The earliest known coins in Ireland were British and European copies of Macedonian coinage from the reigns of Philip II and Alexander the Great. No coins were struck on Irish soil this early, but the copied coins do turn up in hoards and archaeological digs.
Some of this lack of coinage can be attributed to the fact that the Roman invasion of the area did not reach the Emerald Isle, save for a short-lived camp north of Dublin. Roman coins have been found, but only alongside decorative metals and hack silver; the first-century Irish did not use coins as a medium of exchange, but simply as another form of precious metal, similar to the early Vikings.
After the Romans left Ireland and the British Isles, coins fell out of use for centuries. The Irish retained a high level of technical skill in metal-working, and many beautiful silver and gold ornaments have been founds in hoards dating to this period. Many historians believe that the majority of coins that made their way to the island were melted and used for jewelry and other ornaments. As Ireland began to be Christianized by St. Patrick and his followers, and accepted by “civilized” (usually meaning “formerly Roman”) nations, coins begin to reappear in the Irish historical record, though still mostly in terms of precious metal rather than currency. Coins found from this period include Anglo-Saxon pennies and dirhams from Islamic lands. (Dr. Caitlin Green often blogs about the spread of Islamic coins to Europe in the medieval period. Her blog is highly recommended.)
The Vikings brought an increase in the usage of coins (mostly Danish and Anglo-Saxon) when they settled in Dublin and Limerick, but it seems that the Irish usually melted these coins, or saved them for return trade with the Vikings.
The first coins struck in Ireland were the Hiberno-Norse coins produced in Dublin at the end of the 10th century, by Norse King Sithric III (also known as Sithric Silkbeard). These were copies of English king Aethelred II’s pennies. These coin designs quickly degraded until they were barely recognizable, the lettering represented by vertical strokes, and the production of coinage ceased by 1160.
It was the entrance of the Normans in 1169 that brought about the most dramatic change in the Irish use of coinage. When Henry II’s son, John, was Lord of Ireland, he struck silver farthings and halfpennies near the end of the 1100’s, followed by an increased run of coinage when he became king. Dublin housed the primary mint, though other provincial mints were used, as well. At least one purpose of this minting was to funnel silver out of Ireland and into the war efforts of the British king; Irish silver coins circulated in England and on the continent as “sterlings.”
Minting continued sporadically for several decades, still concentrated on putting Irish silver intro circulation in British lands. It was not until 1279 that Edward I struck Irish coins of comparable quality with English coins, in silver pennies, halfpennies, and farthings. Again, this silver quickly made its way away from Ireland, further impoverishing the country.
During the next 150 years, coins continued to be struck and sent away from the island, until the Irish authorities were granted permission by Richard of York to strike lower quality coins to an “Irish standard.” In return, the authorities pledged their support for his effort to gain the English crown. Richard died, and his son became King Edward IV of England. Until his death in 1483, the Irish battled constantly to keep their own coinage, while Edward wanted all coins bearing his name to meet the higher English standard (which would have resulted in still more Irish silver leaving the small island economy). There are 6 different coin designs from this period, and several different weight standards, as well as base metal and bullion issues; modern numismatists are still sorting this puzzle out.
Several subsequent monarchs revised the coinage over the next hundred years, occasionally opting for higher standard metal, but always ending up with base metal coins. Notably, Henry VIII instituted the use of the Irish harp on the country’s coins, a practice that would continue almost unbroken into the modern era.
By 1639, tensions in Irish were high, as the British crown and its auxiliaries made more and more demands, including an Irish army to fight a rebellion in Scotland, as well as conflict between Catholic Irish and Protestant England and Scotland. The Irish Rebellion began in 1641; during this time and the subsequent English Civil War, local coinages began to pop up in Ireland, particularly in Dublin. These were crude coins struck from silver plate, often including their weight or value as part of the design. The only gold coins struck in Ireland date to this period: the pistole and double pistole of 1646. The pistole is a Spanish denomination, and Spanish coinage was among the most stable and tradeable at the time.
Regular issuances of coins in Ireland did not resume until 1680; until then, local coinage and tokens were most common. Over 800 varieties are known, and they come from almost every town and village in the small country. The most significant of these are the St. Patrick’s tokens, in farthing and halfpenny denominations. They have no known attributed issuer, and are heavier and were produced in greater numbers than the others.
Irish halfpennies resumed production in 1680 after Charles II granted a patent to Sir William Armstrong and Colonel George Legg. James II continued the patent, but produced ceased in 1688 after his abdication. When James decided to reclaim his throne, he issued brass coinage (romantically said to be made from melted cannons, but in reality made from common items, such as church bells). These tokens were known as “gunmoney” and intended to be redeemed for real coins as soon as James attained his throne again. James’ campaign failed, though gunmoney was still issued for some time from a mint in Limerick. This issue was halted when William and Mary captured Limerick in 1691; copper halfpennies resumed production in 1692.
Near the end of the 1780’s, Ireland faced a coin shortage. King George III had become insane and was unable to sign any new coinage into effect; however, the English monarchy had insisted on such tight control of the production of coins that even Parliament could not legally create coinage. The only solution was the creation of tokens, and sometimes even counterfeit tokens. This period also saw the rise of banknotes in Ireland. The Irish bank tried to import Spanish and Mexican pesos, though the price of silver against gold varied too much to establish consistent value for the coins. The bank counterstruck the coins with a six shilling design; this was not a popular move, but did help to ease the economic tension for a little while. Production of tokens continued sporadically until 1813.
By the early 1820’s, both Irish pennies and halfpennies as well as English currency were circulating in Ireland. In 1826, Irish currency was officially ended, and English currency alone was valid in Ireland until the founding of the Irish state in 1928. In 1926, the new Irish Free State established a coinage committee; famed poet William Butler Yeats served as chairman. The committee continued the use of the Irish harp as the symbol of the country, and the best choice for the obverse of the coin.
The reverse of the coins would be dedicated to Irish animals, in tribute to the country’s largely agriculture. Some suggested Christian saints as the focus for the reverse designs, but it was feared that many coins would be turned into religious medals. Irish sculptors submitted designs to compete for a prize, with Percy Metcalf’s designs winning out. A very few designs by sculptor Publio Morbiducci were produced as well, before Metcalf’s designs became the standard. The coin reverses feature the woodcock (farthing), sow with piglets (halfpenny), hen with chicks (penny), hare (threepence), Irish wolfhound (sixpence), bull (shilling), salmon (florin), and horse (halfcrown). These coins are highly sought after by advanced and casual collectors, as their distinctive designs and charming animals are considered very attractive.
A ten shilling piece was introduced in 1966, and commemorates the Easter rising of 1916. It was not a popular coin, and all but 750,000 of the two million produced were melted. In 1969, Ireland adopted a decimal currency; the change was made to coincide with the decimalization of British coins, since both were in wide circulation in Ireland at the time. Both old and decimal currency circulated together for three days until the old coins were demonetized. The new decimal coins also adopted classic Irish designs and animals.
In 1999, Ireland adopted the Euro, and began to withdraw pound coins and notes in 2002.