Change in Ireland [Stamp & Coin Mart, June 2010, Pages 102, 103]
Ireland's turbulent history can be reflected in the country's coinage, which also provides collectors with plenty of scope, as Brett Hammond reveals

Although we can say that coins - as we understand the word today - were not struck in Ireland until a few years prior to AD1000, we can also point to a strong likelihood that the gold for many of the first coins struck more than a thousand years earlier (circa 100 BC) in what we now call England came from ancient alluvial gold found in Ireland. The ancient Irish Celts used the same sources to obtain gold for their magnificent neck torcs and ceremonial weaponry, as well as for casting small circular bands of gold often referred to as ring money. Those bands, along with cattle, probably served as bullion wealth among the Celtic Irish aristocracy.

If we now move forward in time to AD 995 we find a thriving settlement carved out by Viking adventurers along the banks of the river Liffey, and called Dubhlinn (modern Dublin) by the invaders, who drove the Irish Celts into the interior. Dubhlinn bustled with economic activity, its need for freely circulating currency met by Viking mint masters who produced coins for their king Sitric III by striking thin strips of silver between two engraved iron dies. Those Viking silver pennies circulated widely around the trading ports of Europe and into mainland Britain as Dublin's Vikings colonized across the Irish Sea and as far as Yorvik (York) where examples of Sitric III pennies have come to light.

Over the next century the fortunes of the Hiberno-Norse kingdom of Dublin gradually waned. Following Sitric III's reign the majority of coins struck in Ireland were rather crude and usually lightweight imitations of English silver pennies issued by Anglo-Saxon kings, and, after 1066, by the Normans. The lettering was often blundered and portraits reduced to a few strokes. Among the last of the Viking issues (circa 1110-1150) were a series known to numismatists as bracteates - coins so thin they had to be struck one side at a time against wood rather than between two pieces of iron. Even then the design on one side showed through as an inverted image on the other side. When the Vikings were finally driven from Dublin the restored Celtic kings of Ireland had little use for coins, though new denominations and a new lord and master were soon to be forced upon them.

The Angevin king of England, Henry II, (1154-1189) feared that Norman upstarts from the Continent might invade Ireland and establish themselves as kings who could threaten England from the west. He therefore outflanked them in 1171 by invading Ireland himself with a fleet of four hundred ships. Swift victories over a number of Irish chieftains left Henry as Lord of Ireland; but he gave back much of the land to Irish leaders who agreed to recognize his supreme authority, retaining for himself only Dublin and the territory around the capital which became the English Pale. Later in his reign (1177) he bestowed the title Lord of Ireland upon his second son, John.

Jealous of his brother Richard, who was heir to the English crown, the youthful John crossed to Ireland in 1185 and proceeded to run the Pale as a tyrant. He soon introduced his own coins - silver halfpennies and farthings - bearing the name Johannes (John). Some authorities assert that the halfpenny was chosen as the primary coin to reflect Ireland's subordinate position within the Angevin empire where full pennies were the standard.

As a precursor to Ireland's troubles centuries later, John found his authority challenged in what were to become the northern counties of Antrim and Down by a Norman lord named John de Courcy, who claimed the title, Prince of Ulster, and who even issued his own currency, now referred to as St Patrick coinage because the coins bore the obverse legend Patricus around a cross, with de Courcy's name on the reverse. But the Ulster ruler was later overthrown by men loyal to the English prince, who then altered the legend on his own coins to Johannes Domin Yber (John, Lord of Ireland); and in 1204 to Johannes Rex.

King John, and the majority of Plantagenet monarchs who followed him, distinguished their Irish coinage from their English issues by framing their Irish portraits within a triangle on the obverse of the coin. Some authorities state that the triangle is a representation of the Irish harp, while others insist that the triangle device was used to deter the circulation of the often lightweight and/or debased Irish issues in England.

From 1214 (death of King John) down to 1461 (accession of Edward IV) monarch after monarch milked Ireland to pay for wars in France, Wales, Scotland and against rival claimants to the throne at home. Most of the coins struck in Ireland, no matter how underweight, were immediately shipped abroad as taxes or contraband. The few that remained in circulation to meet the needs of Irish natives and English colonists alike were clipped so savagely their legends disappeared. The poor had to make do with forgeries or with Continental imports of crockards, pollards and tourneys, also known as black money because they contained so little silver their copper and lead alloys turned black as they passed from hand-to-hand.

A proclamation of 1300 threatened forfeiture of life and goods against anyone bringing base foreign coins from France for use in Ireland as pennies "though not worth one half a penny"; but black money continued to circulate because Irish mints rarely had sufficient silver to strike new coins. Add to those woes a succession of bad harvests, a visitation of the Black Death and half the indigenous population forced by starvation into a life as brigands. Small wonder that the only course open to Edward IV when he became king in 1460 was to order the striking of Irish currency totally different in appearance from English money.

The new coins - groats (4d) and pennies - depicted a large crown on the obverse, unlike their English equivalents which showed the monarch's head. Smaller denominations struck in billon (a copper and silver alloy) were halfpennies and farthings, plus a copper half-farthing with the legend PATRIK to meet the needs of the very poorest. As a further deterrent to exporting these coins out of Ireland they were struck at three-quarters the weight of equivalent English coins.

This formula - markedly different appearance and lower weight than English - was adopted with a few exceptions down to Tudor times, with designs included three crowns, a large harp, a radiant sun and others. But silver's propensity to rise in value whenever wars broke out at home or abroad meant that underweight Irish issues still had enough silver content to make them worth sending to England.

Moving forward to the Stuart monarchs, it remained the case that the quarrels of English royals largely determined the coins carried in Irish pockets and purses. In Charles I's reign they had to put up with copper tokens and emergency coins roughly cut from pieces of silver plate. Under Charles II they relied heavily on private copper and bronze tokens issued by Irish merchants. James II had to mint his Irish war issues from metal obtained from melting down old cannons - hence the name gun money.

Under Georgian monarchs the Irish fared a little better in that copper pennies, halfpence and farthings bearing the Irish harp on the reverse were minted in London and Birmingham and shipped to Ireland to replace the worn-out tokens that still circulated from previous reigns. However, in 1826, under George IV, all Irish coinage was formally withdrawn. England and Ireland then had only one currency until the creation of the Irish Free State in 1926.

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