Northern Ireland is a numismatic’s dreamland. While the Euro is a currency which begrudgingly gives way to national difference, and then only on the reverse of its coins, Northern Ireland’s paper money exists in the leftovers of an early capitalist free-for-all. Our plethora of notes was for a long time a sign of the strangeness of the North in the UK, just as Scots could for years remind themselves of the Devolution yet-to-come when they forked out in Clydesdale Bank £50s.
Money has always been political – not just in the matter of who controls the macro-economic system, but in the altogether less elevated question of who prints it or coins it, and what it looks like. Back in 1722 Ireland was in turmoil over Wood’s Halfpence. Mr Wood of Wolverhampton had been given royal approval to make coins for Irish use. This was not popular, mainly because the coins themselves were of inferior metal, and those were days when there was a suspicion about the ‘promise to pay the bearer on demand’ fallacy which is still on Bank of England notes. Back then, coins almost represented actual wealth – you’d want to be able to melt them down and sell the metal for something like the face value of the coins themselves. Wood was pulling a fast one (having bribed his way to the contract), and those Irish people wealthy enough to have a halfpence or more in their pockets took it as a slight on their patriotism that inferior coins were being shipped from England. Wood, perhaps anticipating trouble, put a charmingly bad depiction of Hibernia with her harp on one side of the coin, in a pre-emptive attempt to calm the national waters. Unfortunately his pride got the better of him, and he had ‘Wood’ inscribed on every coin, reminding everyone who used them of their provenance.
Today in Northern Ireland Hibernia is just one image in the cacophony of mixed metaphors, over-subtle images and kak-handed designs on Northern Irish notes. This visual strangeness makes Northern notes eminently collectable (you may remember that there was a big run on Northern Bank just before Christmas 2004). More interestingly the overly complicated imagery on banknotes provides an insight into the sometimes surreal workings of the provincial capitalist mentality in Northern Ireland. Poor Hibernia, for example, has been the most restless of icons since Mr Wood stamped her akimbo on his coins. Over the years, Hibernia has been seated and has been standing. She has had her harp, and then had it taken away. Sometimes she can see her harp but would have trouble reaching it. It all became too much for her in the 1970s when the Bank of Ireland had her standing tall and proud, facing directly out of her note, and leaning on her harp in a vaguely suggestive, femme fatale way. She might as well have been at the bar in London night club, trying to persuade the temporary owner of the fiver that she was on to buy her a drink. After this incarnation she seems to have been left exhausted, because the Bank of Ireland allowed her to sit down (albeit in a negligee) on its next issue of notes.
Hibernia is an image which is a blast from our collective past – she only makes sense as a heritage handed down from the days of Mr Wood. First Trust’s current notes make even less sense. For years now (previously as Provincial Bank of Ireland, and then AIB, and then the enigmatic First Trust) they’ve had faces, young and old, always slightly badly drawn, on the front of their notes – faces which occasionally call for a double-take, since they adopt the portrait pose of the Queen, or Charles Darwin, on a Bank of England note. But they don’t seem to be anyone in particular. This is uncannily brilliant as an ironic critique of the design of bank notes in the province – though irony may not be what the bank is striving for. The faces are nothing, though, compared to the reverse, where First Trust perseveres with an inherited design obsession with the Spanish Armada, suggesting that money’s real quality in Northern Ireland is that it gets washed up on the shore. The reverse of the £10 note has the Girona in full flight. Even more terrifyingly the £100 note shows the entire Armada, ships stretching off into the distance, reminding us of how different history could have been. Up until relatively recently there was a First Trust note which pictured the Girona being unceremoniously smashed onto Ulster’s protective rocks. There is, presumably, no particular or arcane message here about the relationship between the Britishness of sterling as a currency, and the sponsors of the Armada. What’s more likely is that the whole joyful mess springs from the embedded memory of some oddball banknote designer who only just recalled seeing coins from the Girona’s hold at an impressionable age.
In comparison to First Trust, other banks in the North are blandly unadventurous. They even copy each other (though thankfully no bank other than Bank of Ireland has sucked up to Queen’s by putting the university building [minus its hideous library] on a fiver). In our everyday transactions we circulate designs for banknotes which, in some form or other, have been knocking around since the beginning of this century. In 1918, for example, the Northern Bank had, as the centrepiece of its notes, a strained artistic vision, in which a handloom sat on a seashore. Behind it, and alarmingly close, was a vast sailing ship, which looked to be in some danger of coming ashore to crush the merry weaver. To the left was a plough (wisely abandoned by its owner). Shipbuilding; weaving; farming. Simple enough to become a standard triptych representation of the Ulster economy. By 1930 the Ulster Bank had an only slightly different version of the same – except that the weaver was been joined on the shoreline by some kind of machine and two men working at it. The ship had edged closer to shore (paying no attention to the example of the Girona). Then in the 1970s (of all decades) a sudden flourish of radicalism sweeps across these landscapes. The content is exactly the same. But now capitalism is beginning to eat itself and the note-design leaves behind an early nineteenth-century world of industrial idyll to join the cut and thrust of contemporary managerialism. So the Northern Bank goes for a bold, strong font, the like of which had never been seen before. Less adventurously the hand loom is mechanised (this is 1970), the ship is in the shipyard being built, and the embarrassingly outmoded plough can’t be seen for happily chewing cows.
In the same decade we reached the height of banknote design in the North. A montage of modernity, on the backside of the sexy Hibernia of the Bank of Ireland. A Shorts Brothers plane, a sleek passenger ship, flax on spindles. And all done with just a touch of American brashness. From this zenith it’s only a short step into the wonders (soon to be destroyed) of the Northern Bank’s celebration of the dull but worthy successes of Northern entrepreneurialism – Dunlop and Ferguson. These eminences are but a preparation though, for the Northern Bank’s real stroke of capitalist hubris, when they replaced the Short Brothers plane with something altogether more ambitious; the Space Shuttle, on a sliver of plastic. I’m as much annoyed by Ulster provincialism as the next person, but space travel seems to me an excessive reaction – and they might remember what happened to the Girona. If Marx was right, and capitalism does carry within itself the seeds of its own demise, then let’s say thanks to the banks of Northern Ireland for showing us a glimpse of the incoherence which might one day make these pieces of paper, pieces of paper.
[The Vacuum, March 2005]