In 1924 a special committee was set up to select the designs for the first currency of the Irish Free State. The committee was chaired by the Nobel Prize winning poet William Butler Yeats, who had been appointed to the Irish Senate two years earlier in 1922.
Born in Sandymount on 13th June 1865, Yeats was fascinated with poetry from childhood and published his first volume of verse aged just 22. He went on to found the Irish Theatre, writing plays that dealt with his favourite subjects of Irish myths, legends and spirituality. Ironically, some of his greatest poetry was written after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923, which cemented his reputation as one of the world’s greatest twentieth-century poets.
The committee was well aware of the enormity of the task that faced them. Though a committed nationalist, Yeats deplored violence and had no wish to antagonise the predominantly Protestant north and the Catholic south.
For this reason, early suggestions that the coinage should feature patriotic symbols, politicians or Christian saints were quickly ruled out, fearing that it could inflame tensions and lead to the currency being turned into religious medals. Instead, Yeats wanted something that was “elegant, racy of the soil and utterly unpolitical”.
After lengthy discussions, the committee agreed that the Irish harp would remain the national symbol of the coinage, as it had been since the early sixteenth century. This would appear on the obverse of each coin, surrounded by the inscription, Saorstát Éireann (Irish Free State).
For the reverse designs, an agricultural theme was agreed upon, which was essential to the Irish economy. Yeats announced that they “decided upon birds and beasts … what better symbols could we find for this horse riding, salmon fishing, cattle raising country?“
Seven artists from Ireland, England, the USA, Italy and Sweden were invited to produce designs in plaster or metal. Marks that could identify the artist were removed from each of the sixty-six individual designs submitted so that the committee could not know who had submitted what. Eventually, after careful evaluation, they selected the “incomparably superior” work of a little known English artist, Percy Metcalfe.
Knowing that assigning the design of the first coins of the Irish Free State to an Englishman was going to be a controversial move, the committee took the unusual step of making all the designs that had been submitted public. This was done, they said, “because we believe any adverse criticism of the choice of Mr. Metcalfe’s designs could not survive such an inspection,”
The new designs were introduced into circulation on 12th December 1928 and comprised the woodcock (farthing),pig and piglets (halfpenny), hen and chicks (penny), hare (threepence), wolfhound (sixpence), bull (shilling), salmon (florin) and horse (half crown).
Inevitably, there was some opposition to the designs, with some critics protesting that they gave the impression that Ireland was little more than a giant farmyard. One priest even went so far as to denonce them as pagan symbols intended to “wipe out all traces of religion from our minds .. and beget a land of devil-worshippers where eveil may reign supreme.”
However, the animal designs were quickly embraced by the public at large. By celebrating the vibrancy, diversity and beauty found in Ireland, Yeats hoped that the coins would become, as he put it, “the silent ambassadors on national taste”. Having spent decades in our pockets and purses, it is little wonder that they are still remembered fondly by many people today.