Irish Coin Daily: Political Over-Strike “IDSL” on 1918 GB Penny (Irish Self Determination League of Great Britain)

The Irish Coin Cabinet, The Old Currency Exchange, Coin Dealer, Dublin, Ireland

Date: 1919-1924

Irish Self Determination League counter-marked penny - a GB 1918 penny coin, die-stamped ISDL

Irish Self Determination League counter-marked penny – a GB 1918 penny coin, die-stamped ISDL


Between 1919 and 1924, some Irish Self Determination League member(s) took it upon themselves to deface British coins with a political over-strike. The base coins vary in date – this example pre-dates the organisation, therefore whoever did this simply picked coins out of circulation, de-faced them and put them back into circulation. The coin shows substantial wear, thus we can draw the following conclusions:

  1. defacing coins of the realm (by this organisation) was not a widespread problem, i.e. it did not come to the attention of the authorities – unlike the Sinn Féin postage labels of 1907-08 (which were banned immediately)
  2. the banks did not immediately take them ‘out of circulation’
  3. the coins remained in circulation for a long period

These political counter-strikes do not appear often nowadays and we have no idea how many were produced during the period 1919-1922, so putting a rarity value, or indeed a commercial value on them is difficult. They might have been used by a group within the organisation as ‘proof’ of membership. They could also have been easily concealed in amongst other pocket change, thus also easily denied (if caught with them).


  • No counter-marks on the obverse
  • Presumably, whoever did this was not a die-hard Republican


  • GB 1918 penny coin, die-stamped “ISDL” with a circular mark above


When Ireland declared its Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI) in January, 1919, after the overwhelming mandate given to Sinn Féin in the general election of October, 1918, there were many Irish people in Britain who found themselves questioning what their role should be.

  • The London government refused to acknowledge the Dáil as the de facto and de jure government brought into existence by the democratic decision of the Irish people. Of course, they never had recgonised the democratic will in Ireland, not since the majority of the people had been allowed to express an opinion at the ballot box.
  • From 1870-1918 those demanding self-determination had held four-fifths of all Irish parliamentary seats and been taken no account of. So London would not even negotiate with the newly formed government in Dublin.
    • Some 34 elected MPs, who would sit in Dáil Éireann, the new parliament in Dublin, had already been arrested.
    • Finally, on September 10, 1919, London declared the Dáil “a dangerous association” and declared it outlawed.
  • Arthur Griffith, in July, 1920, gave an official figure calculating that during the year from the establishment of the Dáil:
    • British forces had made 38,720 armed raids on private houses
    • British forces had arrested 4,982 people
    • British forces had been responsible for 77 murders, incl. women and children
    • British forces had been involved in 1,604 armed assaults
      • Troops had been responsible for 102 indiscriminate shootings and burning in towns and villages
      • Some 22 newspapers, daring to report the Dáil meetings in a favourable light, had been suppressed

The Irish government (Dáil Eireann) was then forced “underground” but was still operating. The Irish Volunteers, now the Army of the Irish Republic, were engaged in bitter guerrilla warfare.

What were the Irish in Britain to do?

The Dáil had appointed as its spokesman in London Art O’Brien. He had been born in London in 1872 and attended St Charles College, which still exists as a Catholic sixth form college in Notting Hill. He became a civil engineer.

  • O’Brien was President of the Gaelic League in London from 1914-1935
  • He was also President of the Sinn Féin Council of Great Britain during 1916-1923

Officials Dáil papers showed that Art O’Brien, who as represented of a democratically elected government, made no attempt to hide his role, was under constant harassment from the Metropolitan Police and its Special Branch. Raids on his offices were frequent, office managers were arrested and in two cases they were deported back to Dublin to be dealt with by the ‘Castle’ authorities. At one stage, the Dáil approved sending his office £4,000 to help re-equip it after destruction and loss of documents in a police raid.

The Irish Self Determination League:

Soon after the establishment of the Dáil, however, O’Brien realised that there was a need for an Irish movement in Britain which would not be linked to any one political party, would encompass the spectrum of politics on the basis of the recognition of the Irish government and the need to support it in the War of Independence that was now inflicted on it by London’s policy.

In London at this time, helping out in his office, was Seán McGrath. He had been born in Ballymahon, Co. Longford, in 1882. He had immigrated to England and by 1908 was a clerk in the British Rail Company of London.

  • McGrath was a Gaelic League member who had become a friend of Michael Collins during his period working in London, and also joined as a member of the London Corps of the Irish Volunteers
  • With several members of the Corps he went to Dublin in 1916 and fought in the GPO alongside Collins.
    • He was interned in Frongoch Camp (with Collins et al)
    • He was released with the others
    • He was then imprisoned without charge from March 1918 – January, 1919

O’Brien and McGrath discussed the idea of forming, for the first time ever, a movement that was not allied to any political parties. It was to be formed to support for the Irish state and its government. Its membership would be confined to those of Irish birth or descent resident in Britain.

In March, 1919, the Irish Self-Determination League of Great Britain came into being. Its Constitution and Rules were published by the Woodgrange Press, 1920, who also published at the same time a report of the First Annual Delegate Conference Agenda.

  • At the first meeting in London:
    • Councillor P.J. Kelly of Liverpool was elected President
    • Art O’Brien was elected Vice-President
    • Seán McGrath was appointed General-Secretary

In spite of O’Brien and McGrath’s central roles in the new movement, the League was neither a subordinate organisation of the Dáil nor an adjunct of Sinn Féin. In fact, at the Sinn Féin Ard-Fheis in April, 1919, it was reported that its movement in England had 74 functioning branches in Great Britain.

  • The Irish Self Determination League of Great Britain reached its maximum membership by 1921, which was 38,726

While its office in London was the focus of police raids and general harassment, the ISDL functioned with frequent public meetings, albeit not without some notoriety:

  • A major coup was its meeting at London’s Albert Hall demanding that London recognition the Irish government and the release of all political prisoners.
    • This was held on 11 February 1920
    • Ten thousand people attended and, to the astonishment of the audience, the acting head of the Irish government, vice-president Arthur Griffith, appeared with Eoin MacNeill TD
      • In such a crowd, the Special Branch were unable to effect arrests and both men returned safely to Ireland.

The ISDL were not only publishing its own pamphlets and leaflets trying to educate people on what was happening in Ireland but setting up or supporting Irish language, history and literature classes and encouraging people to support the GAA and other Irish organisations. They also raised and sent money to Dublin.

In March, 1921, the London District Committee of the ISDL launched a monthly journal called Irish Exile. This soon became the official journal of the League, being published on the Friday before the first Sunday of each month. It had a circulation of 10,000 copies.

  • The newspaper expressed disappointment with the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty
    • It ceased circulation in 1922

In November, 1920, Seán McGrath declared that the ISDL was regarded as “the outstanding public organisation which speaks and acts with the authority of the Irish men and women resident in these countries” (England, Scotland and Wales). But against this activity, raids, arrests and deportations continued although the British authorities never declared the League an illegal organisation.

  • General Secretary Seán McGrath was arrested and deported to Ireland in February, 1921
    • In May, other officers of the ISDP were arrested including the acting secretary and the treasurer
  • The ISDL President, Councillor PJ Kelly, was arrested on 25 June 1921, during the lunch-break of the League’s annual conference
    • Finally, Art O’Brien was himself arrested and deported.

As the Treaty became the cause of Ireland descending into civil war, the arguments over the ISDL deportations continued. The Irish Civil War ramped up the interest in the ISDL and their funding of the IRA during the Civil War became an issue for the newly formed Irish Government as well those sitting at Westminster.

  • On 11 March 1923 over 100 members and suspected members (male and female), were arrested in London, Glasgow and Liverpool in a series of dawn raids
    • The arrests were made during the height of the Irish Civil War at the behest of the Irish Free State
      • Those arrested, including both Irish and those born in Britain, were taken to either Liverpool or the Clyde where they were placed on destroyers and deported to Ireland

The British Government used legislation supposedly under the Restoration of Order in Ireland Act 1920, however the deportees subsequently sued the British government for compensation. The detentions were successfully challenged through the British courts ending with a House of Lords ruling that there was no legal basis for the deportation and resulting in compensation being paid to the men involved.

  • James Hickey, one of the deportees from Glasgow, was beaten whilst in prison in Ireland and as a result lost the hearing in his right ear. Along with all the deportees he was awarded compensation for his illegal arrest and imprisonment.
    • On 1 October 1923 he was awarded £750 plus 100 guineas expenses. This was considerably more than the vast majority of his fellow Scottish deportees who were awarded an average of £389 plus 25 guineas
    • The reason cited for the difference in these sums given in the Times is that he was a businessman
    • He subsequently left Scotland and moved, with his family, to Dublin
  • Others deported included:
    • Anthony Mullarkey of Bedlington, Northumberland
    • He had previously been imprisoned at Wormwood Scrubs, having been identified as Commanding Officer of the IRA in Newcastle upon Tyne
    • A coal miner by trade he had served with the Tyneside Irish Brigade (25th (2nd Tyneside Irish) Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers) in World War I.

When the House of Lords decided that the deportations were illegal, the deportees returned to London in triumph. But the London government was not really to give up in spite of the fact that the Irish Free State had now been established and recognised by them on 6 December 1922.

  • They immediately arrested both O’Brien and McGrath
  • They then charged them with conspiracy
    • The two men were sentenced to a two-year jail term each
    • During the short-lived period of Britain’s first Labour government, on 23 July 1924, both men were released after serving a year each in prison.

The League did not last much longer and it appears there were acrimonious arguments among members as to the costs of the legal defence of O’Brien and McGrath born by the ISDL and it eventually disbanded.





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