The first coins issued by the Irish Free State government were introduced ninety years ago and drew a storm of protests over their design, writes
Gerry Breen.

Ninety years ago, in November 1928, the Irish Finance Mini ster Ernest Blythe opened an exhibition of the newly-minted first coins issued by the Irish Free State government. He declared the new coinage, which featured Irish animals, to be ‘more interesting and beautiful than any token coinage in the world’.

Not everyone agreed with the Minister. The new coins attracted considerable international media attention and there was much criticism of the designs from many quarters and from influential individuals.

Some people believed that a Christian nation should acknowledge God on its coinage, while others took offence because the coins lacked symbols depicting Ireland’s idealism and the grandeur of its civilisation.

The coins were also condemned for including a pig as part of their design on the grounds that the pig was long associated with caricatures of the Irish.
In time, people understood that by featuring Irish animals, the Irish Free State coin design team had successfully avoided religion and politics which would probably have led to far more bitter controversies.

The story of the new coinage began on 13th April, 1926, when the government passed the Coinage Act, which empowered the Minister for Finance to provide and issue silver, nickel and bronze coins.

While the Act prescribed the denominations and weights of the coins and the metals to be used, it left the choice of designs to the Minister for Finance.

The poet Senator W. B. Yeats advocated the setting up of a special artistic committee to advise on designs. The Minister went along with this suggestion, and in May 1926, he wrote to five people inviting them to act on a committee that would advise on getting designs submitted and also on the designs most suitable for adoption.

Senator W. B. Yeats was asked to act as Chairman of the Committee, and the other four people invited to join were: Dermot O’Brien, President of the Royal Hibernian Academy; Lucius O’Callaghan, Director of the National Gallery, a position from which he later resigned; Thomas Bodkin, one of the Governors of the National Gallery, and Barry M. Egan, who became a member of Dail Éireann for Cork City while serving on the committee.

Senator Yeats agreed to chair the committee, and the first meeting took place on 17th June, 1926, and was attended by Joseph Brennan, who was Secretary of the Department of Finance and later Chairman of the Currency Commission.
Mr. Brennan said he wished to convey to the committee three provisional decisions arrived at by the Minister for Finance in relation to the coins, but these were not to be regarded as final decisions or as binding on the committee

The three decisions were: That a harp should be shown on one side of the majority of the coins, if not on all; that the inscription should be in Irish only and that the denomination of the coin should be shown as a numeral for the assistance of those unfamiliar with Irish, and that no effigies of modern persons should be included in the designs.

Continue reading in this week’s issue