Design Moments: Irish Free State coins c. 1928

British sculptor Percy Metcalfe won the competition to design the coinage

By 1926 the newly-minted Irish Free State was ready to get its own coinage and by the time the Coinage Act was enacted in 1927 a design competition was under way.

The judging panel was headed up by WB Yeats and it’s a sign of how outward looking and continental it was – and how determined those involved was that this would be an artistic endeavour – that the shortlist of seven included “foreign” names including the great Swedish sculptor Carl Milles and the American, Paul Manship.

Basic guidelines were laid out: the harp should be on the coins, the inscription should be in Irish and “no effigies of modern persons should be included”.

That last point is telling: in the tense post-civil war environment choosing an individual to go on the coins would be difficult.


Something different

Also British coinage features a monarch – this was a chance to strike out with something different. Yeats announced that the committee had decided on a theme of “birds and beasts . . . what better symbols could we find for this horse riding, salmon fishing, cattle raising country?”.

British sculptor Percy Metcalfe won and he went on to incorporate ideas from the other entrants into the currency that was as charming and evocative as it was beautiful to look at.

Images included a bull on the shilling, a hen on the penny and a hare on the threepence. In November 1928, minister for finance Ernest Blythe opened an exhibition of the new coins.