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All change: when Ireland switched to ‘new money’

Fifty years ago, Ireland went decimal and, despite a stand by bus conductors and difficulties in ‘spending a penny’, the changeover was an overnight success, writes Liam Collins

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A scene from Henry Street, Dublin in 1971 as shoppers were getting used to decimaliation

A scene from Henry Street, Dublin in 1971 as shoppers were getting used to decimaliation

A scene from Henry Street, Dublin in 1971 as shoppers were getting used to decimaliation

It was dubbed D-Day, the day Ireland woke up to a new currency and abandoned £.s.d., a monetary system that had “debauched generations of school children”, according to Labour’s Justin Keating.

Fifty years ago, a cold and wet Monday, February 15, 1971, “the new money”, as decimal currency was known, came into circulation, with 100p to the pound, instead of 240d or 20 shillings.

The date was picked so that Ireland could make this leap in tandem with our British neighbours.

The transition from old to new had been championed by Minister for Finance Charlie Haughey, while two of its most strident critics were in Fine Gael.

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Charles Haughey is formally presented with the first of Ireland's new decimal coins by Dr T K Whitaker, Governor of the Central Bank in 1969

Charles Haughey is formally presented with the first of Ireland's new decimal coins by Dr T K Whitaker, Governor of the Central Bank in 1969

Charles Haughey is formally presented with the first of Ireland's new decimal coins by Dr T K Whitaker, Governor of the Central Bank in 1969

“It appears to me that we, as so often in the past, are merely doing exactly as the British have done,” chided Tom F O’Higgins in a 1969 debate on the Decimal Currency Act.

“There is no reason why we shouldn’t have a different currency [to Britain], if its suits us” added the newly elected Garret FitzGerald, accusing the government of weakness.

“I think it would be equally weak-minded not to follow Britain if it suited our purposes,” replied Haughey, who would be sacked as minister and accused of gun-running before the changeover took place.

Complaints about the price of a pint, a sliced pan and flour going up by a fraction did not seem to deter the general enthusiasm for the ‘new’ money on the day it was launched. The government had budgeted for a two-year transition, but within a couple of weeks the ‘old’ money had been almost completely displaced as people realised the decimal system was simpler, quicker and more efficient.

Coins refused

The biggest hiccup on ‘Decimal Day’ itself came from bus conductors — yes, those where the days when a unformed man in a peaked cap with a leather satchel and a little machine around his neck dispensed tickets on the bus. Because CIÉ wouldn’t compensate them for the “extra work” involved in calculating the fares in new or old money, many refused to take the rolls of newly minted coins that Monday. Only when they realised how foolish they looked as the general population embraced the decimal system did they capitulate.

The other problem was public toilets. All the locks had to be changed to take the new 1p and Dublin’s “Corpo” was caught with its pants down because it had not ordered them from England in time.

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Looking back at the prices of 1971, Ireland seems like an alien country. A well-paid civil servant in the Department of Finance could drive home to his new semi-d in Cornelscourt (£8,700) in his new Vauxhall Viva (£995) stopping off in the Horse & Hound to enjoy a pre-dinner pint (17p) while perusing his Irish Independent (3½p).

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The ‘new’ coins after Ireland went decimal. Photo courtesy of the Central Bank Archive

The ‘new’ coins after Ireland went decimal. Photo courtesy of the Central Bank Archive

The ‘new’ coins after Ireland went decimal. Photo courtesy of the Central Bank Archive

Under the Decimal Currency Act, the pound remained the same. The ten-shilling note was abolished and replaced by a 50p coin. Two shillings became 10p, a shilling 5p, and all the copper coins — 2p, 1p and a halfpenny — were new.

The half crown (2/6) and the farthing, worth a quarter of an old penny, disappeared altogether. But in a nod to the Irish Currency Commission, chaired by WB Yeats, which picked Percy Metcalfe’s design for the original Irish currency in 1928, the woodcock from the old farthing reappeared on the 50p and the horse from the half crown was assigned to the new 20p.

When Haughey was criticised in the Dáil for abandoning the designs of the old copper coins, he flourished a letter from Metcalfe “acclaiming the beauty of the new designs” by the artist Gabriel Hayes.

The changeover was overseen by the Irish Decimal Currency Board, a group of dour-looking civil servants overseen by Seán F Murray. There were no women on the board, even though in many Irish households the “purse strings” were in the grip of stay-at-home wives, many who had to leave employment when they got married. But, warned Nora Brown of the formidable Irish Countrywomen’s Association: “We will be keeping all the old prices under scrutiny.”

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Finance Minister George Colley

Finance Minister George Colley

Finance Minister George Colley

On the day itself, Minister for Finance George Colley paid a visit to traders in Moore Street to ask how they were finding the new coins before departing to the lofty banking hall of the Royal Bank in Foster Place, where its chairman Robert Langram presented him with a cheque cashed by Patrick Pearse at the bank’s Terenure branch on June 30, 1915.

The biggest complaint about the changeover was that a ‘single’ of chips had gone from 1s.3d to 7½p, equivalent to a 3d increase. The myth that the switch was the harbinger of the relentless price rises to come became almost as widespread as the currency itself.

The idea that “decimalisation caused inflation became embedded in folk history”, said John Kelly of the Central Bank in an academic paper on the issue, although he noted that global inflation was rising and other factors were also about to hasten an increase prices and wages.

Murray of the Currency Board said he “expected the old coins to disappear rapidly” and, in the grand scheme of things, he was right. But like most people, I have a few souvenirs of that day in 1971, including an old orange ten-shilling note, which I used to tell my kids was my communion money.

Obviously, a lot of people also had the same ideas of keeping ‘ten bob’ note for posterity. Thirty years later, in 2001, 1.2 million ten-shilling notes still hadn’t been redeemed. A more recent Central Bank report tells us there is €224m worth of old Irish bank notes (including ‘Lady Lavery’ pounds and their successor, the punt) outstanding at the end of 2019, although they ceased to be legal tender on February 9, 2002, with the advent of the euro.

Where are they? Under mattresses, forgotten in desk drawers or secreted away behind partition walls for fear of the taxman. But people are obviously still finding them, because in 2019 the bank redeemed €700,000 in old notes and €194,000 in old coins.

A few country stores that grimly clung to doing business in ‘the old money’ soon capitulated, the decimal currency change over, the 50th anniversary of which is on Monday, was literally an overnight success.

Prices then and now

First price is from 1971 and the second from 2021

Pint 17p; €4.96

20 cigarettes 27p; €14

Sliced pan 12p; €1.40

Bag of chips 7½p; €3


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