18 Aug 2022

Switching to the euro - 20 years since the 'new' currency arrived in Donegal

Journalist Siobhán McNamara reflects on the introduction of the euro 20 years ago

Euro converter

Every house in Ireland received a free euro converter

We had just settled nicely into life in a new millennium. The future had arrived and it didn’t look terribly different from the past.

The years 2000 and 2001 had come and gone relatively calmly after the much talked about ‘millennium bug’ failed to cause the predicted global chaos and mass technology crashes. 

The events of 9/11 changed the world, but it would be another while before the full effects would be felt.

And then, on January 1, 2002, along came a brand new currency.

I say brand new though in reality, it had been bubbling away in the background for quite a while. 

And it wasn’t as if we didn’t know it was coming. It had officially been in existence as book money for the previous three years, meaning that it was used in accounting and electronic transactions.

There were mass advertising campaigns telling us all about the changeover and what to expect.

But saying goodbye to our punts and joining the euro with 11 other countries  suddenly felt very, well, European. And very adult.

Every household in the country was sent a Euro converter. This looked like a basic calculator but it had one function only - to tell us how much our new euro prices were in ‘old money.’ 

I was born two years after decimalisation. Even though it was gone from circulation, it remained very much part of our language. I remember as a child hearing people refer to 50p as 10 bob, or a 10p coin as a two shilling bit. I think this lasted - for some people - right up until the euro came into circulation.

I also remember often being told ‘you’re too young to remember the old money.’

As I examined the first euro notes and coins that came my way in early 2002, it seemed impossible that there were whole generations yet to be born who would not remember my version of ‘old money.’

And yet, three of my four children have never known the punt.

As 2001 drew to a close, there was a degree of fear among some people about this change of currency that was coming our way.

How would we cope? More importantly, how would we know people weren’t ripping us off? That was the worn out mantra for a few people I knew at the time, especially, it must be said, those who loved a bit of drama.

“Wait till you see,” they’d say. “It’ll be daylight robbery.” 

“But you’ve got your euro convertor,” I would remind them.

“Ah sure you can’t trust that,” they’d reply. “That comes from the government and the EU.” 

And yes, there was inevitably a degree of ‘rounding up’ with some people really taking advantage of the situation. 

Though it must be said, this wasn’t coming from our faceless European taskmasters, as was the narrative of the usual conspiracy theorists. It was on a much smaller scale and was a lot closer to home. I suppose no matter what is happening, you can be sure that there are one or two unscrupulous types who will gleefully seize the opportunity to make a few bob. Or should that be a few quid? Or maybe even, a few euro? Or, as it was briefly known in slang terms, a few yo-yos?

Those of us in the border counties weren’t overly phased by the new currency. We were used to converting between sterling and punts and this wasn’t all that different. It got a bit trickier when we needed to convert between sterling and euro though.

In those days the vast majority of transactions were in cash, and cross border shopping was commonplace for people from both jurisdictions. With a dual circulation period lasting until February 9, and with sterling notes being widely accepted in Donegal shops there was relentless calculating to be done, especially for retail and hospitality staff!

I don’t know what happened to my euro converter. I really wish I’d kept it but it got lost somewhere along the way. There are a few for sale online for around €15 each. Mine may yet turn up in a box in the attic, and it might even have enough power left to remind me that IR£1 = €1.2697381 and €1 = 0.787564.

There were also credit card sized conversion charts doing the rounds at the time in the yellow and blue EU livery, informing us that IR£5 = €6.3486904, IR£10 = 12.697381, etc. Charts were also displayed in businesses across the country.

All these things were a significant part of our lives for a very short time but we soon adapted to the new currency.

One sector that really benefited from the changeover was charities. 

Collection points started to appear in banks and public spaces for money from other eurozone countries - that loose change or the couple of banknotes brought home from holidays or work abroad. There were few households that didn’t have a few Spanish Peseta, Italian Lira, German Deutsche Marks, French or Belgian Francs, to name but a few. 

Collection of these defunct European currencies led to a brief and welcome windfall for worthy organisations that had the foresight to seize the opportunity.

Having lived and travelled abroad, I welcomed the introduction of a common currency. I believed it would make life easier. It would make prices easier to understand and compare. And it would make visitors to our own country more at ease.

There was an argument at the time that it was moving us away from our national identity, and yes, I was sorry to see our beautifully designed banknotes and coins come to an end. 

However, our identity isn’t in the objects we create in passing, it is in all the history and heritage and creative drive behind those objects, and it is up to us all to preserve it through keeping our heritage and our skills alive and moving forward. 

The things that make us unique are important, but so too are the things that unite us. And so here we are 20 years later in 2022, sharing the euro with 341 million people in 19 countries. 

At a technical, economic level, it still has a bit of a way to go to be a true common currency. As we know all too well here in Ireland, there have been quite a few bumps on the road, but the naysayers who said it couldn’t possibly last have been proven wrong. 

It looks like the euro is here to stay. And I think our national identity is safe enough too.

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