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
- THREEPENCE: Hare
- 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)
The least well-known and least accomplished (at the time) of the seven artists invited, Metcalfe was recommended as “an up and coming sculptor/designer. He studied art in Leeds, and in 1914 attended the Royal College of Art London. He produced many designs for Ashtead Pottery between 1923 and 1936.
His later works include :-
- The bronze war memorial in Durban, South Africa.
- He was involved in the design of the Great Seal of the Realm.
- He also produced many designs for Ashtead Pottery between 1923 and 1936
- In the 1930s, Metcalfe designed car mascots.
- He was responsible for the design of the George Cross in 1940, particularly the head of King George VI on it.
Metcalfe’s Irish Coin Designs:
Metcalfe put forward an obverse design (Irish Harp) and nine reverse designs: namely a farthing, halfpenny (two designs – pig and sheep), threepence, sixpence, shilling, florin and halfcrown. Some of his original plaster models can be seen at the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks, Dublin.
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.
Metcalfe’s Later Coin Designs:
Metcalfe created a portrait of King George V which was used as the obverse for coins of Australia, Canada, Fiji, Mauritius, New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia in the 1930s and, perhaps best known of all, is his Art Deco design for the reverse of Britain’s 1935 Silver Jubilee crown.
1935 Great Britain Silver Jubilee Crown
- Blog Post – The controversial 1927 Irish coin design competition
- Blog Post – How the Irish coin designs of 1928 influenced modern international coin design
- O’Brien Coin Guide: Albert Power’s Irish Coin Designs (1927)
- O’Brien Coin Guide: Oliver Sheppard’s Irish Coin Designs (1927)
- O’Brien Coin Guide: Jerome Connor’s Irish Coin Designs (1927)
- O’Brien Coin Guide: Carl Milles’ Irish Coin Designs (1927)
- O’Brien Coin Guide: Publio Morbiducci’s Irish Coin Designs & Proof/Patterns (1927)
- O’Brien Coin Guide: Paul Manship’s Irish Coin Designs (1927)
- O’Brien Coin Guide: Percy Metcalfe’s Irish Coin Designs (1927)