With Saint Patrick’s Day fast approaching, people all around the world are preparing to don green and drink “the black stuff”. But, as Alan Partridge would say, “there’s more to Ireland than this”.
Ireland has a long, complicated and fascinating history – and the story of currency on the island is no different. While the first evidence of human presence in Ireland dates back about 12,500 years, the story of currency there can be traced back to the 10th Century.
The Vikings (10th Century)
The first coins that were struck in Ireland date back to the late 900s (A.D). They came from the Vikings in Dublin, and were issued by order of Viking King Sihtric III (also known as Silkbeard).
Prior to this, a variety of coins were in circulation on the island, including Anglo-Saxon, western European and even Islamic currency from central Asia. These coins weren’t used as a medium of exchange at a set value, but as a precious metal that had its value assessed at every exchange.
Normans & the First Irish Mints (12th Century)
The arrival of the Anglo-Normans in 1169 brought dramatic change to Ireland. The most notable change? The ceding of power to the English crown – the currency from this period reflects this shift.
Under King John, Irish coins were minted in locations like Kilkenny, Limerick and Carrickfergus. They were easily distinguishable from their English equivalents. Not only were their weights and designs different, a triangle (rather than a circle) outlined the reigning monarch’s head.
Gaelic Resurgence (14th Century)
Between 1310 and 1460, barely any Irish coins were minted. This was mainly due to the power of the Normans waning.
As the Black Death arrived in Ireland in 1348, the Normans were hit the hardest. They lived in towns and villages where disease spread easily, while the native Irish lived in more dispersed, rural settlements.
Gaelic society reasserted itself, while the English-controlled territory shrank to a fortified area around Dublin (the Pale). No priority was given to a formal money system, and as a result, the minting of coins petered out. A variety of coins circulated, including worn English, Scottish and Irish ones, and locally produced forgeries were prevalent.
New Coins & A New Conqueror (15th & 16th Century)
A new era for Irish currency began in 1460. There were now more than just pennies, as a range of denominations were introduced. The coin of highest value was known as the groat (valued at four pence).
These coins were struck in Dublin and other main cities like Cork and Limerick, and also in towns such as Drogheda.
In the 1530s, King Henry VIII of England decided Ireland needed conquering yet again. He hoped that in doing so, the island would not become a base for future rebellions or foreign invasions of England.
When Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland, another new series of Irish coins was launched. These coins were the first to feature the Celtic harp, which still appears on Irish Euro coins today!
Plantations, Rebellions & Gun Money (16th and 17th Century)
This was a period of great turmoil in Ireland, and the currency of the times reflects this story as well.
From the mid-16th to the early 17th century, British crown governments carried out a type of colonisation known as Plantations. Under this policy, Protestant settlers forcibly removed Irish Catholic landowners and confiscated their property.
The English crown authority attempted to convert the Catholic Irish to the Protestant religion through brutal methods, and several Penal Laws were introduced. All of this severely heightened resentment of English rule amongst the native Irish,and resulted in war after war after war.
The bloodiest of these wars were the Cromwellian Wars (1649–53), and during this time ‘coins’ were merely functional and showed no artistry – any piece of metal was stamped with a date and used as currency to pay troops.
In the 1680’s, King James II issued copper coins made from melted down cannons and church bells. This became known as ‘gun money’. Its value had no connection to its metal content, and it was quickly removed from circulation after James II’s loss to William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
More Rebellions & The Act of Union (18th and 19th Century)
Shortly after the Irish Rebellion of 1798 was bloodily suppressed, the Act of Union was introduced. The act created a new political entity called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with effect from 1 January 1801.
In terms of Ireland’s currency, no impact was felt until 1826 when Ireland’s coins became valueless. For the next century, Ireland had to use standard British sterling, both in coins and banknotes (which were a late 18th century innovation).
British currency was the only currency used from 1826 until the Irish state established its own tender in 1928.
Independence & The Punt (20th Century)
While the Easter Rising of 1916 was not a military victory for Irish rebels, it did succeed in turning public opinion against the British establishment who executed the leaders of the rebellion.
The Irish War of Independence was waged from 1919-1921. The following year, 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties seceding from the United Kingdom to become the independent Irish Free State.
In 1928, the Irish Free State began to issue its own currency which was pegged to British sterling. The currency was originally known as the Saorstát (Free State) pound. After 1938, it became known simply as the Irish pound or the punt.
English coins and banknotes continued to circulate in Ireland until the 1970s. The currencies finally separated in 1979, when the European Monetary System was introduced and Ireland decided to join it while the United Kingdom opted out.
The one-for-one link that existed between the Irish pound and the pound sterling ended when an exchange rate was introduced in March of 1979. A new range of notes was issued, featuring people from history and mythology along with inscriptions in both English and Irish.
Modern Ireland and the Euro
The Irish pound was replaced by the Euro on 1st January 1999. However, it only existed in accounting or cashless form. So, for many people, it was as if nothing had happened – as Irish coins and banknotes continued to circulate.
In the meantime, the production of Irish euro coins got underway, as did a period of education for Irish citizens. Households were issued with an electronic converter and a Euro Handbook in preparation for the final changeover on 1st January 2002. The changeover was smooth – within a week nearly 90% of cash transactions were being carried out in Euro.
Ireland was one of the first 11 countries to adopt the Euro, demonstrating the country’s willingness and desire to forge international partnerships. Currently, the Euro is the official currency of 19 EU member countries which together constitute the Eurozone.
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