Two-bob job – Frank McNally on the Dantesque origins of a classic Irish coin

An Irishman’s Diary

The two-shilling coin, complete with the leaping salmon of Percy Metcalfe’s classic 1928 design

The two-shilling coin, complete with the leaping salmon of Percy Metcalfe’s classic 1928 design

 

Readers of a certain age will remember the florin, or flóirín as it was in Irish. Those of an uncertain age will even recall when it was Ireland’s two-shilling coin, complete with the leaping salmon of Percy Metcalfe’s classic 1928 design. 

But it was also one of only two from that series to survive decimalisation in 1971, when it became the 10p denomination, while retaining name and fish. And after another currency reform in the early 1990s, it was the last of the old aristocrats left standing, albeit in smaller size and with the salmon jumping the other way.

Misled by the fadas, I used to assume flóirín was an old Irish word. But thanks to this week’s Dante 700, I have learned belatedly that the original florins were minted in the Italian city they so sound like, and in the years when the poet himself was walking its streets.

The greatness of the Florence into which Dante was born arose in part from its prominence in a then new type of business called banking, and more particularly in being sole producer from 1252 onwards of a gold coin that became an early role model for the euro.

The hardest of hard currencies, it featured the Florentine lily on one side (hence the name) and St John in a hairshirt on the other. And in design, weight, and metal content, it remained unchanged for centuries, becoming the dominant coin of western Europe, where many cities and states eventually made their own copies.

There must have been florins among the cash that was raked in – literally, with rakes – on the altar of St Peter’s Cathedral during the great Rome pilgrimage of Easter 1300, over an April weekend whose dates would later become the dates on which Dante set his Divine Comedy.

Unfortunately for him, Florence’s flourishing financial services sector had not saved the city from periodical bouts of vicious feuding, one of which forced him into exile on pain of death in 1301, never to return.

But in adopting the ancient name for its second-highest-value coin in 1928, the newly independent Ireland was drawing on centuries of European monetary stability. Things fall apart, as the chairman of the committee that chose Metcalfe’s design knew. The currency, however, had to hold.

The Irish florin was a modest thing compared with the Florentine original. 

But as its longevity attests, it was also popular, not least because it was easier to compute that the only coin of greater value, pre-decimalisation: the half-crown.

This and the power of alliteration must have helped the success of “Florin Fund”, for example: one of the longer-running Irish charities of the 20th century, by which bank staff raised large sums for St Vincent de Paul, from 1942 to at least the 1980s.

It should be said that there was a model for the Saorstát florin somewhat nearer to Ireland, in both history and geography, than 13th-century Florence. A silver florin had also been minted in England in 1849, valued at one-tenth of a pound, as part of what Brewer’s Dictionary calls a “tentative” introduction of decimalisation.

To Britain’s innate distrust of metrification, however – still making news headlines as recently this week – was added that coin’s lack of the usual words “Dei Gratia” (“by God’s grace”) and the letters “F.D.”, which since Henry VIII’s time had acknowledged the English monarch as “Defender of the Faith”.

It was soon nicknamed the “Graceless” and “Godless” florin and considered to bring bad luck.

Some even blamed it for the cholera epidemic of the period.

To complicate matters, there was an Irish sub-plot – if not a full plot – to the saga, because the UK’s Master of the Mint then was a Kilkenny-born Catholic, Richard Lalor Sheil.

As an MP, Sheil had been a prominent supporter of Daniel O’Connell’s emancipation campaign and was a noted orator.

One political commentator found him small and unimpressive in manner, with a shrill voice and too rapid delivery, but added: “in sheer beauty of elaborated diction [neither] O’Connell nor anyone else could surpass him”.

This did not help him when the silver florin proved so controversial.

The coin was withdrawn and Sheil had to leave the mint soon afterwards.

Then, by an ironic twist, he was appointed British envoy to the court of Tuscany.

And in a fate that had been denied to poor Dante, Sheil spent his last days in Florence, where he died in 1851, although – again unlike the poet – his remains were later shipped home, for burial in Tipperary.  

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