O’Brien Coin Guide: Irish Pre-Decimal Farthing

Ireland is one of only four nations to issue farthing coins in the 20th century.  The other three countries to circulate farthings were the UK (1900-1956), South Africa (1923-60), and Jamaica (1900-63).

  • British farthings ceased to be legal currency in 1960
  • The farthings of South Africa, Jamaica and Ireland ceased to be legal currency in 1961, 1969 and 1971, respectively.

More importantly, from a numismatic viewpoint, Ireland was both the first and last country to issue and use farthings for circulation purposes – although some sources believe this early currency was a method for stripping Ireland of its silver reserves.

The first English pennies (or starlings) were cut in half (for halfpennies) or in four (originally known as ‘fourthings’, later corrupted to farthings).  The old ‘long cross’ design of these silver pennies made this task easy and fragmented medieval pennies are very collectable.

Medieval English ‘cut’ farthings (fourthings)

Medieval English ‘cut’ farthings (fourthings)

The first purpose-made farthing coins were issued in Ireland during the reign of King John between the years 1190 and 1198.

Since no English round farthings (i.e. struck as farthings, as opposed to ‘cut’ quarter pennies) have been found to date and the number of round halfpennies of this period is so small compared with the number of pennies, it has been postulated that the Irish three denomination (penny, halfpenny and farthing) system was unique in the sterling world at the time.

King John Irish farthing, Dublin mint

John (as Lord of Ireland), Second coinage, Farthing, Dublin mint, Norman, mascle with trefoil of pellets at angles, rev. norm retrograde in arms of cross, (S 6220; DF 38). His ‘first issue’ of coinage in Ireland was restricted to halfpennies, i.e. no farthings.

King John Irish farthing, Dublin mint

John (as King), Third coinage, Farthing, Dublin mint, Roberd moneyer (SCBI Belfast 387, S 6234, DF 52). Good fine, extremely rare

These first farthings were very small and light.  As silver rose in value, they were no longer issued and, as there was a need for small, fractional coins, farthings were eventually re-introduced as copper coins.  By the 20th century, they were produced in bronze for durability reasons.

The last Irish farthing (for circulation) was issued in 1959 and they were accepted as legal currency up until decimalisation in 1971, and they are still exchangeable today at the Central bank of Ireland at face value.  At approx. 768 to a Euro, it is better to bring them to a coin dealer who will, no doubt, offer a much better exchange rate.

  • an Irish farthing was issued in 1966 as part of a collectors’ set to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising.  These did not circulate but they are often found loose in small groups of coins.
  • a British farthing was issued in 1970 as part of a BU collectors’ set to commemorate the last year of imperial (pre-decimal) coinage in the UK.  These are not usually found outside of these special sets.

The modern Irish Farthing

The farthing (¼d) (Irish: feoirling) was the lowest value coin of the pre-decimal Irish pound. There were 4 to a penny, 48 to a shilling, 96 to a florin and 960 to a pound.

The coin had lost much of its value through inflation long before decimalisation in February 1971, and during the 1960s no farthings were produced for general circulation in either Ireland or the UK.

Since the Irish pound was pegged to the British pound until 1979, the Irish farthing had the same dimensions and weight as the British version.  Irish and British farthings officially measured 0.796875 inches (20.2406 mm) in diameter and weighed 2.83495 grams. These bronze coins comprised 95.5% copper, 3% tin and 1.5% zinc.

Similar to the other seven Irish Free State coins, the Irish farthing was designed by the English artist Percy Metcalf. The reverse design featured a woodcock (Scolopax rusticola) and the obverse featured the Irish harp.

1928-66 Irish Farthing (reverse design)

1928-66 Irish Farthing (reverse design)

As their common name implies, the woodcocks are woodland birds. They feed at night or in the evenings, searching for invertebrates (mostly earthworms) in soft ground with their long bills. This nocturnal habit and their unobtrusive plumage make them difficult to see when they are resting during day-light hours.

Woodcock at rest

Woodcock at rest

Woodcocks have stocky bodies, cryptic brown and blackish plumage and long slender bills. Their eyes are located on the sides of their heads, which gives them 360° vision.  Unlike in most birds, the tip of the bill’s upper mandible is flexible.

 Ireland, the woodcock (Gaelic: Creabhar) is a popular gamebird

In Ireland, the woodcock (Gaelic: Creabhar) is a popular gamebird and is now quite rare due to overhunting. It is similar to, but a different species to the more commonly seen Snipe.

From 1928 through 1937 the date was split either side of the harp with the name Saorstát Éireann circling around.

1928-37 Irish Farthing (obverse design)

1928-37 Irish Farthing (obverse design)

Irish Free State Farthings
Year Mintage
1928 300,000
1930 288,000
1931 192,000
1932 192,000
1933 480,000
1935 192,000
1936 192,000
1937 480,000

From 1939 through 1966 the inscription changed to Éire on the left of the harp and the date on the right.

1939-66 Irish Farthing (obverse design)

1939-66 Irish Farthing (obverse design)

Republic of Ireland Farthings
Year Mintage
1939 768,000
1940 192,000
1941 480,000
1943 480,000
1944 480,000
1946 480,000
1949 192,000
1953 192,000
1959 192,000
1966   96,000

In 2006 some fake 1941 farthings appeared on the market and some of these faked coins were authenticated by a US grading company before they were advised (by Irish numismatists) that the coins were fake.

  • It is only a matter of time before more and better ones appear.
  • Caveat emptor (buyer beware)

Farthings were not very common in circulation after 1950 and vanished entirely around 1960 since few retailers displayed goods worth less than a halfpenny back then. As such, the later dates (1950s and 1966) are usually found with very light,. if any, circulation wear.

  • 1959 and 1966 farthings are often found in small uncirculated groups
  • Farthings are rarely found heavily worn
  • Damaged coins are not uncommon – especially from 1928 to 1932

The woodcock motif was later adopted for the decimal 50p coin (1970-2000) that replaced the obsolete ten shilling note in February 1971.

Related Articles

Irish Pre-Decimal Coins (1928-1969)


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