After almost a year in the US, I still come across the odd 20 or 50 cent Euro coin in my pockets that are thrown into a cup in my room for the future trip home.
If only, like my 17th and 18th century Irish immigrant counterparts, I could use these coins as a legal form of currency in America.
Yes, when the first waves of Irish people began to make the move across the ocean, the few that had any money left in their pockets on their arrival were often able to use the coins as an accepted medium of exchange.
We look at some of the Irish coins that were at one point accepted in America.
St. Patrick Halfpenny
The first major waves of Irish immigrants arriving in the US began during the 17th century, especially during the Cromwellian era when Irish Catholics were driven from their land and forced to move while others became indentured servants and were sent to the West Indies.
Another group of Irish immigrants at the time were Ulster Presbyterians who had also suffered from discrimination throughout Ulster and who wished to move to America, where they believed they would find greater tolerance.
During this time many Irish immigrants brought their coins with them and the St. Patrick Halfpenny began to circulate around the original 13 colonies. Although it was first minted in Ireland, it is believed that later versions could also have been minted in America.
The coins show King David playing a harp while wistfully looking upwards at the royal crown. On the edge of the harp is a semi-naked woman, an illustration popular on English coins during the second quarter of the 17th century.
On the reverse side of the coin, we see an image of St. Patrick where he is either standing in front of a church, believed to be St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, driving the snakes from Ireland or he is depicted preaching to a crowd.
Although it is uncertain what the original purpose of the coins was, whether they were gifts from the Church to parishioners or awarded to soldiers, it is known that they were used as a form of payment in the Isle of Man and in New Jersey.
OldCurrencyExchamge.com reports that an English Quaker named Mark Newby acquired a number of these coins and brought them with him when he moved from Ireland to West New Jersey.
The coppers he brought with him were awarded legal tendency status by the General Free Assembly of West New Jersey on May 18, 1682. The coppers remained in circulation right throughout the colonial period and New Jersey copper specialist Edward Marris once said that they could still be found in use right up until the early 19th century.
William Wood’s Irish Coinage for George I (1722-1724)
English copper and tin mine owner William Wood wanted to make a profit from minting coins for Ireland and America and, so, in 1722 he purchased the patent for coining copper money for Ireland – a collection of King George I.
The coins came in two types: The first shows Hibernia with a harp to the left while the second shows the harp to the right.
They came to the US through a much smaller flow of Irish immigrants, although a famine in the early 1740s did result in a number of Irish people relocating across the Atlantic. In fact, between 1771-1773 some 32,000 Irish immigrants moved to America on over a 100 ships sailing from Newry, Derry, Belfast, Portrush and Larne.
Approximately the same number traveled from ports in Dublin, Cork and Waterford.
The Irish-American ‘Voce Populi’ Token Coinage of 1760
These coins were quite scarce in Ireland which is believed to be partly due to the death of King George II in 1760. On their final arrival in Dublin in 1762, it is said that many of them were bought up and shipped off to America where they were circulated widely until the Revolutionary War.
The coins are very similar in appearance to the Wood’s collection to the untrained eye.
However, although one side still displays Hibernia with a harp to the right, on the obverse side of the coin is depicted a man with a wreath along with the motto “Voce populi” (By the voice of the people).
Irish Evasion Halfpennies (1770s to the 1790s)
These coins were originally minted as contemporary counterfeits and produced between 1782-1799.
In the years before this, many laws had been passed to attempt to put a halt to counterfeit coins. These laws had a very obvious loophole, however, as it was only illegal to recreate a coin that was exactly the same as a regal coin.
As a result, these coins were made ever so slightly different so that they could be regarded as tokens, not currency, and counterfeiters could get away with it. Hence, the name “evasion coins.”
To change up the design, the coins would display a different person but somebody who had a great likeness to King George III, his portrait may be mounted facing in the wrong direction or the motto “Georgius III Rex” would be changed to something like “George Rules,” “Georgius III Pax,” or “Britain Rules.”
The coins also found their way to America, where it was taking some time for a new American currency to take hold, and the Irish coins (and counterfeits) continued to be used right up until the 1790s.
On April 2, 1792, however, Congress passed the “Mint Act” that established the dollar as the principal American currency, making the US the first country in the world to adopt the decimal system for currency, and all other forms of currency were gradually phased out.
The first coins were minted in 1793 at the Philadelphia Mint and presented to Martha Washington.
Do you collect coins? Have you ever come across any of those listed above? Let us know in the comments section.