This article is a part of our “Revolutionary Animals” series, which examines the roles of animals in revolution, representations of revolutionary animals, and the intersections between representation and the lived experiences of animals.
By Ann Marie Durkan
The three-year Irish War of Independence between Irish Republican forces and British Crown forces ended in December 1921 and the Irish Free State was established in 1922. Although it had been 100 years since the last official Irish coins were produced, and those coins had included portraits of King George IV on one side and the crowned harp on the other, for the next few years the new state continued to use sterling as its currency. However, in January 1926 the Coinage Bill was introduced into Dáil Eireann by then Minister for Finance Earnest Blythe who insisted that, for a new state intent on forging a new identity, it was vital to have “a coinage distinctively our own bearing the devices of this country.” At the time this country was entirely dependent upon agriculture and in this piece I explain the fascinating story behind how and why simple farmyard animals were chosen to adorn Ireland’s new coins whose beauty remained a great source of national pride until the 1970s.
The government was very aware of the importance of choosing the right symbols to represent the new state. Throughout history, revolutionaries have recognised how public symbols such as national flags, stamps and legal tender have been used as tools of propaganda and as representations of public authority. The power of a symbol comes from the emotional charge and complex associations attached to it which cannot be fully expressed by words alone.
The Bill was then debated in the Senate where poet and dramatist W. B. Yeats was appointed as chairman of the committee on coinage design. The committee included other eminent Irish art experts including Thomas Bodkin, governor of the National Gallery of Ireland; the Royal Hibernian Academy’s Dermod O’Brien and Cork Goldsmith Barry Egan among others. There was great excitement about the new coinage and in March 1926 Yeats described the “official designs of the Government, in connection with postage stamps and coinage, as the silent ambassadors of national taste.” 
National attachment – that feeling of close personal attachment to one’s nation – is vital for the successful cohesiveness of society and national symbols, such as flags, anthems, postage stamps, and coins act as “conceptual representations of group membership.” Symbols such as these condense and encompass the history, values, knowledge and memories of nationhood. If national symbols are “one of the primary means through which residents are reminded of their nationhood in everyday life,” surely this makes a country’s coinage one of the most powerful symbols of nationhood. This is the story of how and why common Irish animals such as the horse, pig and chicken were chosen to grace the coins which were used by Irish people daily for 50 years. It strongly acknowledges the importance of Ireland’s non-human residents to the emerging identity of the new Irish Free State.
From the beginning of the decision making process, it was decided that hackneyed symbols such as round towers, shamrocks and celtic crosses should be avoided. Yeats sought advice from artist Sir William Orpen and Senator and poet Oliver St John Gogarty on how to proceed and they looked to ancient Greek and Roman coins for inspiration. It was decided that, since a modern nation needed modern symbols, the new coins should bear images of the products of the country rather than religious or patriotic symbols. Given Ireland’s overwhelming dependence on agriculture and animal products at the time, animals were chosen as motifs to best represent the identity of the country. This angered many people at the time. However, on 6 August 1926, Minister for Finance Earnest Blythe endorsed the theme of animal products and specific recommendations were drawn up for each denomination with “the more humble types to the lower” and “the more noble or dignified types” for the higher denominations.
In July 1926 adverts were placed in national newspapers for submissions from artists for the new coins but few responses were received. Unsurprisingly, when the designs chosen by the committee came from an English artist, Percy Metcalfe, some controversy followed although not as much as might have been expected because then, as now, the cost of the project was central to the ability of the project to proceed. While Metcalfe’s submissions were considered to be “incomparably superior” to any others, his quote for the commission was also by far the most competitive among the international artists who applied. The Government was induced to overlook Metcalfe’s association with their former colonisers. After a protracted process of revision to the designs for the pig, bull, horse and wolfhound based on the opinion of animal experts, in November 1928 the new coins were exhibited to the public. At the opening ceremony Minister Blythe was said to have proudly described them as “more interesting and beautiful than any token coinage in the world.”
Examining the coins from the smallest value to the largest:
The farthing had a woodcock in flight. This small but important gamebird often provided a free meal for poor agricultural labourers.
The halfpenny had a sow with piglets. Although the pig was very important in Irish agriculture, both rural and urban, this coin was controversial since pigs had previously been used by British cartoonists to depict Irish people as “brutish and dirty.” However, there were defenders of the pig on the coin and it stayed there until December 31, 1969.
The penny was marked with a hen and chicks and represented a staple industry which the government was seeking to foster at the time. This coin wasn’t demonetised until after decimalization in February 1971.
A hare was chosen for the threepence recognising the popular sport of hare coursing in Ireland. Using the wolfhound and the hare as the two nickel coins paired the two together nicely.
The Irish Wolfhound was chosen for the sixpence even though it wasn’t regarded as a natural product of the country. Beloved by nationalists as a powerful symbol of Celtic Ireland, the Irish Wolfhound had recently been resurrected as a class by Englishman Captain George Augustus Graham who crossbred Deerhounds, Borzoi, English Mastiffs and even a Tibetan Kyi Apso until he had created what he imagined resembled the Wolfhound of old.
The image of the bull had appeared on ancient Greek coinage and was chosen for the shilling. It represented “the excellence of Irish cattle and their importance in the trade of the country” and his image remained in circulation until 1992 – although the shilling was replaced by the five pence after decimalization.
The florin (worth two shillings) was graced with the salmon representing the importance of this fresh water and salt water fish to freshwater game fishing and the sea fishery industry. It also held a favoured place in ancient Irish mythology as the Salmon of Wisdom.
Finally, the symbol chosen for the most valuable coin, the half-crown, was the horse, specifically and Irish Hunter breed. The horse had also been used on ancient Greek coins and Irish horses were held in high esteem internationally at the time. In 1926, the Equitation School was founded to further promote the Irish Sport Horse to the world and the horse industry in Ireland was to prove very important to the Irish economy in the following decades of the twentieth century.
It was widely reported at the time that critics of the new coins objected to the animal imagery declaring that it suggested Ireland’s mission was to be a farmyard and that Irish people could merely aspire to raise livestock. The absence of religious emblems also caused controversy among those who saw Ireland primarily as a Christian nation. Some considered the choice of animals (as products) as the triumph of materialism over idealism. Critics of the animal designs frequently used terms such as “pagan” and “paganism” but that was nothing new at the time. These terms were regularly used in political debate in Ireland referring to the “immoral, materialistic and irreligious popular culture of Britain” as opposed to the morals of good Catholic Ireland.
However, defenders of the coins focussed on their beauty being a source of national pride and, despite their critics, the new coins were adopted and went into circulation in 1928. Supporters within the government recognised the political significance and power of the animal motifs. As symbols, the coins separated religion from finance, promoted agriculture and enhanced the new state’s aesthetic internationally.
Although the revolution separating the Irish Free State from the British Empire had occurred in 1921, the process of building the state’s new identity was ongoing for several years after. By placing the images of animals on the new coins, the government and hence the state were acknowledging the important contribution of these animals to recreating the meaning of Ireland as a place. A new narrative was being written for the new state and the state’s non-human residents were privileged by being placed front and foremost within this new narrative.
Ann Marie Durkan was awarded a PhD studentship from the School of History and Geography in Dublin City University in 2020. Her research explores the “conjoined histories” of humans and other animals in Dublin in the 20th century
Title image: Percy Metcalfe’s Irish Coins,from Irishcoinage.com
Billig, M. (1995) Banal Nationalism. London: Sage Publications.
Blake Knox, D, (2017) The Curious History of Irish Dogs. Dublin: New Island Books.
Firth, R. (1973) Symbols: Public and Private. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Irish Independent (1928) Symbols of Sovereignty. https://archive-irishnewsarchive-com.dcu.idm.oclc.org/Olive/APA/INA.Edu/SharedView.Article.aspx?href=IND%2F1928%2F12%2F01&id=Ar00912&sk=2A8F17E5 (accessed 10/6/2021)
Morris, E. (2005) Our Own Devices: National Symbols and Political Conflict in Twentieth-Century Ireland. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.
 Oireachtas, “DAIL IN COMMITTEE. – COINAGE BILL, 1926.—SECOND STAGE. – Dáil Éireann (4th Dáil) – Wednesday, 27 Jan 1926 – Houses of the Oireachtas.”
 Oireachtas, “COINAGE BILL, 1926—SECOND STAGE. – Seanad Éireann (1925 Seanad) – Wednesday, 3 Mar 1926 – Houses of the Oireachtas.”
 Firth, Symbols: Public and Private.
 Billig, Banal Nationalism.
 “NAI DT S6244A, Committee on Coinage Designs – Interim Report, 6 August 1926.”
 Irish Independent, (1928), 9.
 Morris, Our Own Devices: National Symbols and Political Conflict in Twentieth-Century Ireland, 100.
 Blake Knox, The Curious History of Irish Dogs.
 NAI DT S6244A, Committee on Coinage Designs – Interim Report, 6 August 1926.
 Morris, Our Own Devices: National Symbols and Political Conflict in Twentieth-Century Ireland, 95.