Rejected coin design, 1926

 

A History of Ireland in 100 ObjectsIn January 1926 the minister for finance, Ernest Blythe, told the Dáil that the new Irish Free State should have “a coinage distinctively our own, bearing the devices of this country”.

A committee chaired by the poet and senator WB Yeats was asked to adjudicate on the best designs submitted by artists. One was by the sculptor Jerome Connor. Born in Annascaul, Co Kerry, he emigrated to Massachusetts when he was 14 and eventually established his own studio in Washington DC, specialising in monumental sculpture. He moved back to Ireland in 1925 to work on a memorial to those who had lost their lives in the sinking of the Lusitania, off Cork, in 1915.

This is Connor’s proposal for the penny. He thought of the penny as a child’s coin, and his design reflected this by celebrating childhood – the scampish boy is based on his grandnephew John.

It was, on the face of it, an image appropriate to the new State’s aspirations. The Democratic Programme adopted by the first Dáil in 1919 had set itself a very high aim: “It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children, to secure that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as citizens of a free and Gaelic Ireland.”

Many children in the new Ireland did enjoy safe and happy upbringings. But the aspiration to ensure that no child went hungry or cold was certainly not met. And children were among the worst victims of the dark side of the new State: its elaborate system of social repression through which “problem” citizens were incarcerated in harsh and sometimes dangerous institutions.

Between the 1920s and the 1950s, more than 1 per cent of the population – over 30,000 people at any given time – was locked up in a mental hospital, Magdalene laundry or industrial school. To these latter institutions, run by religious orders, one child in every 100 was sent.

Between 1936 and 1970 about 170,000 children entered the gates of one or other of the 50 or so industrial schools, staying on average for seven years. The great majority were committed not because they were guilty of any offence but because their families were deemed to be needy.

In essence their crime was poverty. The punishment was terrible: a commission of inquiry established in 2000 found that severe beatings were pervasive in both boys’ and girls’ schools and that, in the institutions for boys, sexual abuse was endemic. The commission also found that such abuse was allowed to continue because of a general culture of silence and because of State authorities’ deferential and submissive attitude towards the religious congregations.

This was the cruel side of what many in the new State would have regarded as its greatest virtues: its strong emphasis on sexual morality and social control and its reverence for religious institutions. For some, those virtues were a source of great pride. For others, they were the excuse for a systematic abuse of power over society’s most vulnerable members.

Thanks to Michael Kenny

Where to see itNational Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie

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