face value

They're bloody everywhere, lying on the floor, stuffed in jam jars, down the sofa, in the ashtray of the car, even lying on the feckin' pavement, once upon a time money stood for something.

I'm not big on money, don't get me wrong, I worry about it as much as the next man but it's not the sort of thing to get me excited. On the other had it always got my Dad's heart going, not earning and spending it, but collecting it, sorting it, grading it. His brother Paddy owned a butcher shop in Carrickmore, he'd regularly go through his week's takings and sort out the wheat form the chaff, paying him like for like. At cattle markets and Ceili halls he'd spot the odd gem and throw it in the tin when he got home. Recently he decided to cash in his chips and see if it amounted to a hill of beans.

Down in the shed there's boxes, tins, jars, bags all filled with coins, possibly 20,000 or more. He randomly pulls out a round tin about 15cm high with a few hundred coins. They we're all old Irish coins from before decimalisaiton. The "old money" stayed in circulation along with the newly decimalised coins right up until the Irish Republic joined the Euro. Both Irish and British coins contained precious metal up until the mid 1940s, so for that reason alone they're collectable. I hadn't seen the coins for years, but it was almost like seeing them for the first time. No heads of state, adventurers, explorers, leaders and ground breaking scientists, a simple Irish Harp on one side and a humble farmyard animal on the other.

irish coins

Of all the coins he'd collected I found these the most interesting as they represented a nation attempting to establish some form of new global brand, one its citizens could (a) identify with and (b) accept. Ireland was still raw from civil war, the famine was only 60 years past and 600 years of British occupation had begun to recede. The new money had to tread carefully and avoid rubbing anyone's nose in it while at the same time represent the entire nation.
Beyond symbolising monetary values, the new currency must easily translate the nations values abroad, this was a time when coinage was truly the mark of a nation.

I dug a bit further and found a committee was established to design and mint a new currency and the man charged with finding a suitable design for the new currency was none other than W.B. Yeats. Yeats chaired a committee, commissioning a number of artists to produce samples for the coins. Ironically it was an englishman who won, Percy Metcalfe and the Royal Mint in England forged the coins.

The Irish Harp was to feature on the reverse and common farmyard animals on the face. The animals would be embraced by the entire nation, symbolising the importance of agriculture, especially in wake of the famine, still very much in living memory.

From the humble woodcock, sow and piglets and hen and chicks, an everyday sight in Irish homes at the time, through to the salmon, bull and horse, not surprisingly on the coins of higher value. They're all beautiful pieces of art, well worth collecting not only as coins but a reminder of how far a country traveled and how its values have changed in less that 100 years. Which got us thinking, if Ireland were to mint a new set of coins, what might they look like… ?

Written on: April 10 2009
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the man charged with finding a suitable design for the new currency was none other than W.B. Yeats.

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