Dull designs on Europe

 

When, as now happens with increasing frequency, we pay for goods or services with a credit card, we are unlikely to give much attention to the appearance of the shiny sliver of plastic we are using. For reasons that have much to do with national pride and identity, however, the same indifference has never applied to our notes and coins. What, after all, differentiates a slip of plastic from paper and metal, other than the choice of material? They all serve the same purpose and, as their popularity indicates, credit cards are often found to be the most practical option.

Of course, there is one crucial difference between currency and cards: while the former - at least until now - has been issued by the State, the latter comes courtesy of a financial institution. Notes and coins, therefore, are intended to offer an image of how we see ourselves and a representation of our collective aspirations. A credit card, on the other hand, simply depicts the corporate image of the bank or building society responsible for its issue; our personal connection with the item will usually be extremely tenuous.

Despite almost five years' preparation, it seems likely that the euro notes and cent coins coming into circulation this week will produce a response similar to that produced by the average credit card. The new currency will operate throughout all member states of the EU and therefore has to reflect a continent's shared cultural identity.

But can this aspiration be realised? Given the immense differences - social, political, economic - which still exist between one member state and another within the union, such an undertaking looks simply too ambitious.

Perhaps it might have been wiser for each country to have produced its own euro designs; after all, our individual currencies have circulated throughout the EU for many years with relatively few difficulties. Such an approach would have permitted states to choose a design which reflected their own character and culture.

That, after all, was the intention behind the first set of notes and coins issued here in 1928 by the Currency Commission. Consciously and unconsciously, their choice of images offered an insight into the image post-independence Ireland wished to project. The coins, for example, were designed by an English sculptor, Percy Metcalfe, as though to serve as a reminder of our former political masters. Metcalfe, by the way, also produced work for other British colonies, such as South Africa.

As for the first set of notes issued in 1928, with their heavy reliance on Celtic revival scrolls and motifs: these are an anachronistic throwback to the previous century, also the primary source of inspiration for very many other aspects of this State in its early years. The Republic was essentially conservative and backward-looking, its currency shunning any element of modernist design. Ireland's past, not her future, was to be celebrated.

But occupying a key site on every note is one distinctly un-Irish feature: the portrait of an American woman pretending to represent Erin. Lady Lavery, wrapped in a shawl and resting her elbow on a harp, is as realistic a representation of Ireland as would be John Ford's The Quiet Man a quarter of a century later; both reflect unrealisable ideals. And there is another aspect to Lady Lavery's presence which deserves mention. Not only would the same woman agree to advertise the merits of Pond's Cold Cream a few years later, but just six months before sitting to her husband for the portrait which appeared on Irish currency, she had been mourning the death of her lover, the Irish Minister for Justice Kevin O'Higgins. And he, curiously enough, had been assassinated while on his way to a Catholic service.

Unwittingly, the bank notes of 1928 therefore not only act as an expression of Ireland's special relationship with the US, but also our extraordinary ability to keep apart private and public behaviour. The intense affair between Kevin O'Higgins and Hazel Lavery was not common knowledge; had it been so, he would never have been a minister, nor would her face have adorned the national currency. Also loved by Michael Collins, Lady Lavery has survived until now on our notes, albeit only as a pale version of herself in the form of a watermark. With her passing this week, this inadvertent expression of the national character finally goes.

Although some changes had to be made in 1971 when decimalisation was introduced - with a number of new coins designed by Irish artist Gabriel Hayes - that first set of currency lasted a remarkably long time, again perhaps a reflection of Irish conservatism. But it was inevitable that eventually the progressive element in the State would reject the notes and coins of 1928 in favour of something more contemporary.

And yet the most curious aspect of the "B" series of banknotes dating from 1976 onwards is that, despite rather garish colouring, they are even more dependent on the past than their predecessors. Aside from the presence of Lady Lavery as a symbol of Erin, the commission responsible for choosing the original currency had very deliberately avoided featuring individuals on all notes and coins. Created by an Irish design company called Servicon, the second series of banknotes introduced historical personages ranging from Queen Medbh - unfortunately looking like a bad-tempered bag lady - to W.B. Yeats, backed by the emblem of the Abbey Theatre. As before, there was an abundance of Celtic swirls, even though these retained their appeal only for overseas purchasers of ersatz Tara brooches, and an updated version of Gaelic script.

At least the worst of these elements was jettisoned for the third series of Irish notes, designed by Robert Ballagh in 1992, although once again a set of notable figures from our history was represented. The difficulty with this feature is that it raises the problem of who to include and who to omit. How many of those using £5 notes for the past six and a half years know that the nun they see, Catherine McAuley, founded the Sisters of Mercy order? And indeed, were it not for the inclusion of his name, would James Joyce be easily recognisable on the £10 note? He is the sole representative of Irish literature in the third series, while Yeats and Swift and that best-selling author from the ninth century, John Scotus, made it onto the second. But, it could be asked with some validity, where is Wilde or Synge or Shaw or even, to push the boat out entirely, a woman writer such as Maria Edgeworth or Kate O'Brien?

Understandably, the body charged with responsibility for commissioning the new euro currency - the European Monetary Institute - chose to avoid such problems. Indeed, it opted to avoid as many problems as possible, and in so doing managed to create a few unexpected ones instead. The most glaring of these arose from the decision to offer entrants into the euro design competition two themes, one described as "Ages and Styles of Europe" and the other even more vaguely summarised as "an abstract/modern design". The winning submission, by Robert Kalina, an employee of the Austrian National Bank, went for the first theme and was selected by a jury made up of one representative from each member state. The public relations executive Mary Finan was Ireland's participant.

The worthy desire to avoid causing offence to any or all parties involved seems to have meant that images of startling blandness were preferred. Intended to reflect European culture through seven different architectural styles ranging from what is called "classical" through to modern, the notes feature buildings on one side and bridges - a rather clumsy metaphor for European monetary union - on the other. But lest any country claim credit for these structures, they are all generic types, which only adds to the impression of high-minded dullness the notes produce, an impression not relieved by the use of colours customarily used for board games such as Monopoly. Nor is the coinage, with its miniature maps of Europe and circle of stars, any better. And the fact that one side of these coins carries symbols specific to each of the EU's member states demonstrates that a shared design for the new currency is not really necessary or even, given its uninspired character, advantageous.

The nearest equivalent to the euro is the US dollar, which in its clean and authoritative design shows how easily a common currency can be created. The US does not even feel the necessity to vary the colour for different notes within the range. There is a sense of confident communality in the currency entirely absent among the euro notes and coins.

Since its foundation, our State has had three different banknote designs. The first of these lasted almost half a century, the second around 14 or 15 years and the third less than a decade.

Built-in obsolescence is a widespread feature of contemporary design, since all products are only intended to have a short lifespan. In appearance, Kalina's euro currency certainly gives the impression of conforming to this trend and will probably therefore be replaced - once more at our expense - within the next 10 years. We can only hope that the next set of currency produced is not only more inspiring than the average credit card but also more worthily reflects the culture of the EU's member states.