O’Brien Coin Guide: Paul Manship’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)

Manship’s Background:

Paul Howard Manship was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on December 24, 1885.  Manship began his art studies at the St. Paul School of Art in Minnesota. From there he moved to Philadelphia and continued his education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

Following that he migrated to New York City where he enrolled in the Art Students League of New York.  In 1909, he won the Rome Prize and shortly thereafter decamped for Rome where he attended the American Academy from 1909 until 1912.

His style was attractive to both modernists and conservatives and his work is often considered to be a major precursor to Art Deco.  Manship produced over 700 works and he had a reputation for employing assistants of the highest quality, including :-

  • Earth, Air, Water and Fire, bronze reliefs for the American Telephone & Telegraph Building, New York, 1914
  • Relief in honor of J. Pierpont Morgan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1920
  • Young Lincoln, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 1932
  • Paul Rainey Memorial Gateway, Bronx Zoo, New York, 1934
  • Prometheus, Rockefeller Center, New York, 1934.
  • The Celestial Sphere Woodrow Wilson Memorial, Palais des Nations, UN Office at Geneva, Switzerland, 1939.
  • Teddy Roosevelt statue, Theodore Roosevelt Island, Washington, D.C., 1967
  • Gates to the Central Park Zoo Children’s Zoo.

Manship’s Irish Coin Designs:

Manship was a very successful sculptor and one of the leaders in his field. As such, he was perhaps, more aware of his position in the art field and he donated a set of his rejected plaster models to the Smithsonian Museum in 1929, the year after Metcalfe’s designed coins were released to the public in Ireland.

Paul Manship's plaster models of his design entries for the 1927 Irish National Coin Design Competition.

Paul Manship’s plaster models of his design entries for the 1927 Irish National Coin Design Competition.

Manship’s Irish Pattern Coins:

Like Morbiducci, Manship also included a set of pattern coins in metal for the judges consideration. Unlike Morbiducci’s famous patterns, however, Manship’s coins were uniface, i.e. reverse designs only. Manship lost the competition to English sculptor Percy Metcalfe, but graciously acknowledged that, had he been on the jury, he would have made the same decision.

Manship set of 8
Manship donated a set of his rejected coin models (above) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929, the year Metcalfe’s designed coins were released. He also donated his studio set of the eight models to the Smithsonian Art Museum (among other studio models) in 1965 a year before his death.

Manship put forward a full set of reverse designs: namely a farthing, halfpenny (ram), penny, threepence, sixpence, shilling, florin and halfcrown. 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.



Further Reading:

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