As a frequent visitor to Dublin, I realized early on that this great city certainly has its share of culture, activities and attractions, especially in the form of Museums. There are Museums to suit every taste from lifestyle and history, music and art – of every conceivable nature. Simply put, it’s a haven for culture-vultures.
While planning my last visit to Dublin, something had dawned on me, I’ve been to several cities in Europe and America and had the opportunity to either review or just “view” some very impressive and well-displayed coin collections belonging either to the nation or private institutions… except Ireland’s own collection. So, with the next possible opportunity, I was going to remedy that.
During my visit to County Wexford via Dublin for the launch of the Central Bank of Ireland’s Kennedy anniversary coins, I took this chance to arrange and do just what I had missed on all previous visits – view the Irish national numismatic collection. To begin with, the National Museum of Ireland is collectively situated in three separate locations in Dublin alone and another location in County Mayo. In order to determine which location you will need to go, it’s a quick search for your interest on their very comprehensive website, (http://www.museum.ie/en/collection-list/the-collections-art-and-industry.aspx)
A view of the exterior of Collins Barracks, the main entrance is through the arch.
The courtyard of the Barracks, one of the largest complexes of its kind in Europe.
The numismatic collection is housed in the Collins Barracks location, just off Benburb Street and, if you avail yourself of Dublin’s LUAS tram, you will actually stop right outside the Barracks itself. The first thing you need to know or will notice about Collins Barracks is… it is huge! This part of the National museum is a renovated former Army barracks built three centuries ago in 1702 and further extended in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to its award winning redevelopment and conservation renovation, the barracks was once the oldest, continuously used military complex in the world. Since 1997 it has been the new home to several collections. The collections included here have an emphasis on Decorative Arts & History such as Irish haute couture garments, furniture, silver, jewellery, ceramics, exhibitions exploring Irish military history, including the 1916 Easter Rising and of course the coins of Ireland.
Coins from the Portlington Hoard, a cache of 16th century gold coins discovered between 1946 – 48 in Derryville, County Laois.
Hoard of gold guineas from Carrick-on-Suir, Co. Tipperary just discovered in January 2013. Reigns range from Charles II to Queen Anne.
An interesting fact about Irish coins is that they do have a similar timeline as those of several Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark. There are coins on display which can be dated to the very last years of the first millennium, around 998 and right up to the most recent coins denominated in Euro. The collections are displayed in well-lit, welcoming and spacious surroundings. As you enter the complex where the collection is housed, you are met with a real piece of Irish numismatic history, the very plaster mould which Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovich (1883-1962) submitted to the Irish coinage committee in 1927 but, as the story goes, the model arrived too late for consideration. This beautiful depiction of an allegorical female figure with harp most probably would have been utilized for the common reverse sides of Irish national coinage – and as it turned out, the design was adopted and used as the great seal of the Central Bank in 1965. This extraordinary object of numismatic art eventually did make its way onto an Irish coin (as had been intended) in 2007 when a silver commemorative coin was issued for collectors. Another room which is part of the collection contains an extensive collection of Irish and world medals, including an actual gold Nobel Prize medal.
Impressive selection of medals covering pre and post-independence, the subjects are wide ranging.
“Gun Money..?” No, just a display to illustrate the wages of a soldier in the mid-17th century!
The coins of course trace Ireland’s times of troubles & conflicts as well as immense prosperity. As you tour Dublin for the first time, you clearly see evidence of great wealth in almost every corner, as Dublin was once considered the second city as far as commerce was concerned, in the whole of the British Empire. Opulent & ornate buildings and monuments serve as testament to Ireland’s impressive contribution to carving out an economy based on agriculture before and after the industrial revolution. During a substantial period of the country’s history, much of the coins which circulated in Ireland were from England but, there were many coins, now extremely rare today that were utilized during some instances of unrest or when typical coining material such as gold, silver or copper was in short supply. The national collection includes several pieces of the coins issued under King Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Henry’s Groat or silver four pence is on display as well as Mary’s & Elizabeth’s shillings – all carrying the now familiar harp on the reverse of the coins – a tradition which continues to this day. During the period of the Great Rebellion in Ireland and the English Civil War a number of crudely made coins were produced in Ireland, mostly in Dublin. These coins were almost exclusively of silver plate cut and struck into a number of denominations with simple patterns which often included their weight or value in their design. Of interest is a display of “Blacksmith’s money” which was minted during the Cromwell era. Included is an excellent example of a Kilkenny half-crown based on the English coin of the same denomination – the differences could not be more startling! Another fascinating inclusion is that of the Ormond pieces, issued by the Lord Justice the Earl of Ormond in about 1642-1645.
Henry VIII’s silver Groat of four pence is displayed depicting the harp on the reverse.
Excellent examples of coins issued by the Earl of Ormond, 1642-45.
“Blacksmith’s money” coins based on designs of the coinage of Charles II – issued 1642-44.
Among the rarer issues of this period are the pistole and double pistole of 1646 which were for centuries, the only gold coins struck in Ireland. The museum’s own examples of these extremely rare coins take pride of place in a central display. Showing their weights in pennyweight, the one pistole is struck as 4 (pennyweight and) 7 (grains) while the double pistole is clearly marked as 8 (pennyweight and) 14 (grains)
The collection’s one & two gold “pistole” coins minted in 1646 are prominently displayed. Their denominations appear on the one side, the two pistole coin is exceptionally rare.
An excellent display of Irish banknotes is also assembled with a comprehensive collection from those earliest Bank of Ireland issues right up to the last Punt notes which were replaced by the adoption of the Euro in 2002. Some of Ireland’s most well-known and loved banknotes or promissory notes are the “Ploughman” series, (1929-1953) issued by Ireland’s Currency Commission. As the higher value notes are usually only seen these days in either high-end auctions or are luckily included in collections such as the National Museum’s. The famous “Lady Lavery” series is also included as is the last two circulating series. Many of the notes are Specimens and can be viewed from both sides as the notes are encased in glass and displayed on hinged panels.
Complete series of Irish banknotes are on display, pre and post decimal sets: Series “A”, (1928-1977); “Ploughman” series (1929-1953); Series “B” (1976-1993); Series “C” (1993-2001)
A section of pre-decimal, post-decimal and Euro-era coins are also on display. The pre-decimal display is particularly interesting as it includes some of the original plaster models of the designs first considered when Ireland first achieved independence. The first coins of the Irish state were first introduced in 1928, six years after the Republic’s sovereignty was recognized by Great Britain. The iconic “barnyard” series so instantly recognized and eventually chosen by the Irish coin commission was the work of Percy Metcalfe and included the same sterling denominations as the coins which were replaced. The plaster molds on display show a very different series of coins which might have been with many allegorical and historically based suggestions on show.
Exquisite original plaster molds of proposed coin designs that might have been…
Resin models of the coin designs adopted in 1928 – the designs are the work of Percy Metcalfe.
For modern coin collectors, there is an up-to-date display of the latest gold and silver coins issued by the Central Bank, (many launches covered right here!) As I read through my article, I realize there are so many other items and displays I haven’t mentioned – it simply isn’t possible to do justice to the entire collection in one article or even one visit but, I’ve tried to feature some of the highlights I encountered. The curators have taken particular attention to highlight just about every chapter in Ireland’s history which is chronicled in its coins and they have done a very admirable job. Currently the Museum is experiencing a budgetary shortage as are many state funded institutions in several Euro-zone countries. All of Ireland’s museums are taking advantage of the nationally sponsored “Gathering” initiative which was launched by the Government’s cultural and tourist authorities to attract visitors to their shores – which is a real pleasure to do so for any reason. While admission to this and all collections is absolutely free, if you do visit whilst you are in Dublin, do make a point of leaving a small donation which goes to the running costs.
For more information on opening times and any special exhibitions underway, please visit the website of the National Museum at: http://www.museum.ie/en/homepage.aspx Incidentally, if you get there in time for lunch, there is an excellent café within the museum (ground floor level facing the courtyard) which means you can take your time and view the many other collections on-site.
I would like to thank Jennifer Goff, senior Curator and a special thanks to Michael Kenny, former Curator of the National Museum’s numismatic collection for his kind assistance and for making my tour so enjoyable, it is very much appreciated!