Analysis: Percy Metcalfe's designs for the Free State's first coinage gathered both praise and criticism en route to Irish pockets

By Jack Quin, University of Birmingham

From 1928 to 2002, Ireland's coinage bore a beautiful set of so-called 'barnyard’ animals. Before decimalisation in 1971, the entire series of coins were the work of an English artist, Percy Metcalfe. However the selection of animal effigies, the omission of conventional Irish symbols or profiles of renowned Irishmen, and even the nationality of the artist behind the coins were the subject of debate in the Irish Free State.

The stakes of designing a wholly new coinage for an independent Ireland were clear. Before 1928, Ireland’s currency bore the profiles of succeeding British monarchs on the obverse side, and heraldic imagery and mottoes on the reverse side. Patrick Pearse remarked in 1913 that the British coins in circulation across Ireland symbolised ‘the foreign tyranny that holds us. A good Irishman should blush every time he sees a penny.’

Percy Metcalfe's half-crown design with the horse and harp

In 1926, the finance minister Ernest Blythe was persuaded by Senators W.B. Yeats and Oliver St. John Gogarty to set up a committee of experts to judge a closed competition of coin designs. Yeats was promptly appointed as the chairman of the coinage committee, along with the curator Thomas Bodkin, silversmith and TD, Barry Egan and others.

Despite the popular success of the Free State stamps, Yeats was unhappy with the competition that was open to the public to submit stamp designs. The poet warned that the best coin and medal artists would not compete under such conditions. Just seven artists were invited by the coinage committee to compete: two Irish sculptors Albert Power and Oliver Sheppard, Irish-American sculptor Jerome Connor, Carl Milles from Sweden, Paul Manship from New York, the Italian Publio Morbiducci, and a young and relatively unknown coin and medal designer from Yorkshire, Percy Metcalfe, who eventually received the full commission.

In a dramatic break with the tradition of modern coin design, the Department of Finance decided that the new coins would not feature effigies of any living persons. All inscriptions would be in Gaelic and an Irish harp, which was the official national symbol of the Free State, was to be shown on the obverse side of each coin.

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From Screen Ireland, Mr Years and the Beastly Coins by Ann Marie Hourihane and Laura McNicholas

Yeats's committee looked at the effigies of bulls and other animals on ancient Greek Sicilian coins before deciding that the Free State coinage would feature a barnyard animal set, representing 'the produce of the nation.’ The coins would include a horse (half-crown); salmon (florin); bull (shilling); wolfhound (sixpence); hare (threepence); hen and chicks (penny); pig and piglets (halfpenny); woodcock (farthing). The wolfhound on the sixpence was frequently mistaken for a greyhound because of the absence of a rough coat in Metcalfe’s final design.

Metcalfe's submitted designs were the only set that made effective use of the circular space with spare renderings of the animals, an artificial ground line for the land animals copied from classical Greek coins, and elegant Gaelic inscriptions and denominations spaced apart. The committee were so impressed with the quality of Metcalfe’s work that they unanimously agreed to give him the commission for the whole set. Government ministers were persuaded to offer the commission to a British artist once they realised he would be considerably cheaper than the other internationally renowned artists.

Percy Metcalfe's designs for the florin (salmon), sixpence (wolfhound) and threepence (hare)

The new coinage and competing designs were exhibited at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art in November 1928, before entering circulation in December. The public reaction was mixed. Some critics thought the theme of livestock would reinforce a provincial Irish stereotype. Maud Gonne remarked that the farmyard set was missing a jackass, and criticised Metcalfe's work as a coinage 'designed by an Englishman, minted in England, representative of English values, paid for by the Irish people’.

Other commentators wrote to the Irish Independent and the Catholic Bulletin condemning the coinage as ‘beastly’, pagan or godless. Thomas Bodkin, who was on the committee, insisted that the symbolism of the coins could be interpreted as Christian rather than pagan. He argued that the salmon was biblical and that the harp might even allude to David’s harp in the Book of Samuel.

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From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News report on the issue of a new £1 coin in 1990

Despite the complaints from predictable quarters, the coins were widely praised for their beauty and freshness. The arrangement of animals and the lack of heraldry or mottoes had a lasting influence on modern coin design. Metcalfe cemented his reputation as a prolific coin designer across various dominions of the British Empire. His portrait of George V was used on the obverse of coins for Australia, Canada, Fiji, Mauritius and New Zealand. He also designed effigies of kings of Iraq and Egypt.

In the 1930s, Metcalfe's more daringly modernist animal designs were not met with the same approval. An abstract and angular kiwi for New Zealand's 1933 coinage was not adopted by the state, and a somewhat art deco wolf designed for the Turkish lira was rejected in 1935. In 1936, Edward VIII proposed the minting of a 'modern coinage’ for the United Kingdom shortly before his abdication. The Royal Mint invited artists including Metcalfe to submit ‘non-heraldic’ designs, similar to the Free State coinage. Metcalfe prepared a seagull design for the British shilling, but was unsuccessful.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Colette Kinsella on who put the harp on Irish coins

The barnyard collection of Irish coins had an enduring appeal at home. With the introduction of decimal currency in 1971, the Irish artist Gabriel Hayes added three further animal coins to the set for the halfpenny, penny, and two pence. While Metcalfe’s animals were spare, minimalist depictions, Hayes’s ornamental birds were arrayed in elaborate Celtic interlace, inspired by medieval manuscripts like the Book of Kells. The barnyard was finally cleared out in 2002 when Ireland entered the Eurozone. Just one image from the former set would be retained with the Irish harp (based on the Brian Boru harp) appearing on the obverse side of Ireland’s new euro currency.

Dr Jack Quin is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English Literature at the University of Birmingham. He is an Irish Research Council awardee.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ