My grandfather and Irish decimalisation

Three men, Ken Whitaker, Sean Murray and George Colley, pose with the new Irish decimal currency in February 1971

It’s a photograph that I have long been familiar with; legendary Irish economist and public servant T.K. Whitaker on the left, Minister for Finance George Colley on the right, and in the middle my grandfather, Sean F. Murray, previously Whitaker’s deputy at the Department of Finance, inspecting the new decimal Irish currency, switching from the old system of 20 shillings and 240 pennies to the pound, to the new 100 pence which endured until the arrival of the euro. My grandfather chaired the internal government committee that brought in the new system.

The new Irish decimal coins exactly matched the British, as the old coins had done since they were introduced in 1928; there was later some divergence, as the Irish 50p coin did not downsize when the British did, and the Irish 20p coin was larger and rounder than the British one, but for most of the period from 1971 to 2002, most British and Irish coins were physically interchangeable, and certainly in Northern Ireland you would normally find some Irish coinage mixed in with your sterling change. This could occasionally lead to problems after the Irish pound aligned with the European Monetary System in 1979; I remember well Black Wednesday in 1992, when the exchange rate shifted from £1.05 Irish to £1 sterling, to vice versa in the course of a few days.

In hindsight, the decision to continue the alignment of the Irish and British currencies after decimalisation in 1971 looks like a no-brainer, and I must say I had vaguely wondered what my grandfather’s committee actually did other than accept the inevitable. I was completely wrong. A 2020 Ph D thesis by Andrew John Cook at the University of Huddersfield looks in depth at the decimalisation process, not only in the United Kingdom, but also in the Commonwealth (much of which had inherited the pounds, shillings and pence of the colonisers) and Ireland. The story is much more complicated than I had realised, and in fact all three of the men in the photograph – Whitaker, Murray and Colley – had initially opposed the decision that they ended up implementing.

From the early days of independence, occasional voices had floated ideas that Ireland should decimalise its currency – but by adopting the ten-shilling unit and shillings as the core of the new system, abolishing the pound and changing from 12 pennies to 10 cents in each shilling. This was not a fringe idea. The first such proposal was from T.A. Smiddy, Michael Collins’ economic advisor and later the Irish Free State’s first ambassador (to the United States). The surviving memo from him to Collins is dated April 1923 in the archives – which must be incorrect, because Smiddy was already in Washington by then and Collins had been dead for eight months. If he received it during his lifetime, Collins would have had other things on his mind anyway.

A cabinet committee in 1959, and another in 1965, endorsed the ten-shilling scheme, though a sizeable minority in both cases preferred to move in tandem with the UK. Another proposal floated at the time was to move to florins, worth two old shillings, as the base unit; each florin would have 100 cents (so 10 florins and 1000 cents to the old pound). The argument was that for a country much poorer than the UK, the fundamental unit need not be as valuable as the British pound.

But with the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement in 1965, and the 1966 British announcement that they would move to a pound with 100 pence in 1971, the situation became urgent. Cook quotes from several government memos written by my grandfather, from which it becomes clear that he ended up as the key mover, along with Finance Minister and then Taoiseach Jack Lynch and also Charles Haughey, Lynch’s successor in Finance, to ensure that Irish decimalisation would match the British process.

My grandfather was in charge from an early stage. In January 1967, three months before I was born, he wrote a memo to the Cabinet on behalf of the Department of Finance recommending the florin-cent system. This was also supported by his boss, T.K. Whitaker, and by the Ministers for Foreign Affairs, Frank Aiken, and for Industry and Commerce, George Colley. However, the 85-year-old President De Valera supported the ten-shilling scheme (advocated 45 years earlier by Smiddy) in an October 1967 letter to the Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, in which he also foresaw the ultimate role of a single European currency:

I would adopt half the pound sterling, that is the ten-shilling note as the Irish fundamental note. It would have to be given a name. For want of a better one I use Réalt here. One tenth of a Réalt would be a scilling and one tenth of a scilling a pingin.

If I were asked, why not keep exactly to the British unit, I would say that the ten shilling one is a better one on its merits. Moreover, it is desirable that Dublin is not considered a mere suburb of London, or Ireland as a piece of West Britain. There are, possibly, amongst us some who desire this but we should not aid them. There is no better way of making visitors feel they have come to a different nation than by having a different currency …

We will never get a chance like this again for a quiet assertion of our nationality. The decision to be made here is, in my opinion not a mere economic one. It is, also, a national one, and were the decision to be mine I would not hesitate a moment. The British might, sometime in the future change the basis again, we would surely look ridiculous if we were always accommodating ourselves to them. The position would be different of course if the nations of Europe were all to go over to a common unit and Britain were to join them. We could then, without any loss of dignity, accept the common unit.

But the Minister of Finance, Jack Lynch, had been in favour of simply following the British lead since at least 1966, and when he became Taoiseach in October of that year, the new Minister of Finance, Charles Haughey, ruthlessly implemented Lynch’s policy. (Which is rather ironic, given later events.) Haughey commissioned a public consultation, and put my grandfather in charge of managing it and ensuring that it came up with the right answer (thus neutralising one of the internal voices in favour of the florin system).

The banks were particularly strong supporters of the Haughey/Lynch plan, and that carried a lot of weight. On 23 April 1968, Haughey, backed by his deputy, Jim Gibbons, and by Lynch as Taoiseach, announced the shift to pounds and new pence with the same value as sterling, to take place on 15 February 1971, the same day as the UK, based on the results of the public consultation and the conclusions of the committee that my grandfather had been running.

By February 1971, Haughey had been dramatically fired by Lynch, and tried and acquitted of shipping arms to the IRA, with Gibbons (who had meanwhile become Minister of Defence) the chief witness against him. His replacement as Minister of Finance was George Colley, meaning that he and my grandfather, who had both been early supporters of the florin scheme, were now in charge of implementing a completely different proposal.

The RTÉ coverage of Decimalisation Day starts with Colley in a Dublin bank, my grandfather beside him looking at the camera to see if it is rolling, and ends with my grandfather in a brief interview saying that it all seems to have gone well. (And it had.) It must have been one of the biggest days of his career, and one can sense his glee. (I wasn’t able to embed the video directly, so this is it captured via my iPad; there are some silent parts, including at the beginning.)

Today is in fact the 113rd anniversary of my grandfather’s birth, on 16 October 1909. (His sister-in-law, now aged 106, is still with us.) He died in 1976 when I was nine, and the last thing I remember talking to him about was Gulliver’s Travels. I am the oldest of his 22 grandchildren; here I am with the first of his great-great-grandchildren, my half-first-cousin-twice-removed, born last year.

Meanwhile Andrew Cook’s thesis looks like a rollicking good read of what might at first sound like a very dry corner of administrative history, and for the time being at least, you can get it here.