O’Brien Rare Coin Review: Did a Gaelic king ‘mint coins in 11th C Ireland ?


It is generally agreed that the first coins used in Ireland for trade purposes were those imported by the Dublin vikings in the mid-10th C and that these coins comprised a mixture of mainly Anglo-Saxon, with some European and Islamic (Kufic) coins also turning up in hoards and single finds.

  • However, one pound (240 silver pennies) could buy you 15 head of cattle in the year 980 during the reign of King Aethelraed the Unready, according to David Sinclair’s The Pound: A Biography
  • And, the hoard evidence in Ireland immediately before the introduction of Sihtric’s (Phase I) coinage suggests that a monetary system did exist in Ireland at that time – at least amongst the Hiberno-Norse in viking Dublin.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that it was the Dublin vikings who were the first to actually mint coins in Ireland for use in Ireland (and abroad) and these are known as the Hiberno-Norse series – of which there are seven distinct phases (albeit one is a bit of a dumping ground).

  • However, two coins found almost a century apart are potentially a paradigm changer for they suggest the issuer was an Irish king (not necessarily the High King) but they do definitely ‘look as if’ they are native Irish coins !

The Coins of the Southern O’Neill 

Two coins – one first described in 1921 and the other found in 2007 – have re-ignited an old numismatic debate re

  • “were the Dublin Vikings the only people to mint coins in the early to mid-11th C Ireland?”

The first coin, described by H. Alexander Parsons in the British Numismatic Journal of 1921-22 as “a penny of the Southern O’Neill”.  Parsons appears to have been in no doubt that the coin was Irish in origin and went on to suggest that “the words REX M can mean only King of Munster.”  In a recent presentation to the Irish Numismatic Society, Andy Woods of Cambridge University continues in this line of thought, i.e. the coin is Irish in origin and was minted by a Munster king.

Parsons described the Southern O’Neill coin (pictured below) thus :-

hiberno-norse coin Limerick, Ireland coin, numismatics

The ‘unique’ coin attributed to an O’Neill king in Ireland – known as the O’Neil Rex coin (Parsons, H.Alexander, BNJ 1921).

Obverse.-N0IL + REX M, the E retrograde and the left lower limb of the X incomplete. Mantled bust to left, helmed and coroneted; surrounded by the inscription broken by the bust and points of the crown. All within an outer dotted circle.

Reverse.- + BLAN I> ISE ON LI, retrograde; the L of LI inverted. Quatrefoil with three pellets on each of the cusps, superimposed on a voided cross, around, is the legend between an inner and outer circle.

Parsons suggested that the moneyer’s name was Blanwise, or Bland and went on to suggest that the matrices of this coin would therefore have been cut by an Hiberno-Norse craftsman residing in the town represented by the letters LI, or Limerick. Although he suggested that the coin was an imitation of those minted in the north of England, he went on to state that “these letters unmistakably point to Limerick, the capital of Munster” – despite the fact that no Hiberno-Norse coins are known to have been minted in Limerick.

I have three issues with this analysis, and they are :-

  1. the “M” could have stood for “Meath” – the fifth province of Ireland and the traditional ‘seat’ of the High King.  All of the Irish high kings from the 7th C to the 10th were of the O’Neill clan, with the notable exception of Brian Boru (an O’Brien from Munster). In all cases, their seat of power was Tara, in the Kingdom of Meath, but Brian Boru chose not to reside in Tara – his power base in Munster would have been much safer.
  2. the mint letters (inverted L + I) could refer to an Anglo-Saxon mint or be a corruption of the letters of an Anglo-Saxon mint, i.e. it is highly unlikely that they were from Limerick since no coins are known to have been minted in Limerick until the reign of King John.
  3. The legend is incomplete and may have been blundered, therefore the “-N0IL + REX M” could have been for Domhnall (Mór O’Brien) who was King of Thomond (1168-94) and a claimant to the title King of Munster.
    1. He was also styled King of Limerick, a title belonging to the O’Brien dynasty since Brian Boru’s annexation of the Norse city of Limerick in the 10th C
    2. According to the Annals of Ulster, he was the last king of Munster

The two coins, found over 90 years apart, were compared by Andy Woods of Cambridge University at a recent meeting of the Irish Numismatic Society.  The first coin (as described by Parsons) was, up until now, treated as an anomaly and remained neglected from a numismatic study viewpoint.

Woods asked the question “were they minted by or for a King of Munster?”

The First Irish Coins

Stepping back from the conundrum in hand, let us begin by asking how coinage was introduced to Ireland in the first instance?

According to Michael Dolley, “The nature of the economy in tenth-century Ireland varied from region to region, and developed during the course of the century. There is a range of hoard compositions, from ones containing only whole silver ornaments, or whole ornaments, ingots and hack-silver, or a mixture of such silver and coins, to hoards containing only coins”.  

Dolley goes on to say “In Dublin and its close hinterland the five recorded hoards from the second half of the tenth century contained just coins, and those all Anglo-Saxon. It seems as if a de facto coin economy developed there, albeit one based on imported coins which were probably valued according to their intrinsic silver content with perhaps some premium. Silver bullion may also have been used for certain transactions, as hacksilver and weights were plentiful in the Dublin excavations, if often difficult to date. Yet coins must have been prized more highly for they were hoarded separately and, we may suppose, preferred for some purposes or by certain groups in society”.

Apart from the same problems I have with Parsons’ conclusions, I also have the following reservations about Woods’ line of inquiry, i.e.

  • Coins minted by the Hiberno-Norse of Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford are (to date) unknown
    • Gerreits and Kenny question the assumption that the Irish did not use coinage, as such, even after Dublin began minting its own coinage.
    • Kenny suggests that contact with the Hiberno-Norse may have created a “heightened awareness of coins and coin usage,” especially in the kingdoms bordering Dublin—Mide, Brega, and north Leinster (but no mention is made of Munster).
    • Most academics still assume that, in most cases, Dublin or another of the Scandinavian port towns, was the point of entry or production of silver coins, which then passed into Irish hands through trade, or as tribute, ransom or war booty.
    • It is worth noting that, even outside of Ireland coins were used at this date only for a restricted range of functions, such as major trading transactions, payment of taxes or tribute, or payment for military service.
    • Despite the fact that he also ruled Waterford (at times), Sihtric does not appear to have minted coins in Waterford during his troubled / intermittent reign.
  • Finding a coin in a location (e.g. in the west of Ireland) does not mean the coin was minted there
    • Most Viking-age coin hoards, however, occur in areas that would have been under Irish, rather than Scandinavian, control—notably the powerful midland kingdom of Mide (Meath).
    • Analysis of the occurrence and distribution of these hoards suggests that most were deposited by Irish, rather than Hiberno-Norse, hoarders.  The high rate of hoarding amongst the native Irish suggests they did not use coinage in every day transactions – although this assumption is now also being questioned.

Given that the Dublin Vikings first used Anglo-Saxon coins before minting their own, would it not be likely that the native Irish would have also used Anglo-Saxon and/or Hiberno-Norse coinage before they too minted their own?

  • The answer to this question was undisputed:
  • “there is no evidence that the (medieval) native Irish ever minted their own coinage”   … until now !!!
    • The ‘ill-judged’ production of pennies and groats for the pretender Lambert Simnal (proclaimed Edward VI, King of Ireland) by Garret Mór Fitzgerald, Earl of Kildare was an Anglo-Norman issue – although some might argue that the Fitzgeralds had been assimilated into the Gaelic way of life by then.
    • The first ‘native’ Irish currency was the Catholic Confederate Coinage of 1642-43 and it could be argued that this was an Hiberno-Norman or Hiberno-Spanish initiative, since the old Gaelic Order had completely collapsed with the Flight of the Earls in 1603.
  • The question is now …
    • “did a ‘native’ Irish king copy an Anglo-Saxon coin?”
    • or, “did a native Irish king contract an Anglo-Saxon moneyer to produce coins for him?”
    • or, “did an Anglo-Saxon king give gifts of silver (pattern) coins to an Irish king?”
  • Other questions now include …
    • “what O’Neill king were these coins produced for?
      • “where were these coins produced?”
        • “when were they struck?”
          • “why were they struck?”
            • “what were they used for?”

If these are a ‘native’ Irish coinage, would it not be more likely that the native Irish of Mide (Meath) are the ‘most likely’ group to have conceived a coinage of their own?

Archaeological finds suggest that the Vikings of Dublin and their neighbours were the most prevalent users/hoarders of coins in the 9th C.  Finds of Anglo-Saxon coins are most common in Dublin and its hinterland, i.e. Meath and the Midlands.

Map of Coin Finds in Ireland AD 950-1170 (ex-Andy Woods, 201)

Map of Coin Finds in Ireland AD 950-1170 (ex-Andy Woods, 2011)

  • Anglo-Saxon Coin Finds around Viking Cork
    • Macroom, Co. Cork – Seventeen Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadmund’; ‘Edward the Elder; ‘Eadred’ (Hall 1973-74, 75)
    • Rathbarry, Co. Cork – Hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadmund’ (Hall 1973-74, 74)
  • Anglo-Saxon Coin Finds around Viking Limerick
    • Adare, Co. Limerick – About twenty-four coins in total – Anglo-Saxon. (Hall 1973-74, 80)
    • Broad Street, Limerick, Co. Limerick – Anglo-Saxon coin – ‘Cnut’ (O’Donovan 1999:0515)
    • Clonmacnoise, Co. Offaly – Possible Anglo-Saxon coin (King 1994:0197)
    • Mungret, Co. Limerick – Nine coins in total – Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Edward the Elder; ‘Eadred’ (Hall 1973-74, 75)
    • Rahan (I), Co. Offaly – Hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins (Hall 1973-74, 77)
    • Rahan (II), Co. Offaly – Hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins (Hall 1973-74, 77)
  • Anglo-Saxon Coin Finds around Viking Waterford
  • Dunmore Cave Mohil, Co. Kilkenny – Fourteen Anglo-Saxon silver pennies – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Edward the Elder’ (Wallace & Ó Floinn 2002, 223)
  • Dunmore Cave Mohil, Co. Kilkenny – Ten coins in total -Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Edward the Elder’ (Hall 1973-74, 73)
  • Kilkenny, Co. Kilkenny – Large quantities of coins – AngloSaxon – ‘Cnut’ (Hall 1973-74, 80)
  • Knockmaon, Co. Waterford – Fourteen coins in total – AngloSaxon – ‘Eadgar’ (Hall 1973-74, 79)
  • Unlocated, Co. Kilkenny – 60 Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Eadgar’ (Hall 1973-74, 78)
  • Unlocated, Co. Tipperary – Nineteen Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Edward the Elder’; ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadmund’ (Hall 1973-74, 74)

Anglo-Saxon Coin Finds around Viking Wexford

  • Dunbrody, Co. Wexford – 1600 coins in total – Anglo-Saxon – ‘Edward the Confessor’; ‘Cnut’; ‘Harold I’; ‘Harthacnut’ (Hall 1973-74, 80)
  • Anglo-Saxon Coin Finds around Viking Dublin
    • Ballitore, Co. Kildare – Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadmund’; ‘Eadwig’; ‘Eadgar’; ‘Eadred’ (Hall 1973-74, 76)
    • Ballylynan, Co. Laois – One Anglo-Saxon coin – ‘Harold I’ (Hall 1973-74, 80)
    • Bawnaughragh, Co. Laois – One Anglo-Saxon coin – ‘Offa’ (Hall 1973-74, 82)
    • Bullock, Co. Dublin – Three Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Eadgar’ (Hall 1973-74, 77)
    • Bullock, Co. Dublin – 65 Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Eadgar’ (Hall 1973-74, 77)
    • Castlebellingham, Co. Louth – Two Anglo-Saxon coins –‘Edward the Elder’ (Hall 1973-74, 73)
    • Dalkey, Co. Dublin – 80 Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadmund’; ‘Eadwig’; ‘Eadgar’; ‘Eadred’; ‘Edward the Elder’ (Hall 1973-74, 77)
    • Delgany, Co. Wicklow – 115 Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Eadberht Præn’; ‘Cuthred’; ‘Baldred’; ‘Offa’; ‘Coenwulf’; ‘Beornwulf’; ‘Ecgbeorht’ – Archbishops ‘Æthilweard’; ‘Wulfred’ (Hall 1973-74, 71; Dolley & Morrison 1963, 77)
    • Derrymore, Co. Westmeath – Eleven coins in total – AngloSaxon – ‘Æthelred II’ (Hall 1973-74, 79)
    • Drogheda, Co. Louth – One Anglo-Saxon coin – ‘Æthelstan’ (Hall 1973-74, 82)
    • Dublin, 26-29 Castle Street – 76 Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Ethelred II’ (Byrne 1993:0057)
    • Dublin, 26-29 Castle Street – 237 Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Ethelred II’ (Byrne 1993:0057)
    • Dublin, Christchurch Place – Two Anglo-Saxon coins (Ó Ríordáin 1975:0015)
    • Dublin, Christchurch Place – Two Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelred’; ‘Cnut’ (Ó Ríordáin 1973:0017)
    • Dublin, Fishamble Street I – One Anglo-Saxon coin – 10th C (Ó Ríordáin 1976:0019)
    • Dublin, Fishamble Street II – One Anglo-Saxon coin – ‘Eadgar’ (Wallace 1977-79:0037)
    • Dublin, High Street – Anglo-Saxon coin – ‘Anlaf’ (Ó Ríordáin 1972:0014)
    • Dublin, Werburgh Street – 125 Anglo-Saxon coins – late-10th C (Hayden 1994:0087)
    • Dublin, ? – One Anglo-Saxon coin – ‘Eadgar’ (Hall 1973-74, 82)
    • Rock of Dunamase, Co. Laois – One Anglo-Saxon coin – 9th C (Hodkinson 1995:0176)
    • Durrow, Co. Offaly – Ten Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Edward the Elder’; ‘Æthelstan’ (Hall 1973-74, 74)
    • Dysert, Lough Ennell, Co. Westmeath – One Anglo-Saxon coin – ‘Alfred’ (Kenny 1987, 521)
    • Fennor, Co. Meath – Two Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadmund’ (Hall 1973-74, 75)
    • Fontstown, Co. Offaly – One Anglo-Saxon coin – ‘Æthelred II’ (Hall 1973-74, 82)
    • Fourknocks, Co. Meath – Twenty-nine coins in total – Anglo-Saxon – ‘Æthelred II’ (Hall 1973-74, 80)
    • Glasnevin, Co. Dublin – Two Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’ (Hall 1973-74, 73)
    • Glendalough, Co. Wicklow – Forty-nine Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Edward the Elder’; ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadmund’ (Hall 1973-74, 74)
    • Glendalough, Co. Wicklow – Anglo-Saxon coins -‘Eadmund’; ‘Eadwig’; ‘Eadgar’; ‘Eadred’ (Hall 1973-74, 78)
    • Kildare, Co. Kildare – Thirty-four Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelred II’ (Hall 1973-74, 79)
    • Killincoole, Co. Louth – Seven Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadwig’; ‘Eadgar’; ‘Eadred’ (Hall 1973-74, 77)
    • Killyon Manor, Co. Meath – 88 coins in total – Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadmund’; ‘Edward the Elder; ‘Eadred’ (Hall 1973-74, 75)
    • Knowth, Co. Meath – Two Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadred’ (Eogan 1971:0028; Hall 1973-74, 74)
    • Lagore, Co. Meath – One Anglo-Saxon coin – ‘Edward the Elder’ (Hencken 1950, 181; Hall 1973-74, 82)
    • Leggagh, Co. Meath – Ten coins in total – Anglo-Saxon – ‘Edward the Elder’ (Hall 1973-74, 73)
    • Lough Lene, Co. Westmeath – Twenty eight coins in total – Anglo-Saxon- ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadmund’; ‘Eadwig’; ‘Eadgar’; ‘Eadred’ (Hall 1973-74, 76)
    • Marl Valley, Co. Westmeath – 120-150 Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Eadred’; ‘Æthelstan II’ (Hall 1973-74, 79)
    • Marshes Upper, Co. Louth – Seven Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelred II’ (Gosling 1980-84:0137; Kenny 1987, 521)
    • Monasterboice, Co. Louth – Three Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadmund’; ‘Eadred’ (Hall 1973-74, 75)
    • Mullingar, Co. Westmeath – Three Anglo-Saxon coins (Hall 1973-74, 79)
    • Newtownlow, Co. Westmeath – Six Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadmund’; ‘Eadred’ (Bourke 1985:0058; Kenny 1984, 37)
    • Oldcastle, Co. Meath – Twelve coins in total – AngloSaxon – ‘Eadmund’; ‘Eadred’ (Hall 1973-74, 75-76)
    • Smarmore, Co. Louth – 72 coins in total – Anglo-Saxon – ‘Æthelstan’; ‘Eadgar’; ‘Eadred’; ‘Edward the Elder’; ‘Eadmund’; ‘Eadwig’; (Hall 1973-74, 77)
    • Unlocated, Co. Dublin – Twenty-nine Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Edward the Elder’; ‘Æthelstan’ (Hall 1973-74, 73)
    • Unlocated, Co. Kildare – Ten Anglo-Saxon coins – ‘Edward the Elder’; ‘Æthelstan’ (Hall 1973-74, 74)

Another consideration, from a native Irish ‘economic’ perspective, is that the monks in the monasteries would have had links with monasteries throughout Anglo-Saxon England, therefore these Anglo-Saxon finds may not have been hoarded by the native Irish per se.  The fact that both the Vikings and the native Irish princes raided these monasteries well into the 12th C would also call into question the fact that many people label these monasteries as being “native Irish” whereas they did function quite independently of native Irish society, economics and politics.

With their links to the Anglo-Saxon Church (via Canterbury) and its Anglo-Saxon influenced ecclesiastical art and treasures, is it not feasible that Irish monks hoarded Anglo-Saxon coins and these were, in turn, stolen and hoarded by the native Irish and resident Vikings alike?

Clues to the answer of the above questions can be found in hoards thought to have been deposited in the late 10th C in and around Dublin.  The benefit of a controlled, science-based excavation is that of context, i.e. documenting the relationship of the various finds for each chronologically-dated layer.  Thus we know approximate dates of deposition for each find.  In Dublin, it is now known that the majority of the coins found each hoard found closely correlate to the type of coins we would expect to find for that date range, i.e. the Anglo-Saxon kings changed the design of their coins at regular intervals.  Once Sihtric began his ‘great experiment’ of minting his own coins, the proportion of Anglo-Saxon coins shrinks to almost zero.

This suggests the following :-

  1. Before Sihtric began minting his own coins, Hiberno-Norse Dubliners used Anglo-Saxon coins
  2. Sihtric’s subjects / merchants had, therefore, a long period of time to get used to a coin-based economy
  3. Once he began to mint his own coins, Sihtric was able to eradicate contemporary Anglo-Saxon coins from Dublin
    • His coins must have been of sufficient quality (silver content + weight) for his merchants to do so
    • They might have melted foreign coins as raw material (which would explain their absence thereafter)
    • The contemporary native Irish hoards also contained mainly Hiberno-Norse coins from AD 997 onwards
    • It would, therefore, appear that Sihtric’s experiment was a qualified success

Dating the Southern O’Neill Coin Find

In terms of archaeological context, I cannot find any academic papers relating to associated finds for the first coin (Parsons, 1921) but the church at High Island has been dated between since 9th and 11th century since the construction of the church was bracketed by burials in the ninth and eleventh centuries (Marshall and Rourke 2000, 121). This supports the idea that the coin could be dated from the middle of the 11th C onwards.

  • This is well after the successful currency experiment by Sihtric in the 990’s and the decade after.

In addition to the coin in question, another coin was found at High Island

  • the coin of Harald Hardrada, king of Norway (1046 to 1066), found at High Island, Co. Galway (Scally 1999:305), may be the result of trading.  Modern historians have often considered Harald’s death at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, which brought an end to his invasion, as the end of the Viking Age in England.
    • Ironically, the king that defeated him there (Harold Godwinson) famously lost the Battle of Hastings – ending Anglo-Saxon power in England in favour of the Normans – also in 1066.
      • Harold Godwinson’s sons fled to Ireland and even launched an invasion from there before being defeated in battle at Stoke. Ireland, it seems, was definitely ‘on the radar’ of William the Conquerer long before Henry II decided to invade a century later !

The O’Neill Coin Designs

Looking at the coins themselves, are they similar in design to contemporary coinages in Ireland, England or elsewhere?  In the original analysis, Parsons compares the coin to one minted in Derby at the time of Edward the Confessor (king of England from 1042 to 1066).  This would place the coin in the time of Hiberno-Norse, Phase III (1035-1060) and IV (1055-1065) or at the very beginning of Phase V (1060-1100) of this series.

Parsons went on to speculate that

“it is more than probable that it was actually copied from a similar Derby example, because the defective X of REX … also appears in the imitation.”

He also suggested that

“In other ways, for instance in the bust, the two coins closely approximate each other in their treatment.”

The Derby coin he used as a comparison is an Edward the Confessor silver penny, of which 10 or 11 different types were issued between 1042 and 1065 – the types closest to the Derby coin were issued between the years 1045 and 1048.  This places the O’Neil coin some time after 1045 – but how many years after ?

  • In medieval Ireland, the Kings of Mide were of the Clann Cholmáin, a branch of the Uí Néill.
    • Several were High Kings of Ireland, most notably Malachy II who was defeated by Brian Boru in AD 1002
    • After Boru’s death in 1014, most Irish High Kings were ‘kings with opposition’
      • Donnchad mac Briain (O’Brien) 1014-1060
      • Donnchad’s main rivals were
        • Diarmait mac Maíl na mBó, King of Leinster from 1042  in particular was a serious threat;
          • allied with Niall mac Eochada, King of Ulster, he installed his son Murchad as ruler of Dublin in 1052,
          • driving out Donnchad’s brother-in-law and ally Echmarcach mac Ragnaill.
        • Donnchad also came under sustained attack from both Áedin Gaí Bernaig, King of Connacht from 1046
        • He died as a High with Opposition in 1060
      • Diarmait mac Maíl na mBó (Kinsella) 1060-1072
        • The surviving sons of King Harold Godwinson of England (Godwine and Edmund) fled from the battle at Hastings and escaped to Leinster, where they were hosted by Diarmait.
        • Harold’s wife, Edith, is said to have fled to her brothers, Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria
        • In 1068 and 1069 Diarmait lent them the fleet of Dublin for their attempted invasions of England.
          • Godwine and Edmund then invaded Devon, but were defeated by Brian of Brittany
        • Diarmait mac Maíl na mBó was killed in a battle against the king of Mide (Conchobar Ua Maelsechalinn) near Navan, on 7th February 1072.
      • Toirdelbach Ua Briain (O’Brien) 1072-1086
      • Domnall Ua Lochlainn (O’Neill) 1086-1121

The O’Brien kings ruled Limerick and Munster since the times of Brian Boru, so it is unlikely there was an O’Neill king there at this time. Parsons’ thinking seems to be heavily influenced by his insistence that the coin was minted in Limerick, therefore he goes to great lengths to find reasons to support an O’Neill power base at or near this location.

High Island coin (Marshall & Rourke, 2007)

High Island coin (Marshall & Rourke, 2007)

Contemporary Sources?

In early Irish numismatic texts (18th C) there are mentions of citations in the Irish annals re bracteate coins struck by Irish kings at Clonmacnoise (Co Offaly) and Ferns (Co Wexford) during the 11th and 12th C’s.

  • Simon’s Essay on Irish Coins (1749)

    • Turlogh O’Connor issued coins (c. 1074) in his own name, at Clonmacnoise

The authors go on to say that “examples of these coins” do not exist. Of course, just because archaeologists haven’t found one (yet) doesn’t mean that they did not exist. More recent authors () re-state these claims but several problems exist re these two places being the source of the O’Neil coins in this article :-

  • The O’Neil coins are not bracteates and are dissimilar to Hiberno-Norse (Phase VII) bracteates
  • The O’Neil coins have been dated / correlated with the earlier Hiberno-Norse Phase III or IV
    • or, at the very latest, at the very beginning of Phase V (1060-1100)

At Christmas 1124 all of the English moneyers were summoned to Winchester, where most of them were castrated and had the right hand amputated, on the orders of Henry I. According to Sinclair, half the moneyers in England were mutilated as punishment for producing sub-standard or counterfeit coins in 1124. Another account suggests that 95 moneyers were either castrated or lost a hand but goes on to say that “some of the moneyers escaped the drastic punishment by paying large fines”

  • When the sheriff of Pembrokeshire accounted for the revenues of the Henry I’s new Welsh county in 1130, they included £2 (480 silver pennies) from Gillepatrick, probably in part payment of a fine imposed to avoid corporal punishment in the Purge of Moneyers
  • Is it possible that one moneyer escaped to Ireland and offered his services to an Irish king?
    • The O’Neil coins are very different to the coins minted in England during the reign of Henry I
    • It is, therefore, highly unlikely that a 12th C English moneyer was the source

An English Presence in Viking Dublin?

During the eleventh century, the nature of contacts between England and Ireland can be broadly divided under the headings of trade, religious and intellectual links, and political relations. 

  1. A large amount of contact between England and Ireland took place through the medium of trade. The vikings’ colonies and their network of external contacts stimulated the import and export of goods to and from Ireland. English ports appear to have been the main trading partners with the viking towns of Ireland in the 11th C
    1. One consequence of this trade was that foreign merchants settled in major ports.
    2. There is evidence for a settlement of English merchants along Fishamble Street, Dublin
    3. In London, the dedication of a church to St Bride (Brigit) in Fleet Street might suggest the presence of an Irish community in the 11th C
  2. People were also prompted to cross the Irish Sea for religious reasons. This group included lay pilgrims and clerics. The main route to Rome was through England and Flanders, e.g. Sihtric Silkenbeard made a pilgrimage to Rome via this route. Aubrey Gwynn (1941) concluded that royal pilgrimage to Rome began in Ireland as a Scandinavian phenomenon which was then copied by indigenous rulers
  3. Clerical links further demonstrate that direct links existed between Ireland, England and the Continent at this date. Irish churchmen had a strong presence in the Rhineland and Lorraine
  4. Political links between Ireland and England were well established by the middle of the 11th C
    1. The Annals of Tigernach that the English (under Cnut) and the men of Dublin (under Sihtric) led a joint attack on Wales in 1030
    2. During Edward’s reign, the Godwine family had important and lasting connections with Ireland. Godwine’s daughter Edith was fluent in Irish. In Vita Ædwardi, her skill is presented as highly prestigious and equal in significance to her knowledge of Danish and French
    3. Also, during the reign of Edward the Confessor political exiles could rally support in Ireland which helped to restore them to power.
      1. These events suggest the increasing willingness of Irish rulers to participate in events in England. In the reign of William the Conqueror, this threat from Ireland continued.
    4. Benjamin Hudson has argued that Toirrdelbach Ua Briain of Munster, the new overking of Dublin, followed a more friendly policy towards William than either Diarmait (his main rival for the position of High King) or Guðrøðr Óláfsson (Diarmait’s successor in Dublin)
      1. This theory is supported by numismatic evidence.
      2. From about 1074 until about 1088 the Dublin mint imitated English coin-issues. The weight ratio of Irish to English coins in this period also remained constant at the workable rate of 3:2


A number of the dies used in Dublin were actually English in origin, some obtained from mints in Western England;

  • Seaby and Dolley identified Crux, Long Cross, and Last Small Cross dies previously used at Watchet, Worcester and Chester.
    • This suggests that English die-makers were active in Ireland, and/or their products were imported.
    • Alternatively, it might also suggest that ‘used’ dies had a secondary purpose before being ‘retired’

However, others had been used at mints elsewhere;

  • Bill Lean and Mark Blackburn identified two in the Helmet type taken from London and York.
  • In some cases Dublin moneyers actually commissioned English die-cutters at London and Chester to make them Long Cross and Quatrefoil dies in the name of Sihtric.
    • This is a clear indication that the Hiberno-Norse traders could ‘source’ tools/equipment elsewhere
  • And we even find three obverse dies of Long Cross and Helmet types of clear Hiberno-Scandinavian style being used in the regular coinage at York.
    • This is a clear indication that importing/exporting tools/equipment was a two-way trade

These two coins do show evidence of Saxon influence

  • They also name an Irish king (but not necessarily a High King)
    • They are unlikely to have been minted in Limerick, or in Connacht
    • The most likely location of the O’Neill king is Meath, where there Anglo-Saxon and Hiberno-Norse coin finds are relatively common, i.e. in the hinterland of Dublin but in native Irish territory, where ransoms and/or tributes comprising silver coins went in both directions (according to the annals).
      • Until more are found and studied, these two coins remain an enigma

The likely date of issue is likely somewhere from the middle of the 11th C onwards (AD 1040-60)

  • the previous traditional Uí Néill king of Tara, Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill of Clann Cholmáin, died in 1022
  • the next O’Neill high king (with opposition) was Domnall Ua Lochlainn (old spelling, Domhnall Mac Lochlainn) in 1072
    • Thus, Domnall Ua Lochlainn is the most likely O’Neill candidate for the origin of these two coins
    • If true, did he issue them “before or after” his claim to the high kingship?

What should we now classify this new Irish coinage?

There seems to be two separate dies used – which suggests prolonged usage, or one large production run. One large production run might indicate use as part of a tribute, or ransom.

Comparing the O'Neil REX coins

Comparing the O’Neil REX coins

Suggestions for naming these coins

  • Hiberno-Saxon ?
  • Gaelic Regnal Coinage ?
  • Late Medieval Gaelic Coinage ?
  • ?


Gwynn, Aubrey, Ireland and Rome in the Eleventh Century (1941)

Kelly, E. (2011) Dog’s Bay, Co Galway – (silver working)

Marshall & Rourke (2007, 47) Monastic Enclosure, High Island, Co Galway

Ó Corráin, Donnchadh, The Vikings in Ireland

Parsons, H. Alexander, An Irish eleventh-century coin of the Southern O’Neil, British Numismatic Journal, 1921-22, pp 59-71 [available online: http://www.britnumsoc.org/publications/Digital%20BNJ/pdfs/1921_BNJ_16_6.pdf%5D accessed 30-January-2015

Wallace, Patrick F., The Economy and Commerce of Viking Age Dublin

Woods, Andrew (notes from a lecture to the Irish Numismatic Society)


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