The enigmatic uniface 28.8-millimeter medalet bears a shaggy-haired
man’s bust with heavy spectacles and legend CORK WITH DE VALERA FOR
IRELAND. Its concave back bears an integral nipple that may have been
a mount for wear during an Irish election in the late 1920s or 1930s.
Eamon De Valera (born New York 1882, died Dublin 1975) was then
barnstorming for his Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) party, and this
bronze piece is probably a political issue.
Discovering something new excites a dedicated collector,
especially if it involves a country whose coins and medals are as well
charted as those of modern Ireland. That country’s first national
coinage appeared in 1928 to worldwide applause for its simplicity and
beauty of design. For the next 40 years, all Irish coins bore the
Irish harp and a selection of birds, fish and mammals charmingly
depicted by artist Percy Metcalfe. The decimal coinage introduced in
1969 continued many of these familiar designs.
Irish tokens and medals certainly exist, but have received minimal
study in Ireland and are generally unfamiliar to American collectors.
Medals are few and far between, especially since the violent era of
the early 1920s.
Political life in Ireland was in ferment as World War I broke out
in August 1914. Irish Home Rule was resisted in the northern counties
of Ulster, and the nationalist Irish Volunteers split over the role
Ireland should play in the war. The Easter Uprising in Dublin in 1916
began a war for independence that was supposed to end with the 1922
The treaty did not establish the republic proclaimed in 1916 but,
rather, a quasi-dominion called the Irish Free State, triggering a
civil war whose effects are still felt today. The struggle thrust
forward leaders of amazing ability, including Arthur Griffith, New
York-born Eamon De Valera, William T. Cosgrave and Cork’s youthful
guerrilla warfare genius Michael Collins.
Many able men died in this fratricidal struggle, including
Collins. The Free State emerged victorious only at terrible cost,
heading the Irish government, and ultimately forming the Fine Gael Party.
Defeated Republicans coalesced around De Valera in the Fianna Fáil
(Soldiers of Destiny) Party in March 1926 and would rule for 61 of the
next 79 years.
Campaigning in the late 1920s was risky. Memories were painfully
fresh of the death of Michael Collins in a County Cork ambush, blamed
on De Valera. Republicans never forgot their enemies’ retaliatory
shooting of prisoners.
Wearing such a De Valera button, especially in County Cork, could
well have invited a bullet. This reality might account for the rarity
of such buttons today.
David T. Alexander is author of American Art Medals,
1909-1995 and a fellow of the American Numismatic Society. He is
a longtime numismatist and researcher.