O’Brien Coin Guide: Jerome Connor’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 nove 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)

Jerome Connor’s Background:

Jerome Connor was born on 23rd February 1874 in Coumduff, Annascaul, Co. Kerry. In 1888, he emigrated to Holyoke, Massachusetts. His father was a stonemason, which led to Connor’s jobs in New York as a sign painter, stone-cutter, bronze founder and machinist. Inspired by his father’s work and his own experience, Connor used to steal his father’s chisels as a child and carve figures into rocks.

He joined the Roycroft arts community, in 1899 where he assisted with blacksmithing and later started creating terracotta busts and reliefs and eventually, he was recognized as Roycroft’s sculptor-in-residence. It is also thought that he was a prize-fighter at one stage.

After four years at Roycroft, he then worked with Gustav Stickley and became well known as a sculptor being commissioned to create civic commissions in bronze for placement in Washington, D.C., Syracuse, East Aurora, New York, San Francisco, and in his native Ireland.

  • In 1910, he established his own studio in Washington, D.C.
    • From 1902 until his death, Connor produced scores of designs ranging from small portrait heads to relief panels to large civic commissions realized in bronze.

Connor was a self-taught artist who was highly regarded in the United States where most of his public works can be seen. It was felt he was heavily influenced by the work of Irish American sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens – who famously produced a design for the US $20 gold coin (the double eagle).

  • Connor used the human figure to give expression to emotions, values and ideals. Many of the commissions he received were for civic memorials and secular figures which he cast in bronze, a pronounced departure from the Irish tradition of stone carved, church sponsored works

Connor is a recognized world class sculptor and his best known work is Nuns of the Battlefield located at the intersection of Rhode Island Ave NW, M St & Connecticut Ave NW in Washington, D.C., United States.

  • Nuns of the Battlefield was surveyed in 1993 by the Smithsonian for their program.
  • It serves as a tribute to the over six hundreds nuns who nursed soldiers of both armies during the Civil War, and is one of two monuments in the District that represent women’s roles in the American Civil War.
    • The sculpture was authorized by Congress on March 29, 1918 with the agreement that the government would not fund it.
    • The Ancient Order of Hibernians, raised $50,000 for the project.
    • Jerome Connor was chosen since he focused on Irish Catholic themes, being one himself but he ended up suing the Order for nonpayment.

He worked in the United States until 1925 and moved to Dublin where he opened his own studio, but, lack of financial support and patrons caused his work to slow.

  • In 1926 he was contacted by Roycroft and asked to design and cast a statue of Elbert Hubbard who, with his wife Alice, had died in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.
  • It was unveiled in 1930 and today it stands on the lawn of East Aurora’s Middle School across the street from the Roycroft Chapel building.

While working on the Hubbard statue, Connor received a commission to create a memorial for all the Lusitania victims. It was to be erected in Cobh, Co Cork where many of the victims were buried.

  • The project was initiated by the New York Memorial Committee, headed by William H. Vanderbilt whose father Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, like Elbert and Alice Hubbard, perished on the Lusitania.
  • Connor died before the Lusitania memorial was completed and based on Connor’s design its installation fell to another Irish artist.

Throughout his career, Connor was also known as Patrick Jeremias Connor, Jerome Conner, Jerome Stanley Connor, J. Stanley Connor, and “St. Jerome” Connor.

  • He died on August 21, 1943 of heart failure and reputably in poverty.

There is a now a “Jerome Connor Place” in Dublin and around the corner there is a plaque in his honour on Infirmary Road, overlooking Dublin’s Phoenix Park (his favourite place) with the words of his friend the poet Patrick Kavanagh:

He sits in a corner of my memory
With his short pipe, holding it by the bowl,
And his sharp eye and his knotty fingers
And his laughing soul
Shining through the gaps of his crusty wall.

Jerome Connor’s Irish Coin Designs:

Jerome Connor's Coin Designs: Irish Coin Design Competition 1927

Jerome Connor’s Coin Designs: Irish Coin Design Competition 1927

Connor put forward two obverse designs (Irish Harp) and two reverse designs: namely a farthing and a halfpenny (goat) 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.

Conner stepped outside the guidelines – disregarding the recommended animal motifs for some of his designs.  Instead, he created a model for the penny (shown below) bearing that Irish youth whose plaster design is now on exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland.

Jerome Stanley Connor's design for the penny, 1927 coin ireland irish pattern

Jerome Stanley Connor’s design for the penny, 1927

The artist felt the penny was a child’s coin. His design reflected this by celebrating a childhood theme. This also brought to mind the harsh times in Ireland’s history where Irish families gave up their children to be housed in institutions because they were poor.


Further Reading:

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