Controversy follows 1927 Irish coin design competition results

In 1922 Ireland won its independence from Britain after a two-year War of Independence and protracted negotiations in London.  The team, authorized to negotiate on behalf of Dáil Eireann, signed a treaty and, after ratification by ‘simple majority’ in the Dáil and by a referendum vote by the Irish people, the Irish Free State was formally recognized by the British government.

Some elements within the Dáil and the leadership of the IRA were disappointed with the terms of the treaty, refused to recognize the authority of the Dáil or the democratic will of the Irish people, and engaged in a civil war that divided Irish society for many generations to come.  The nation-building process that followed was difficult and divisive and, on 13th April 1926, the Coinage Act of 1926 became law :-

  • empowering the Minister for Finance to provide and issue, silver, nickel and bronze coins
  • the Act also prescribed the denominations and weights of the coins and the metals of which they were to be composed

This Act did not, however, determine their designs: it left the choice of designs to the Minister for Finance and gave him power to prescribe the designs by Order.

  • During parliamentary debates leading up to the Act, Deputy Michael R.T. Heffernan and Deputy Osmond Grattan Esmonde had raised the question of setting up a special committee of persons with artistic knowledge to advise on the designs.
  • Senator W. B. Yeats advocated the setting up of a competent artistic committee for this purpose.

The Minister promised to make use of the services of the best possible opinion available, and to incur whatever expense was necessary in securing suitable designs. In fulfilment of this promise he wrote to the five gentlemen mentioned below on the 19th May, 1926, inviting them to act as a committee ‘to advise him in regard to the designs for coinage to be issued under the Coinage Act recently passed: it will be the function of this Committee to advise, firstly, as to the steps which should be taken with a view to getting designs submitted, and, secondly, as to which of the designs that may be submitted are the most suitable for adoption. This invitation was addressed to:

  • Senator W.B. Yeats, who was asked to act as Chairman of the Committee.
  • Mr. Dermod O’Brien, President of the Royal Hibernian Academy.
  • Mr. Lucius O’Callaghan, at that time Director of the National Gallery, from which position he later resigned.
  • Mr. Thomas Bodkin, one of the Governors of the National Gallery, and subsequently its Director.
  • Mr. Barry M. Egan, who, while serving on the Committee, became a member of Dáil Eireann for the City of Cork.

With both politics and society still polarised by the Civil War agenda, the competition, its participants and the design proposals were always going to be controversial and would attract criticism from some very embittered, but still influential people.  The committee would have to tread carefully.

WB Yeats

W.B. Yeats, Chairman of the 1927 Irish Coinage Design Committee

W.B. Yeats chaired the committee and he publicly declared “As the most famous and beautiful coins are the coins of the Greek Colonies, especially of those in Sicily, we decided to send photographs of some of these, and one coin of Carthage, to our selected artists, and to ask them, as far as possible, to take them as a model. But the Greek coins have two advantages that ours could not have, one side need not balance the other, and the other could be stamped in high relief, whereas ours must pitch and spin to please the gambler, and pack into rolls to please the banker.”

The first meeting of the Committee was held on the 17th June, 1926, and was attended by Mr. Joseph Brennan, at that time Secretary to the Department of Finance and later Chairman of the Currency Commission.  Mr. Brennan said that he “wished to convey to the Committee three provisional decisions which had been arrived at by the Minister for Finance in regard to the coins, but which were not to be regarded as the final decisions of the Minister or the Government, or as binding on the Committee.”

These three conditions 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.  He also suggested “they consider the utility of having the denomination of the coin shown by means of a numeral, for the assistance of persons unfamiliar with Irish.”
  • That no effigies of modern persons should be included in the designs.

Having taken on board the three requisites above, the committee sought advice from far and wide :-

  • The committee placed newspaper advertisements in July 1926 seeking suggestions for coinage designs from the public, but received few responses – the public liked the idea of “round towers, wolf-hounds, shamrocks (single or in wreaths) and the Treaty Stone of Limerick
  • the Society of Antiquaries advised them to “avoid patriotic emblems altogether, for even the shamrock emblem was not a hundred years old.”
  • Yeats found the advice of his friends more useful, and, drawing on suggestions from Lady Gregory, Sir William Orpen and Oliver St John Gogarty, he came up with the idea that the coins should portray the products of the country.

After much internal debate and deliberation, Yeats declared that they “decided upon birds and beasts, the artist, the experience of centuries has shown, might achieve a masterpiece, and might, or so it seemed to use, please those that would look longer at each coin than anybody else, artists and children. Besides, what better symbols could we find for this horse riding, salmon fishing, cattle raising country?

In the end, the committee decided upon the following subjects for the reverse designs :-

The particular type recommended is an Irish hunter without a rider, the whole horse to be shown. The horse as a type has been used successfully on ancient Greek and Carthaginian coins.  We feel that the fame of the Irish horse makes it unnecessary to formulate any lengthy justification for its inclusion at the head of the series.  We believe that the size of the half-crown will permit of an adequate treatment, worthy of the best efforts of a skillful artist.  It is recommended that the denomination be indicated by the word ‘Leath-coroin’ and the figures ‘2/6’.

The salmon recommended itself to the Committee, both because of its value as a natural product and also because of its place in Irish legend, in which it is coupled as the salmon of wisdom with the nuts of knowledge. We have been further influenced in its favour by reason of the fact that it lends itself to very artistic treatment. We believe that a salmon and a spray of hazels might be combined in a beautiful design. The salmon is recommended as the type for the florin because it differs strikingly from the type recommended for the half-crown, with which coin the florin is most likely to be confused. It is recommended that the denomination be indicated by the word ‘Floirin’ and the figure ‘2s’.

This type also has been successfully utilised in ancient Greek coins. Annexed to this Report are photographs of a coin of Thurium (400-350 B.C.) on which a bull is the type. Very much the same considerations which lead us to recommend the horse for the half-crown apply in the present case, namely, the excellence of Irish cattle, their importance in the trade of the country, and the artistic possibilities of the type, as shown in the Thurian coin. It is recommended that the denomination be indicated by the word ‘Scilling’.

We feel, with the exception of one member, who would prefer a greyhound, or harrier of some kind, that, as this species of dog is so peculiarly identified with Ireland, it merits a place as a type, even though its inclusion strains to some extent the idea underlying the series, and though it cannot be regarded as a natural product of the country at all comparable with the horse, salmon, bull, or the remaining types of the series. On other grounds its claims are strong; and as various members of the public have suggested it, and we have felt constrained to reject other popular symbols such as the round tower, shamrock and sunburst, we have formed the opinion that the wolf-hound ought to be included, especially as it lends itself to a noble and artistic treatment for coinage purposes. It is recommended that the denomination be indicated by the word ‘Reul’ and the figure ‘6d’.

We recommend the hare as a type in harmony with the series, and likely to recommend itself to the public, because of its ‘association with sport. If the hound and the hare are approved of as types for the two nickel coins, this group will possess a certain unity. The hare has already been adopted as a design on ancient Greek coins. We consider that it would not be easily confused with the wolf-dog design on the sixpenny piece. It is recommended that the denomination be indicated by the word ‘Leath-reul’ and the figure ‘3d’.

We take the view that the inclusion of this type is in accordance with the general scheme recommended for the designs. It represents a staple industry, which the Government has endeavoured to foster, and which is likely to be of increasing importance. We realise that a hen, or a hen and chickens,may be criticised, as being’ too homely a subject for a coindesign, but we regard its homeliness as rather an advantage than otherwise, since it will make an immediate appeal to farmers, and especially to their wives and daughters, to whom the care of poultry is a particular concern. We have not thought it well to recommend a cock, for the reason that the cock, as a symbol, is already associated with the French Republic. We believe that a hen and chickens is capable of being made the basis of a beautiful and artistic design. It is recommended that the denomination be indicated by the word ‘Pingin’ and the figure’1d’.

We had at first some hesitation in deciding to recommend the pig as a type for one of the coins, because of the ridicule with which it is associated in connection with this country; but further consideration has convinced us that the idea underlying the series of designs makes the inclusion of the pig inevitable. As a valuable product of the country we believe that it merits a place in the series, and that the objections to it are unworthy of serious consideration. Moreover, the artist employed to prepare the design may well elect to depict a boar, as it appears in the crests of several old Irish families. We thought of substituting a ram, but it did not seem as suitable for representation on so small a surface. We have no doubt that a most suitable design can be obtained with the pig as the subject. [Later, on the suggestion of the Minister, a ram was included in the list of symbols as a possible alternative to the pig.] It is recommended that the denomination be indicated by the word ‘Leath-pingin’ and the figure’1/2d’.

The woodcock is a bird which makes a special appeal to sportsmen in this country. From the point of view of designing it possesses the advantage that, because of its long bill, its body will have to be shown on a very small scale, so that sufficient room will be left on the field of the coin for the words or figures indicating the denomination ‘Feoirling’ and ‘1/4d’. The woodcock is itself a small bird appropriate to the denomination. We are of opinion that the types recommended above, if approved, will make a series of designs, at once beautiful, intelligible and appropriate, with a meaning both for the people of the country and for foreigners.

The next controversy would be “who to invite to compete?”

  • How should the Government choose its artist?
  • What advice should be give?
  • It should reject a competition open to everybody.
  • They thought seven would be enough, and that three should be Irish.

In the end, they chose two Dublin sculptors of repute (Albert Power and Oliver Sheppard) and Jerome Connor (who had recently arrived in Ireland from New York.  The next part was more difficult as they had little knowledge of the ‘foreign’ talent, so they :-

  • collected examples of modern coinage with the help of various Embassies or their friends
  • they examined foreign coins and the work of various medalists

Like the Irish contenders, not everyone accepted the invitation. Of the three American sculptors that received invitations, only James Earle Fraser declined. He would have been one of the favourites to win, since only 15 years earlier, he had created the much-beloved Buffalo nickel for the US Mint. Designing a set of animal coins would seem to have been a compelling challenge for Fraser; however, he declined to participate.

An English artist, Charles Shannon (London) also declined. He was a member of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers. Best known for his portraits, he Dublin Municipal Gallery owns his circular composition The Bunch of Grapes and The Lady with the Green Fan (portrait of Mrs Hacon). Another of his subjects was the popular novelist Mary Frances Dowdall.

Eventually the committee shortlisted the following ‘foreign’ artists:-

  • the great Swedish sculptor Carl Milles
  • Publio Morbiducci, designer of the coin with the Fascist emblem
  • the American sculptor, Paul Manship, the creator of a Diana and her dogs
  • a little known sculptor, Percy Metcalfe (on the recommendation of the Secretary of the British School at Rome)

The famous Croatian sculptor and medalist, Ivan Mestrovic, did not respond to their invitation so it was assumed he was not interested in entering a design.  His name was deleted from the list and another artist was approached.  As it turned out, Mestrovic was not at the address the invitation was sent to but the mail was forwarded to him and he managed to get one design completed after the competition expiry date.  The committee disqualified his entry but he graciously presented it to the Irish Free State as a gift.

Ivan Mestrovic Pattern coin 1927 Irish Ireland competition entry

Ivan Mestrovic’s original design entry for the 1927 Irish Coin Design Competition

It has been used as the seal of the Central Bank of Ireland since 1965.  This commemorative coin was produced as a limited edition in both Ireland (8,000) and Croatia (3,000) in 2007 and a double set (one from each country) was issued by each country (2,000 in total). In Ireland it was issued as a €15 silver ‘proof’ coin, whereas in Croatia an almost identical 150 Kuna silver proof coin was issued by the Croatian National Bank.  Both coins bear an identical obverse – similar to Mestrovic’s original design.

Ivan Mestrovic €15 euro proof coin 2007

Ivan Mestrovic €15 euro proof coin 2007

In addition to the 11,000 (8,000 in Ireland and another 3,000 in Croatia) single proof coins, a limited edition ‘double set’ was issued in each country featuring one of each country’s coins – the Irish in a green presentation case and box (1,000) and the Croatian version in a blue presentation case and box (1,000).  The Irish double sets sold out in 48 hours and is a much sought after set by commemorative Euro coin collectors.

2007 Croatian (double set ) Ivan Mestrovic

An example of the 2007 Mestrovic ‘double proof coin set’ as issued by Croatia

Getting back to the 7 original entries for the 1927 competition that were actually judged, many people do not realize that most of the artists did not produce all eight coin design subjects – merely a representative selection of their ideas.

  • The committee refused to see the designs until they ‘saw them all together’
  • The name of each artist was hidden from them
  • They voted ‘coin by coin’
  • The two top candidates seemed to be Morbiducci and Metcalfe
  • Eventually, after much deliberation and discussion, Metcalfe’s designs were chosen in every category – although Morbiducci’s beautiful, vibrant designs (the choice of W.B. Yeats) cannot have been too far behind.

Apart from Yeats, the Irish judges seem to have been quite conservative in their artistic preferences, for example: the bull on Morbiducci’s shilling is a powerful beast, pawing restlessly at the ground, while Metcalfe’s (finished article) is relatively docile.

Plaster Models - Morbiducci v Metcalfe (shilling). Irish Coin Design Competition 1927.

Plaster Models – Publio Morbiducci v Percy Metcalfe (shilling). Irish Coin Design Competition 1927.

  • In fairness to Metcalfe, however, his original design did depict a far livelier bull
  • It was deemed to be unrepresentative of Irish cattle
  • He was therefore asked to “tone it down”


The following notes have been extracted from the Summary of the Proceedings of the Committee, by Leo T. McCauley, Secretary to the Committee.

These artists were supplied with

  1. Photographs of the harps known respectively as the ‘Trinity College’ and ‘Dalway’ harps (the Minister having decided against the less familiar ‘Ullard’ harp)
  2. Photographs of famous hunters recommended to the Commmittee by the Royal Dublin Society, such as ‘Babes in the Wood,’ ‘Director’ and ‘Goldfinder II’
  3. Reinagle’s picture of an Irish wolf-hound, plus one of the wolf-hounds drawn by Mr. George Atkinson in the Irish Kennel Club’s Challenge Certificate
  4. Photographs of some ancient Greek and Carthaginian coins, portraying a horse, bull and hare
  5. Examples of Gaelic script recommended by the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland

Sixty-six models in all were entered for the competition by the artists.

Beginning with the farthing, they took each denomination in turn, and after careful consideration of the designs prepared for the reverse of that denomination made our choice. Having done this for each denomination, they found that in every case the design of one and the same artist had been chosen – Percy Metcalfe.

The committee recommended “that he be commissioned to execute the designs for the whole series of coins. Not only did they consider that his designs are incomparably superior to the other designs entered for the competition, but we regard them as being of an outstanding excellence, and as certain to provide a coinage of unusual interest and beauty.

The committee also recommended “that the public should be given an opportunity of seeing the original designs submitted by the competitors – partly because many persons are interested in the designs, and will be eager to see them, and partly because we believe that any adverse criticism of the choice of Mr. Metcalfe’s designs could not survive such an inspection.

At the subsequent meetings the Committee had before them ‘revised’ designs prepared by Mr. Metcalfe to meet the criticisms of the experts. Some of these designs were revised three or four times; and “Mr. Metcalfe availed himself fully of the advice offered, while at the same time preserving his own conception of the qualities with which he desired to invest his work. Great difficulty was experienced in modelling a wolf_hound completely satisfying the views of the President of the Wolf-hound Club, who advised that the animal should be modeled with a rough coat. It was found that a rough coated wolf-hound clashed with the smooth finish of the other designs, and it was feared that when the coin had become worn in use, part of the surface would become smooth and the general effect would be patchy and unsatisfactory. In the end, Mr. Metcalfe prepared a design in which the rough texture of the coat was indicated only in the outline of the figure.

Opening an exhibition of the new coins in November 1928, Finance Minister Ernest Blythe pronounced them “more interesting and beautiful than any token coinage in the world“.

He emphasized that “The possession of a distinctive coinage is one of the indications of sovereignty“, an important point in the propaganda war between the government and its republican opponents, who claimed that the Irish Free State was still a dependency of Britain.

Thomas Bodkin also spoke at the opening of the coinage exhibition. He explained the committee’s choice of animal designs, stating that, “since coins are tokens of a people’s wealth, it was appropriate to show on them the source of that wealth

1928 set (Percy Metcalfe's final designs)

The eight coin designs minted and released for general circulation in the Irish Free State in 1928.

Reaction by the Public

The committee stood accused of having rejected Ireland’s national ideals because of what was on the coins, as well as what was missing. Critics took umbrage at the apparent suggestion that Ireland’s mission was to be a farmyard, and that its people could do nothing but raise livestock.

Commentary by the Critics …

The public reaction to the designs were mixed and some notable public figures of the time were quite vociferous in their critique when the coins first appeared (late in 1928) …

Maude Gonne MacBride – a hard-line Republican and and vehement critic of the ‘Free State government’

the coins were entirely suitable for the Free State: designed by an Englishman, minted in England, representative of English values, paid for by the Irish people” (George Morrison)

Irish Truth ()

“was glad the committee had at least restrained itself from decorating the coins with borders of interlacing lines of sausages, or alternating eggs and butter pats”

One anonymous critic, identified by the Irish Independent as a priest, wrote:

If these pagan symbols once get a hold, then is the thin edge of the wedge of Freemasonry sunk into the very life of our Catholicity, for the sole object of having these pagan symbols instead of religious emblems on our coins is to wipe out all traces of religion from our minds, to forget the ‘land of saints,’ and beget a land of devil-worshippers, where evil may reign supreme

Critics of the coins believed that a Christian nation should acknowledge God on its coinage.

  • They saw the failure to do so as a deliberate rejection of God that reflected badly on the nation.

Another recurring theme was the concern with national dignity, this was a product of political and cultural insecurity in a new state that had not yet fully achieved either political stability or separation from Britain.  Those who took offence at the designs on the coins wanted symbols that would display to the world Ireland’s idealism and the grandeur of its civilisation.

  • The coins were condemned by their detractors for putting forward the pig, long associated with the Irish in caricature, as an appropriate symbol of the Irish nation.
  • Pigs had commonly been used in the past by British cartoonists and commentators to represent Irish people as brutish and dirty. It is little wonder, then, that some Irish people were outraged to see the Free State government seemingly approving of the pig as a national symbol.
British racism towards Ireland in the 19th and 20th century Paddy the Pig

The Irishman and Ireland caricatured as a pig by Punch Magazine originated in the early 19th century but persisted well into the 20th century and the new Irish halfpenny coin depicting a pig did not go down well in Nationalist circles given that some of the postponed features of the 1922 Ireland Act were effectively reneiged upon by successive British governments in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Commentary by the Defenders …

The defenders of the designs pressed forward with their argument that it was best to separate church and state, perhaps in order to prevent criticism from the Unionists of Northern Ireland – although they seemed more aggrieved at the lack of a monarch’s head + the fact that the harp had no crown above it.

Another argument from the defenders emphasized that, despite the fact the Irish Free State was a member of the British Commonwealth with dominion status, there was no British monarch’s head on the new coins.  This was a major achievement at the time, although we might not recognize this today.

  • The Coinage Act, 1870 confirmed that London enjoyed sweeping powers over coinage and legal tender throughout the Empire, including the design of coins
    • All Irish coins (from 1928 to 1969) were minted by the Royal Mint in London
    • All Irish banknotes (from 1928 to 1978) were printed by the Bank of England in London
    • The Irish currency (Irish Pounds) were, in fact, part of the British sterling system until 1978
  • In the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for London to disallow or veto colonial laws concerning coinage.
    • In 1843 a New Brunswick coinage statute was vetoed on the grounds that it had incorrectly specified the rates of value of the proposed coins and a coinage statute from Canada was similarly vetoed in 1850
  • In the early twentieth century the British government still retained substantial control over mints established at Sydney (1855), Melbourne (1872), Perth (1898), Ottawa(1907) and Pretoria (1911) which were considered branches of the Royal Mint
  • Ancient prerogative powers ensured that the reigning King or Queen was deemed to have the right to be consulted as to the designs and inscriptions that were placed on all coins intended for the disparate parts of the British Empire

The fact that the Irish government managed to issue coinage with a harp replacing the monarch’s head was a big deal back then, and the fact that the harp had no crown (above the harp) was also a major shift in design policy.

When the government of the Irish Free State first thought about about the introduction of new coins and banknotes, they quite rightly decided that these would remain pegged to the pound sterling.  Their decision was mainly for economic reasons because, in 1924,

  • 98% of Irish exports went to Great Britain and Northern Ireland,
  • while 80% of imports were from those territories.

Additionally, the stability and backing of the pound sterling reassured the government that the new currency was on a firm foundation and did not weaken efforts to rebuild the country socially and economically, which was the government’s first commitment.  They had to be very careful ‘not to throw out the baby with the bathwater’ when taking their first steps in nation-building and their work was appreciated by even their sternest critics in the Fianna Fáil when they took over the reins in 1932.


Further Reading:

  • Irish Coin Guide:



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5 thoughts on “Controversy follows 1927 Irish coin design competition results

    • I am not sure where his drawings are but, the National Museum of Ireland have a beautiful display of his plaster models on show at Collins Barracks Museum in Dublin. They are upstairs (1st floor) in the numismatic section. This museum is open from Tuesday-Sunday and there is visitor car-parking available.


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