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Irish currency: a brief history of Ireland's money

Ireland currency. O'Reilly's Money. Irish coins. National Museum at Collins Barracks.

Irish currency

The history of Irish currency reflects Ireland's political development over the last 1000 years. What began with the Vikings, who hammered out the very first Irish coins in Dublin in the 10th century, has left us with a marvellous legacy that marks social changes, political propaganda and economic trends. Indeed Irish coins and, more recently, banknotes, are outstanding historical documents.

Replica of earliest Irish coin: King Sihtric silver penny
Replica of the earliest Irish coin:
King Sihtric silver penny, Dublin c.1000 AD.

The oldest Irish coins date to the Vikings

The very first Irish coins were struck by the Vikings in Dublin in about 997AD by order of their King Sihtric III, also known as Silkbeard. Until this time, a variety of coinage had circulated in Ireland, including Anglo-Saxon, western European and even Islamic from central Asia.

The new coins were copies of coins issued by King Ethelred II of England. Whenever the Anglo-Saxon king redesigned his coinage over the next two decades, the Vikings issued copy-cat versions.

After the Battle of Clontarf (1014), however, the Irish coin reverted to an earlier design for more than a century.

All the Irish coins produced had a one penny value, and were created (in theory) from a pennyweight of silver (one 240th of a pound weight). Over time, the quality and weight decreased, and the design became less and less legible.

Early medieval Irish currency

The arrival of the Anglo-Normans (1169/1171) introduced dramatic changes to the island, not least by the ceding of power to the English crown of the so-called Lordship of Ireland.

Currency from the period reflects this shift. Under King John (d 1216), Irish coins were struck in Kilkenny, Limerick and Waterford – the first to have been struck outside Dublin – and included silver halfpennies bearing a full frontal face. In the north, too, mintes were created at Downpatrick and Carrickfergus.

Coins minted in Ireland were easily distinguishable from English equivalents. Their inscription was usually specific, and their weight and design were different, too. In the 13th century, a triangle (rather than a circle) enclosed the reigning monarch's head. This occurred only on Irish currency.

14th century: Irish currency disappears

As the power of the Normans waned, mainly due to internal wrangling and external events and catastrophes, Gaelic society reasserted itself. It did not, however, give any priority to a formal money system, and the minting of coins petered out. Between 1310 and 1460, hardly any Irish coins were minted.

A variety of coins circulated, including worn English, Scottish and Irish coins, European tokens and a not-inconsiderable amount of forgeries.

1460 to 1900 in Ireland: money design

A new era for Irish currency began in 1460 when a new coinage was struck. Rather than just the penny coin, there were now a range of denominations, the highest being the groat (value, fourpence). These coins were struck not just in Dublin and the main cities of Cork, Galway and Limerick, but also in smaller regional centres such as Drogheda and Dublin.

Celtic Queen Meabh on an Irish banknote.
Detail of a late 1970s Irish banknote depicting the Celtic Queen Meabh.

In 1979, Ireland broke its link with Sterling and floated on the international money markets. To mark the arrival of this fresh dawn for Irish currency, a new range of notes was issued, each featuring a person from history or mythology. Inscriptions were carried in both English and Irish. The Queen Meabh £1 note was withdrawn in 1990 when the £1 coin was launched.

When the English monarch Henry VIII declared himself King of Ireland in 1531, another new series of Irish coins was launched, this time with the Celtic harp making its first appearance on Irish currency (it still appears on Irish Euro coins).

The story of Irish currency over the next two and a half centuries is one that traces a period of political turmoil.

During the Cromwellian wars, for example, coinage showed little artistry (any old bit of metal was stamped with a date and used to pay troops), while King James II issued a copper coinage made from melted down cannons and church bells.

This latter coinage became known as 'gun money'; its face value had no connection to its metal content and it was quickly removed from circulation after 1690.

In 1800 the Act of Union attached Ireland politically to the rest of Britain. In terms of the country's currency, no impact was felt until 1826 when Ireland's distinctive coins became valueless.

For the next century Ireland had to use standard British sterling, both in coins and banknotes (a late 18th century innovation).

20th century Irish currency

Following its separation from the UK, the Irish Free State issued a new coinage. Some of the designs were to last until the Euro was introduced in 2002. The new Irish coins were quite radical at the time. Other than the harp, there was no obvious symbolism, the coins bearing only images of certain indigenous flora and fauna.

Hazel Lavery
Lady Lavery, Ireland's emblem.

A range of banknotes was also introduced. These were designed by the Belfast-born artist Sir John Lavery and featured his rendition of an archetypal 'colleen'. It later transpired that the portrait was of his wife, Hazel, an American painter!.

The new Irish currency was pegged to sterling and was originally known as the Saorstát, or Free State, pound. After 1938, it became known simply as the Irish pound.

Lavery's notes (known as the A series) were issued on 10 September 1928 and, surviving decimalisation on 15 February 1971, remained in circulation until 1975/1977 when the B series was launched.

The latter featured five banknotes (no £100 note). Queen Maebh, the mythological queen of Connacht featured on the £1 note which was replaced by a coin in 1990 (see box above).

The rest of this series was taken out of circulation between 1989 and 1993 when the C series was introduced.

This final series of Irish pound banknotes was to be quite short-lived. Introduced in 1992/96, it was replaced by the Euro on 1st January 1999.

Initially, this new Irish currency existed only in accounting or cashless form. Irish coins and the C Series banknotes continued to ciculate. For most people, nothing appeared to have happened.

In September 1999 production of Irish euro coins began. Nine months later banknotes hit the presses.

By this time an intense period of education had begun to prepare the population for the final days of the Irish pound. Every household in Ireland was issued with an electronic converter and a Euro Handbook, and the final changeover to the new currency – on 1st January 2002 – went surprisingly smoothly. An estimated 85% of all public cash dispensers were issuing Euro by the end of the first day and within a week, nearly 90% of cash transactions were being carried out in Euro.

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A selection of Irish banknotes
from the 20th century

10/- note

A Series, 10 Shilling note, featuring Lady Hazel Lavery.

£20 note

B Series, £20, featuring poet and dramatist William Butler Yeats.

£20 note, O'Connell

C Series, £20, featuring Daniel O'Connell, the Liberator.

Saorstat Pound/Punt

  • Known as the Free State Pound
  • Introduced in 1928.
  • Pegged to sterling
  • Abbreviations: £sd
    £: pound/punt
    s: shilling/scilling
    d: penny/pingin

Irish Pound/Punt

  • Introduced in 1938.
  • Pegged to sterling until 1979
  • Abbreviations: IR£
    £: pound/punt
    d: penny/pingin (until Feb 1971)
    p: pence (1971-2002)


  • Eurozone currency.
  • Coins and notes introduced in 2000.
  • Formal switch from Pound in 2002
  • Abbreviations: €
    € : Euro
    c: cent.

Airgead Exhibition

The National Museum of Ireland has a permanent exhibition on the coins and money in Ireland from the 10th Century to the present day.

On display is a selection of medieval Irish currency and later banknotes, as well as related material such as tokens and medals/

Bringing the story of Irish currency completely up to date, the exhibition includes displays and information about credit cards and Internet banking.

National Museum of Ireland
Decorative Arts & History
Collins Barracks
Benburb St
Dublin 7

Tuesday - Saturday: 10:00 - 17:00
Sunday: 14:00 - 17:00

Closed all Mondays, Christmas Day and Good Friday.

Tel: 00 353 (0)1 6777444

Henry VIII and Irish currency

Henry VIII is, of course, famous for having had six wives (two of whom he beheaded).

His marital difficulties can be traced through his coinage; the initials of his first three wives appeared on the coins.

Since redesigning and minting new coins was an expensive business, he eventually gave up replacing his coins (if not his wives!).

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