Numismatics refers to the study or collection of currency such as coins, tokens or paper money, and sometimes related objects, such as medals. Special Collections & Archives holds two numismatic collections.

When Ireland joined the European Monetary System the long history of a distinctive indigenous coinage came to an end. Roman, Anglo Saxon, Carolingian and Scandinavian coins may all have had a limited circulation in Ireland during the first millennium, but the start of an Irish coinage proper commenced with the issue of pennies by Sitric, king of Dublin, at the end of the tenth century. Following the Anglo-Norman invasion the circulation of coins increased and mints were established at Dublin, Waterford, Kilkenny, Carrickfergus and Limerick. Coins were issued during most subsequent reigns and a distinctive set of designs - the harp was first used in the 1530s - evolved, each reflecting the dominant polity of both the lordship and the kingdom of Ireland. The quality of coin reflected the circumstances of the time. In the sixteenth century both Henry VIII and Elizabeth issued coin of inferior or debased metal as a means of raising revenue: the vicissitudes of the following century were reflected in the manufacture of coin from discarded weaponry and the operation of a mint in the besieged city of Limerick. In 1701 the value of the Irish pound was set at twelve-thirteenths of a pound sterling but from 1797 it was allowed to float and it generally depreciated against sterling. In 1826, as one of the consequences of the Act of Union, the Irish and English currencies were amalgamated, thereby ending an eight hundred year tradition of a separate Irish coinage. The first coins of independent Ireland were issued in 1928 and though each carried a distinctive national design, their shape and value mirrored that of British sterling, which continued to circulate freely.

The penny was the basic unit. In writing it was usually (and confusingly) indicated by the letter d, an abbreviation of dinarius, the principal Roman coin of the period. Fractions of the penny - the halfpenny and the quarter-penny, or farthing - circulated widely. Coins of higher value, each a multiple of the penny, were found in few pockets but their number increased gradually during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. One such was the groat, a four-penny piece that circulated from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. The six-penny piece was first minted in Ireland during the reign of Henry VIII and the twelve-penny piece, or shilling, during the reign of Edward VI. Higher values such as the five-shilling piece, or crown, and the half-crown appeared during the reign of Charles I. New denominations were circulated during the reign of George III and some of them - the five and ten-penny pieces, perhaps - may have reflected the continental fashion for decimalization. When decimalization was eventually introduced for the Irish and British coinage in 1971, the ancient denominations - farthing, halfpenny, sixpence, shilling, florin, half-crown and crown - disappeared. The Irish penny and pound - but not the British - followed them into history when they were replaced by the euro and the cent in 2002.

This Collection illustrates the history of the Irish coinage of the period from 1015 to 1826. It is the work of Father Patrick Conlan who formed it with great care during the 1970s and '80s. Its contents and its scope reflect exemplary scholarship, a keen eye for quality, and a determination to acquire coins that would each illustrate a specific phase and period of Irish numismatic history, particularly with reference to Limerick. The Collection also contains two examples of the worked-metal pieces - what are generally referred to as ring-money - that may have had a symbolic use as much as a monetary value in prehistoric Ireland. A representative set of tokens, each with a notional monetary value and used for the exchange of goods by various businesses and institutions in the early modern period, completes the Collection.

In an exceptional act of civic-minded generosity, Father Conlan presented his Collection to the University of Limerick in 1991. In so doing he marked his family's long involvement in the life of the City of Limerick and, in a particularly vivid way, his gesture reflects his own distinguished contribution to historical research.

John Logan

22 March 2004

© Copyright 2004 Special Collections Library, University of Limerick

The Irish economy began to take on a recognisably modern appearance in the late eighteenth century. Rapidly increasing demand for agricultural produce, particularly in Britain, resulted in unprecedented growth in trading activity and provided the essential stimulus for the formation of a modern banking system. The Bank of Ireland was estalished in 1782 as a national bank but despite its impressive resources it did not establish branches either within Dublin or in the country. The gap was filled by an increasing number of small, private banks though they laboured under several restrictions, including having unlimited liability and not being allowed more than six partners. Consequently, few banks could acquire sufficient capital to ensure stability and each was vulnerable in a period of economic change. Many private banks failed in the deflation and depression that followed the ending of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. In an effort to ensure greater stability, legislation allowing an increase in the size of partnerships was enacted and from 1824 the large joint-stock banks, such as the Provincial and the Northern, with numerous branches and growing assets became an essential feature of Irish commerce.

This collection of notes issued by some of the private country banks of the early nineteenth century was formed by Eoin O'Kelly (1905-1997) whose knowledge of early nineteenth century bank history was unrivalled. Mr. O'Kelly was himself a professional banker who served in the Provincial Bank of Ireland and who retired as manager in Limerick in 1968. His was not a mere acquisitive hobby but the underpinning of a systematic scholary quest. In 1953 he presented a thesis on early nineteenth century banking at University College Cork for which he was awarded the degree of M.Econ.Sc.. The thesis formed the basis of his book The old private banks and bankers of Munster, i, bankers of Cork and Limerick cities (Cork, 1959). In a very generous civic gesture Mr. O'Kelly decided to present his collection to the University of Limerick in the hope that it might stimulate future scholars to continue research into the history of Irish banking. Sadly, Mr. O'Kelly did not live to see his collection in the University. His daughter, Sheila O'Kelly, with a generosity that mirrored that of her father, presented the collection to the University in 1999.

The collection consists of a total of thirty-nine notes, photographs of two others and a 1727 ready reckoner. Details are listed below in the following order:

  • Number of note in the collection
  • Amount for which note was issued, as printed on note and including amount in guineas and in pounds, shillings and pence, if given
  • Name and location of bank
  • Names of bank partners as they appear on note
  • Serial number as printed on note
  • Date of issue

John Logan

4 August 1999

© Copyright 1999 John Logan and University of Limerick