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Ireland’s Lucky Penny, from Westminster to Brussels

Obverse: 1 cent Euro coin

Reverse: Harp with Éire, 2002, and 12 EU stars

The tour guides of Dublin are spoilt; the city provides enough stories of writers’ drunken escapades, Viking horrors or heroic freedom fighters to satisfy pilgrims from New England or to shock parties from Liverpool; but for the countless gift shops, it is the images of Old Ireland which compete with Guinness and the GAA to sell the most tat. There is no story here, but a static, peaceful image of mischievous leprechauns, doughty old fathers, and plenty of rainy days beneath evergreen canopies, and among the harp fridge magnets and poorly formatted potted family histories, the ‘lucky penny’ is a perennial. A quick google search will show that all the information online about such a legend is helpfully presented by those wishing to sell them; one even presents their purchase as the preservation of Ireland’s heritage ‘way across the Atlantic… [by] all of us here’, while back home they are all collected in and melted down. The last Irish pennies, with the universal harp reverse and a hen-and-chicks obverse, seemed made to live up to this image; rural Éire, named in a jaunty Gaelic type, with the name of the state now superficially apolitical (Saorstát, ‘Free State’, was replaced in May 1938, after the constitutional change of December 1937). The new cent of 2002, minted at Sandyford in Dublin, does not reject this: on the obverse the 14th/15th century ‘Brian Boru Harp’ remains, as does the Gaelic type, now encircled by twelve E.U. stars, but the reverse is standardised across euros, and the images of rural Ireland have been replaced by modern, European, 21st century graphics. For seventy-four years, Ireland’s currency had subtly reflected, and often veiled, the long process of maturity which the Irish state had undergone.

When the Irish Free State turned six, she got her first currency, and at last banished the king from the pockets of the Irish. When the Saorstát Punt arrived by boat from the Royal Mint, the shock was softened by conveniently being tied to the GB£ 1:1, using the same £:s:d division, and the same sizes and shapes for each value of coin. The design, however, was all Irish, featuring the harp on the reverse and various farm animals from Irish rural life rendered beautifully by Percy Metcalfe, resident designer at the Royal Mint. Saints were considered, but it was feared that too many would disappear into reliquaries. Metcalfe’s coins were known as the ‘Barnyard Collection’, briefly accompanied by notes in the ‘Ploughman Series’, and the theme survived until 2002. The change was partially misleading: though the coins were now free of monarchs, the country was not; the Free State was a dominion of the British Empire, and while the harp reflected the symbolism of the Dublin government, the farm animals glimpsed the reality of Irish life. The divisions of the Civil War did not map neatly onto parties in the Dáil, and though politics was drifting towards De Valera’s republican reforms of 1937 and 1949, economically the Free State was happy to play the Dominion, maintaining a predominantly agricultural economy, dependent on exporting produce to the UK and importing manufactured goods in small quantities; the currency remained coupled to sterling, though the Irish no longer had representation in Westminster, and thus say over monetary policy. The 1932-8 trade war, which secured British withdrawal from the treaty ports it had kept south of the border, nonetheless hurt Irish farmers severely. The Saorstát Punt reflected, on its reverse, the independent spirit of Irish politics, and its obverse the dependent reality of her economy.

By 2002, subtle clues showed how this had changed. They had decimalised at the same time as the UK, and changed the sizes of some coins at the same time, too, but not in the same way. The animals remained, but ‘barnyard’ doesn’t particularly well describe the stag of the 1992 £1 coin. The punt had been decoupled from sterling to enter the E.M.S. in 1979, four years after Garret FitzGerald had declared that whatever the result of the U.K.’s referendum, Ireland was staying in Europe, and was now minted not in the U.K., but in suburban Dublin. 5 devaluations followed before the crisis of the E.M.S. after German reunification, and by 2002 IEP had slipped to GB£0.775, but the gamble was paying off. Ireland still exported more to the U.K. than to the rest of Europe in 1979, but the dependent structure of the economy was changing; Ireland had a say in the monetary policy of the E.M.S. and its successors, and was showing enthusiastic signs of intent to become a productive member of the European project, not a poor, draining dependent. Though her agriculture had modernised and become less labour-intensive, high emigration was no longer necessary. Ireland could sustain herself, and the panic of the potential return of hundreds of thousands of emigrés in 1945 was foreign to the mindset of the open, urbanised, and employee-hungry economy. Service and technology, powered by American money encouraged by uniformity with Europe, was becoming Ireland’s economic backbone. The stag was not a symbol of a weak and dependent agricultural economy, but a new, mythologised version of Irish history. Ireland was modern, and Ireland was European.

The harp on government seals, tourist tat, and Irish coins also features on the British Royal Coat of Arms. It is based, today, on the appearance of the ‘Brian Boru Harp’ in Trinity College Dublin, which dates to the years of the Lordship of Ireland, when the two largest islands in this archipelago had a complicated relationship and submission was not yet total. How long the Gaelic aristocracy had used the symbol, and how popular it had been, is not clear, but it is known to have been taken by Henry VIII when the Lordship was ended in 1541. While the colour of the harp’s field (azure) has become less popular than Patrick’s green in standing for independent Ireland, the harp itself, despite its royalist history, has persisted. What could have been a controversial, difficult symbol has become the simple, unchallenged shorthand for the nation, handed over at passport control, sold to tourists, and aiding in the pouring of a perfect Guinness. Like leprechauns and shamrocks, the harp is easily identified with the sort of Irish mythology the republic has developed, typified neither by the fight for independence nor the embrace of Europe, but a sentimental Ireland existing at a remove from the realities of politics, power, and economics. It is the shorthand which sits on this coin, confident in the flexibility and comfort it affords a new Ireland.

Declan McCarthy, 3rd year Classist at Queens’ College.

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