Irish-American Coins


Colonial American numismatic history, like much of Irish numismatic history is one of shortages – that led to emergency issues, imported coinages, counterfeiting and local trade tokens. Much of what circulated in Ireland at the time, also circulated in the original thirteen colonies. This new American economy, like Ireland’s, was constantly hampered by oppressive taxes, import/export duties, tariffs and other trade restrictions originating from Westminster but ‘policed’ by their in situ colonial administrators.

With the many ‘pulses’ of immigration from Ireland, came loose coins in their pockets and some, like Mark Newby, even had the skills to produce coins specifically for the rapidly developing American colonial economy. The following articles are about the Irish coins that found their way to America and became an accepted medium of exchange.

16th Century

In April 1585 Sir Walter Raleigh sent a second expedition to North America. The Area — now North Carolina — was named Virginia in honour of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. The English finally arrived off Cape Fear on 23 June 1585. The next day they anchored and fished in the vicinity of present-day Beaufort Inlet. Due to lack of food, reprisals from the native Americans and poor planning, this first attempt at colonisation was a failure.

Several more attempts would fail before the Jamestown settlement in Virginia — officially started on May 14, 1607 — was one of the first European colonies to last in North America.

  • It is historically significant for hosting the first parliamentary assembly in America.
  • It is of also numismatic significance — using a base copper coinage from Ireland designed to render Irish rebels unable to import arms during the last days of the 16th C.

17th Century

The earliest waves of Irish emigration date to the second half of the 17th century and the aftermath of the Cromwellian era – most were Catholics. While significant numbers went voluntarily to settle in the West Indies, even more were transported there as slaves.

  • Not all Irish emigrants were forced to go and those who had the fare usually sailed from Cork or Kinsale and small settlements evolved in Virgina and Maryland.
  • Maryland was particularly interesting because, despite the religious wars and political intrigues in Europe between Catholics and Protestants, Maryland was setup a religiously tolerant colony and was owned by the Catholic Calvert family – the hereditary Lords Baltimore.
  • In Ulster, Presbyterians (most of whom had Scottish ancestry) had also suffered discrimination in Ireland and they believed they would find tolerance, freedom and happiness in North America.
Undated St. Patrick's Farthing. Silver. Nice Choice Extremely Fine. 98.1 gns. No nimbus. FLOREAT REX obverse. QVIESCAT PLEBS reverse

The inappropriately named St. Patrick’s Farthing is one of the classic 17th C American Colonial coins and very collectible. This example was struck in silver whereas ‘normal’ specimens were struck in copper. See link below for more details.

18th Century

Up to 1720, when New England was the destination of choice for most, the flow of Irish emigrants was steady but numbers were not large. Numbers rose at the end of that decade and then dropped again.

1722 Wood's Hibernia Farthing, Type I (regular issue)

1722 Wood’s Hibernia Farthing, Type I (regular issue). These coins, rather famously, attracted a lot of attention from the then Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Jonathan Swift. One of his Drapier Letters referred to Mr Woods’ coinage.

  • A famine in the early 1740’s saw renewed interest in Atlantic passage, and Irish emigration never really subsided afterwards.
    • In 1771-1773, more than 100 ships left the Ulster ports of Newry, Derry, Belfast, Portrush and Larne, carrying some 32,000 Irish immigrants to America.
    • Meanwhile, a similar number set sail from Dublin, Cork and Waterford alone.
      • By 1790, the USA’s Irish immigrant population numbered 447,000
      • Two-thirds originated from Ulster
1760 Voce Populi farthing & halfpenny (reverse)

Ireland 1760, Voce Populi farthing & halfpenny (reverse). Even to a beginner, the small differences in the reverse designs are quite noticeable, e,g, the number of strings in the harps. The farthings are quite rare but the halfpennies (and their major varieties) exist at reasonable prices – see link below for more details.

There have been many books written about transportation to Australia as a punishment for criminal offences but a less well known fact is that from the early 1600’s until the American Revolution of 1776, the British colonies in North America also received ‘transported’ British and Irish criminals.

  • In the 17th century transportation was carried out at the expense of the convicts or the shipowners.
    • The first Transportation Act in 1718 allowed courts to sentence convicts to seven years’ transportation to America.
    • In 1720, an extension authorised payments by the state to merchants contracted to take the convicts to America.
  • Under the Transportation Act, returning from transportation was a capital offence.
    • The number of convicts transported to North America is not verified although it has been estimated to be 50,000 by John Dunmore Lang and 120,000 by Thomas Keneally.
    • Many prisoners were taken in battle from Ireland and Scotland and sold into indentured servitude, usually for a number of years

A common offence was ‘coining’ or forgery of coins of the realm and many people were transported for possessing forgeries, possessing ‘coining’ equipment/tools/materials, or for attempting to complete a transaction with forged coins or banknotes. The latter was a much more serious offence.

In an effort to eliminate the huge amount of private tokens and forged coins that were in circulation, several Acts were passed outlawing these activities. Penalties were severe and, provided the coin was not intended to ‘imitate’ or ‘copy’ a coin of the realm, the counterfeit laws did not apply. The counterfeiters began to produce coins that were sufficiently different in appearance so as to avoid the law, i.e. the so-called evasion halfpennies of the late 18th C.

Evasion Halfpenny

Evasion Halfpenny – these coins were deliberately manufactured to look ‘well circulated’ in order for the public to accept them and the legends and/or dates were deliberately ‘blundered’ in order to bypass the forgery laws of the 18th C.

As the laws began to be enforced, these unofficial tokens and evasion halfpennies made their way to the American Colonies where the shortage of copper coins allowed these ‘under weight’ imports to circulate.

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