Emergence of the Irish Banking System, 1820–1845, Dublin, 1975; Gerard Rice, ‘The Gunmoney of James II’, in SNC, 97, 1989; Edward Colgan, For Want of Good Money. The Story of Ireland’s Coinage, Bray, 2003.


 The Royal Irish Academy has kindly granted permission to Sculpture Dublin to reproduce a number of texts from Sculpture 1600-2000, Volume 3 in the Royal Irish Academy’s 5-volume publication Art and Architecture of Ireland (Yale, 2014). The book, edited by Paula Murphy, comprises introductory essays, biographies and thematic essays.