‘What is made round to go round?’

The answer to the riddle above, often quoted as a proverb in the Schools’ Collection, is of course, money. The question of coins, money and finance is a frequent theme across many aspects of folk tradition and the relevant section under ‘Trade and Communication’ in A Handbook of Irish Folklore by Seán Ó Súillebháin lists questions covering everything from local terms for money and coins, to misers and hoards, hidden or buried money, money lenders, to bartering, buying and selling, and everything in between. Practically, money is, of course, a strong concern for the household. The use of money, particularly coins, has more than just a literal value, however. Coins often have symbolic value in folk tradition, and though it is often thought that a coin will symbolise luck in money, different coins in Ireland were thought to have protective qualities, lucky qualities and were also used in certain cures.

The coins in use in Ireland have changed several times in the last 100 years. The Central Bank of Ireland provides a short history of coins and notes used in Ireland since the creation of the Irish Free State, showcasing the pre-decimal coins (£1 = 240 pence), designed by Percy Metcalfe and featuring Ireland’s native animals, that were introduced in 1928. These were then updated to the decimal system (£1 = 100 pence) in 1971, and generally the same designs were kept, with new designs for the new 2p, 1p and 1/2p coins, based on illuminations in Irish manuscripts. Though accounts from the Schools’ Collection (1937-1939) and the Main Manuscript Collection (1927-) do refer to the kinds of coins listed in the pre-decimal system, such as the half-crown, the shilling, the sixpence, the threepence, the halfpenny and the farthing, many of the accounts refer to an older period, and it is likely that they refer to the older (though generally similar) system of British coins used in Ireland after the Act of Union in 1801

Rubbings made of old coins found near Caste Odder, Kilmessan, Co. Meath. NFCS 690: 95.
Illustrations of old coins from Castlefin, Co. Donegal. NFCS 1098: 260.

As part of the booklet of topics given to teachers and children for the Schools’ Collection, the children were prompted to collect material on ‘Díol agus Ceannach’/‘Buying and Selling’, asking about local markets, shops and travelling salespeople, as well as the exchange of goods, etc. The final question in the English-language booklet asks children about coins formerly used, and any names for particular coins. The Irish-language version is more vague, asking about any lore known about money, or coins, and as such, the Irish-language accounts are not as detailed with terms for particular coins. The English-language accounts name some terms still in use today, such as a ‘bob’ (a shilling) and a ‘quid’ (a pound), though aside from these two terms, most other slang faded from memory when their corresponding coin ceased to be used Other names listed are a ‘tanner’ (a sixpence), a ‘kid’s eye’ (threepence), a ‘wing’ (a penny) and a ‘meg’ or a ‘make’ (a halfpenny). Accounts in Irish refer to the réal and leathréal (sixpence and threepence), and toistiún (fourpence), and the word pingin still remains in regular use, despite the abolition of pennies after the introduction of the euro in 2002. 

Slang terms for money, Howth, Co. Dublin. NFCS 792: 113

A series of beliefs recorded in the archives of the National Folklore Collection illustrate that certain coins have auspicious or protective qualities. A copper coin was put into the milking bucket before milking to ensure plentiful milk and butter. It was also thought to be unlucky to give or spend money on a Monday or on New Year’s Day. Spitting on a new coin is also thought to be lucky. Money, among other items, was also sometimes placed in the foundations of a house, ensuring the safety and prosperity of those who lived there. Florins were thought to have protective qualities because they were marked with a cross (also referred to as cross-money), as did other silver coins. Silver coins are also noted in stories about the supernatural, used to make bullets shot at cats, hares or other animals suspected to be otherworld beings. 

Coins embedded in tree as an offering at Holy well at Clonenagh, Co. Laois. Kevin Danaher, 1967.

Money from the otherworld was another matter altogether and many accounts describe how money received is inclined to disappear, or turn to leaves, animal dung or other substances. False coins like these are not only associated with the supernatural, however, and references to the practice of counterfeiting coins were recorded. Blacksmiths were sometimes quoted as making counterfeit coins, but others, known as ‘coiners, also followed this practice, including the following account of Súil Dubh, the Coiner, Co. Limerick:

‘There once lived near the old hall of Loughill, a man called Súil Dubh, who was also called ‘The Coiner’. He was famous for holding up and robbing people … He collected lead and pewter, and melted and moulded them into coins. Once when he ran short of raw material, people say he stole the chalice out of a chapel. When he was going home with the chalice, things were made very difficult for him, as a sudden gush of wind came and blew him about in every direction. His mother became impatient, and she went out looking for him. She met him on the old road which now leads up to the old bridge and she returned the chalice to the chapel.’ 

NFCS 483: 362

Many accounts also refer to the luck-penny, sometimes referred to as ‘earnest money’, or bonn sochair, corráiste or dúthracht in Irish. This practice, employed often at fairs and markets, dictates that after an animal has been bought, the seller will return a coin or amount of money to the buyer, as a token of goodwill. According to Maidhc Ó Fógarta, an informant from Drumsallagh, Co. Clare, the luck-penny used to be given with brood animals, for luck in breeding, but that over time this has been forgotten, and that the luck penny now applies to all animals.

Fruit & vegetable stalls, Moore Street market. Gerard Brady, 1980.

Coins were also used in cures. Most often mentioned is the use of a sovereign on a disease named ‘wildfire’ (scrofula), that rubbing a gold sovereign on the skin will cure this. Sovereigns and other coins were also sometimes used to cure ringworm, no doubt because the circular coin matched the circular marks left on the skin from this rash. Coins were sometimes used instead of stones as a cure for warts, as it was thought that if a coin was abandoned by a person with warts, they would then be transferred to the unfortunate person to find and pick up the coin.

While many of the accounts above refer to abolished coins, some of the practices still remain common today, such as the belief that an empty purse cannot be given as a gift, but should contain a coin, or other money. As our monetary habits change, so too do the traditions and stories surrounding them. Only time will tell what traditions will emerge and evolve in our new era of credit cards and electronic payments!

This post was written by Ailbe van der Heide, Cúntóir Leabharlainne | Library Assistant, Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann | National Folklore Collection.

One thought on “‘What is made round to go round?’

  1. Emma Cownie says:

    Fascinating stuff, Ailbe. I find it very interesting that coins were used in cures. These are probably were ancient practices, probably going back to pre-Christian times. Did you come across the practice of bending coins before throwing them into springs or wells? Medieval pilgrims used to bend saints’ medals bought at their shrines and throw them in rivers to put them beyond use in this world, as a votive offering.

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