O’Brien Coin Guide: Oliver Sheppard’s Irish Coin Designs (1927)


In 1922 Ireland won its independence from Britain and, after the initial distraction of a civil war, the country began to move on and set about its primary task of nation-building. The process that followed was difficult and divisive and one of the things deemed essential for the new state was its own currency. On 13th April 1926, the Coinage Act of 1926 became law :-

  • empowering the Minister for Finance to provide and issue coins
  • the Act also prescribed the denominations, metal alloys and weights of the coins

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.

  • Two TDs, Michael R.T. Heffernan and Osmond Grattan Esmonde, suggested setting up a special committee of persons with artistic knowledge to advise on the designs.
  • Senator W. B. Yeats proposed a competent artistic committee for this purpose.

The Minister for Finance agreed and set up a 5-man committee:

  • 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
  • Mr. Thomas Bodkin, one of the Governors of the National Gallery
  • Mr. Barry M. Egan, 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.

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.
    • This, last proviso, caused a lot of controversy since those executed or killed in the Easter Rising, War of Independence and the then very recent Irish Civil War, were being elevated to ‘cult hero’ status by their followers and this was doing little to unite the people of the newly formed Irish Free State.

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

  • HALF-CROWN: Horse
  • FLORIN: Salmon
  • SHILLING: Bull
  • SIXPENCE: Wolfhound
  • PENNY: Hen, possibly with chickens
  • HALFPENNY: Pig, or a Goat/Sheep (added later)
  • FARTHING: Woodcock

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. Like the Irish contenders, not everyone accepted the invitation and they eventually shortlisted the following :-

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

Oliver Sheppard’s Background:

Oliver Sheppard, RHA (1865 – 14 September 1941) was an Irish sculptor, most famous for his 1911 bronze statue of the mythical Cúchullainn dying in battle.  Sheppard was born at Cookstown, Co Tyrone to artisan parents from Dublin, and he was later based in Dublin for almost all of his life, having traveled widely across Europe.  His main influence was the Frenchman Edouard Lanteri who taught him at the Royal College of Art in London, and then at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (DMSA) in Dublin (now the NCAD), where he later became a lecturer.  He is best known for the following works :-

  • 1901; imaginary statue of “Inis Fáil“, seeing Ireland as an “island of destiny”.
  • 1905; statue of a pikeman at Wexford, recalling the rebels in the 1798 rebellion.
  • 1908; statue of a pikeman at  Enniscorthy.
  • 1909; bust of the poet James Clarence Mangan in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin.
  • 1911; The “Dying Cuchulain” is Sheppard’s most iconic piece, inspired in part by the success of “Cuchulain of Muirthemne“, the translation by Lady Gregory of most of the Tain saga that was published in 1902.
  • 1920; war memorials for the Irish solicitors and barristers who had died in the First World War (1914–18), which includes a bust of Major Willie Redmond.
  • 1922, bronze plaque in memory of Dr. James Little at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland.
  • 1926; bust of his lifelong friend George Russell, best known as “Æ”.

Oliver Sheppard’s Irish Coin Designs:

Oliver Sheppard's Coin Designs: Irish Coin Design Competition 1927

Oliver Sheppard’s Coin Designs: Irish Coin Design Competition 1927

Sheppard put forward an obverse design (Irish Harp) and five reverse designs: namely a halfpenny, penny, shilling, florin and halfcrown design. Modern reproductions (3-D prints) of his original plaster cast models can be seen at The Central Bank of Ireland’s wonderful Irish Coins exhibit at their new headquarters on Dublin’s North Wall Quay.

  • The name of the exhibit is: “Pounds, Shillings & Independence
    • This exhibition celebrates the work of the Currency Commission, which was established in 1927 to design, issue, manage and control an entirely new and independent Irish currency.
    • According to the Central Bank of Ireland’s publicity material:
      • Visitors can learn how a uniquely Irish economic situation lead to the development of two separate sets of banknotes – the Ploughman’s series of notes and the Series A Banknotes – each with a unique design.
      • The exhibition also takes visitors on a journey through the development of the first Irish coinage, the Saorstát pound, whose designs are still renowned for their distinctive artistic qualities.

Oliver Sheppard’s Later Works:

Although Sheppard was not successful in this coin design competition, his work would have an immense impact on the imagery of Irish nationalism when, in 1935, his installation of The “Dying Cúchulainn” at the GPO, Dublin – the rebels’ headquarters in 1916 – appeared for the first time at the request of Éamon de Valera, President of the Executive Council (prime minister) at that time.

This statue has had a continuing numismatic impact when, in 1966, it was the reverse design of the 50th anniversary (of the Easter Rising) commemoration ‘ten shilling’ coin. Unlike in 1927, this coin featured a person – Padraic Pearse.

Sheppard's iconic statue of the 'Dying Cuchulainn' features on the reverse of Ireland's 1966 commemorative ten shilling coin.

Sheppard’s iconic statue of the ‘Dying Cúchulainn’ features on the reverse of Ireland’s 1966 commemorative ten shilling coin. The statue can still be seen today in Dublin’s GPO.

In addition to the iconic statue of the ‘Dying Cúchulainn’ Sheppard also later produced:

  • 1930; busts of John Joly at Trinity College Dublin and the Royal Dublin Society.
  • 1935; Aida, a bust now at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.


Further Reading:

Web Pages:





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