Facing the root of all evil

Facing the root of all evil

THE Bank of England may put the face of Mrs Thatcher on its new £50 note to recognise her contribution to science. Though the Iron Lady’s achievements and failures in politics are well documented there is little evidence that she achieved very much as a chemist with the foods and teashop business Joe Lyons & Co which provided her first job in 1949. There is no truth in the myth, peddled by idle scribes, that she ‘helped create Mister Whippy’ and had a hand in the development of soft scoop ice cream. This is an American invention patented by Mister Softee in New Jersey when she was a child.

I find it ironic, given a devotion to the economic philosophy of monetarism helped bring about her downfall, that Mrs Thatcher should be considered for this rare honour. In simple terms monetarists believe it is right for a government to manage a national economy by controlling the amount of money in circulation, keeping wages down for example. It is a far cry from the modern approach of quantitative easing which simply tackles a fiscal crisis by printing more cash.

The first recorded reference to Sterling can be found in 1115 and involved bribing the Vatican to secure a lucrative European job for an English government minister. Guibert of Nogent tells us in his autobiography how he paid a group of cardinals £20 to secure the role as bishop of Laon for Henry I’s greedy chancellor Waldric. Though Roman silver denarii have been found in Ulster, Ireland never really had a currency system until the Norman’s arrived. In the Gaelic world cattle and wine were how you judged a man’s wealth and standing.

Coins were first minted in Dublin in 1185 and later in Carrickfergus and Downpatrick. The Tudors flooded the island with dodgy money in a bid to pay off their debts but in 1701 the value of the Irish pound was fixed. About £108 Irish pounds would buy £100 English pounds. Readers of my vintage will remember with affection the florin, the shilling, the ‘tanner’ and the ‘thee-dee-bit.’ You will also remember decimalisation in 1971 when they disappeared. I remain convinced it put up the price of a penny chew.

It was a journalist from Antrim who created the Irish Free State’s early money system in 1928. Ernest Blythe, the country’s first Minister of Finance, was the only protestant in the south’s fledgling government led by William T Cosgrove. Many will recall the punt which carried the beguiling face of American beauty Hazel Lavery, wife of Ulster’s Sir John Lavery the respected portrait painter. The Punt disappeared when the Euro was adopted 20 years ago.

Like Thatcher, Blythe was a conservative and a believer in the hair shirt approach to public finances. He reduced old age pensions from 10 shillings to nine in his 1924 budget. It was the beginning of the end for his political career. However the latest study of this complex man reveals he liked to hedge his bets. At one point he was a member of an Orange Lodge in Newtownards and the Irish Republican Brotherhood – the Victorian version of the IRA. The Irish-speaking theatre patron died in Dublin in 1975 and never made it onto a bank note.

Northern Ireland’s bank notes have featured a range of famous local people including inventors Harry Ferguson, James Martin and John Dunlop. A limited edition Ulster Bank fiver, featuring the fizzog of footballer George Best, sold 10 million copies in 10 days in 2006. Scientist William Thomson, who was born in Belfast but is better known in Glasgow, appeared on a Clydesdale Bank £20 note from 1982 until 1990. He became Lord Kelvin in 1892 for his achievements in thermodynamics, inventing an accurate marine compass and for opposition to Home Rule for Ireland.

A total of 53 people have appeared on US banknotes, mainly the nation’s founding fathers, politicians and generals. They include the seventh president Andrew Jackson whose parents emigrated from Carrickfergus in 1765; civil war hero and  president number 18 Ulysses S Grant, whose great-grandfather came from Tyrone; Grover Cleveland, who was the only man to fill the office twice and whose grandfather came from Antrim, was president number 22 and 24. The list also includes William McKinley whose family also came from Antrim. President number 25 was assassinated by a jobless Polish steel worker in 1901. Leon Czolgosz went to the electric chair just seven weeks later.

The European Central Bank, which controls the circulation money in the 17 member countries of the Eurozone, wisely ensures that no faces appear on notes and coins. Instead they feature symbolic bridges and gateways and a map of the continent. The ECB Governing Council unveiled the winning designs of a European wide competition at the European Council meeting in Dublin on 13 December 1996. The successful series was entitled Ages and Styles of Europe by Robert Kalina, a graphic designer at the National Bank of Austria.

A final decision about England’s new £50 note will be made by the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney. The unflappable Canadian has been a welcome voice of reason throughout the tedious Brexit drama which has cost the Pound some 20 per cent of its value against other international currencies. I suspect he will select a much less divisive figure than Maggie Thatcher for this valuable accolade.

© Maurice Neill 2019

FREE subscriber offer – Sign up to receive Maurice’s  ‘Irish tales’