Irish Bid Farewell to Their National Currency, Enter Euro-Only Era

Bridie Keeley didn't have an Irish penny to her name Saturday, but the Dublin flower seller didn't care.

Like seemingly everyone in this nation, she had switched to the euro weeks before the last day for using Ireland's old currency.

"Far as I can tell, our old money hasn't existed for the past few weeks. Everyone's been paying in euro," said Keeley, a veteran street vendor on Ireland's premier shopping precinct, Grafton Street.

The government set midnight Saturday as the final moment when shops could accept coins and notes denominated in Irish pounds and pence. But it wasn't an issue in most shops, where transactions in the old currency became a rarity by mid-January.

Of the 12 countries that embraced the euro Jan. 1, Ireland is the second to officially phase out its currency. The Netherlands was first; the Dutch went euro-only on Jan. 28. The French will follow suit on Feb. 17, followed later in the month by nine other nations in the eurozone.

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern spent his last public pound Friday afternoon in a bookie's shop, cautiously wagering a punt — the Gaelic name for Ireland's dying one-pound coin — on his own re-election as premier in a general election expected this May. He stood to win about 44 cents.

Besides him his finance minister, Charlie McCreevy, put down 100 pounds, about $110 on a return to power for Ireland's coalition government. At attractive 7-to-2 odds, McCreevy said he would be collecting the equivalent of $495 sometime this summer.

The government reminded people of the Feb. 9 cutoff by running TV ads that showed the stag on the punt coin leaping off the metal face and clip-clopping off the screen.

But many shops decided to stop taking the old currency Friday. When a reporter tried to use his few remaining Irish coins to buy a newspaper Saturday, three corner shops refused.

"Sure the banks aren't open today. What are we supposed to do with this, sell it for scrap? It's too late," insisted Liam O'Neill, a convenience store operator. "You're the only one today trying to foist this museum-money on me."

Still, the Central Bank — which is shredding and baling Irish notes into blocks and shipping the coins to Spain to be melted down — says millions in Irish money remains unaccounted for.

That's partly because the Central Bank will continue to convert Irish coins and notes indefinitely. Most retail banks have pledged to do the same for at least the next few months.

"This is only the end of the pound as legal tender," said Central Bank spokesman Hugh O'Donnell. "The currency will still exist. People don't need to worry about being stuck with worthless notes and coins. They can't spend them anymore, but they can cash them in for euro at the same fixed rate well into the future."

Ireland produced its first notes in 1928, six years after winning independence from Britain. But the currency never operated independently, remaining fixed in equal value to the British pound until the early 1980s, then fixed more loosely to other European currencies.

The dying Irish notes in five denominations picture statesmen, a hospital-founding nun, and author James Joyce.