Pot of gold: it was a long way to Tipperary from the mint in London
Gold coins found at Cooney's pub. photograph: south tipperary museum/pa wire
The discovery of coins under a pub in Carrick-on-Suir is one of the most significant of its kind in Ireland
When Shane Comerford’s colleagues at Ashcraft Construction found 81 gold coins buried underground, he dismissed them as worthless, flinging a fistful to the floor. It had been a routine Monday morning reconsolidating Cooney’s pub, a derelict tavern on Carrick-on-Suir’s main street, and Comerford was more interested in laying concrete. But when his coworkers brushed the clay off the coins and did some research online, a giddy excitement took over.
The coins had been stacked in a row, likely held together by material that did not survive, and bore the profiles of Charles II, James II and William III. Once the authorities were alerted, as required by law for any archaeological find, the discovery was quickly cited as one of the most significant of its kind in Ireland.
“It’s probably the wealth of a family amassed over several generations throughout the second half of the 17th century, but you’d wonder why it got buried and when,” says Eamonn Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland. The hoard could have belonged to a Catholic merchant family fearing enactment of the Penal Laws, he says, as finds from the Williamite era were often buried in times of trouble by people who didn’t get an opportunity to dig them up again.
“Or it could be just simple misadventure: grandad buried the coins but didn’t tell anyone where.” Apart from one exception – a hoard of later silver and gold coinage found in Portarlington, Co Laois, in 1947 – gold coins of any kind don’t often turn up in this country.
“That sort of liquid money was not available in Ireland, by and large,” says Dr Robert Heslip, former curator of numismatics – currency and its study – at the Ulster Museum. “People are always complaining about the shortage of circulating specie here. It’s not because we were poor, though there was that, but because there were few Irish coins with which you could conduct transactions. What coin there was tended to be of poor quality, because you’re further from the centre of production, the mint, and the main commercial centre, which would have been London.”
Among those who had money, hoarding was common practice. Goldsmiths would have provided certain banking services, Heslip says, but the way to keep your money safe was to hide it. The options in doing so were limited. “People tended to conceal hoards away from the settlement: in the garden, off the road, outside the village. You didn’t want your neighbours to see you digging at night. You needed somewhere quiet with a marker you could return to.”
Even as foreign gold eventually circulated through Ireland in the mid-18th century, when silver was undervalued, those coins have failed to surface in archaeological finds. Heslip believes one reason is that people made “bloody sure” to recover them from hiding spots.
Another may be that, as was the case in Carrick-on-Suir, not everyone recognises gold when they see it, as its shiny, untarnished quality can throw people off. In general, archaeological findings made by the public tend to vary unpredictably between two extremes: junk excitedly mistaken for a priceless artefact and historically significant objects almost thrown away by the finder.
It’s an issue Mike Kelly, a numismatic expert, faces during coin evaluations and auctions. Sometimes it might be “gun money” coinage issued by James II during his Irish campaigns against William III, melted down from brass and later typically discarded for fear of treason. Other times it might be a Victorian penny passed on by a grandfather who didn’t realise that millions of them had been issued and that they’re worth only a cent today.
Of the 2,500 people that attend the Irish International Coin and Banknote Fair, which Kelly organises every February, at the RDS, many bring a bag of coins they hope to have valued and possibly sold while, in the background, collectors sniff out bargain prices for coins they’ve spent years searching for. Despite the onus on money, Kelly says the interest underpinning it all stems from the Irish appreciation of history and the passing down of stories from generation to generation.
But if anything illustrates the difference between the monetary value of coins and their historical significance, it’s Kelly’s enthusiasm for finds like that in Carrick-on-Suir. Soon those 81 coins will be on display at the National Museum, the construction workers will receive a finder’s reward and attention will shift to the question of who may have occupied the land where Cooney’s pub lies – a prospect that has Kelly imagining various possibilities.
“We still don’t have a full picture of history in Ireland,” he says. “There are a lot of shadowy areas. It’s only through finding artefacts that those gaps are going to be filled.”