By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Ireland became the second eurozone country to say goodbye to the past last weekend when the punt and pennies were consigned to history and the new currency became the only legal tender.
About 80 percent of the old notes have already filtered though the financial system to the Central Bank, where the shredders are working overtime. The coins are presenting more of a problem and many may never be exchanged.
It is third Irish currency change in a lifetime and it has gone with few glitches. The average rate of return of old notes in other eurozone countries is still only 60 percent.
However, a number of ongoing surveys of prices is expected to highlight profiteering and the common currency across swatches of Europe has highlighted substantial discrepancies with Ireland being one of the most expensive countries.
The handover weekend was marked by acts of symbolism.
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Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy gambled with their last punts on odds that they would be back in government after the general election. A bet with the past on the future.
In a ceremony on the last day of the six-week changeover period, the Central Bank governor, Maurice O’Connel, handed over a portrait of Lady Lavery to Raymond Keaveney, director of the National Gallery.
The socialite, who was painted by her husband, John Lavery, has graced Irish banknotes since 1928. She outlasted decimalization but has fallen to the euro.
While the punt ceased to be legal tender at midnight on Saturday, people will still be able to change them for a period in the commercial banks and indefinitely at the Central Bank.
A billion old coins are still in circulation and Central Bank spokesman Neil Whoriskey does not expect much of the old coinage to ever be exchanged.
“I’d say we will probably never see about half of that coinage again,” he said. “It would involve coins going back 30 years and a lot of it is lost or gone out of the country in tourists’ pockets.
“We are expecting the commercials banks to announce that they will stop exchanging punts for euros in a couple of weeks, rather than months, but our commitment to exchange them is open-ended.”
Ireland holds the distinction of having the only counterfeit euro coin in the euro-zone passed in a shop. It had no milled edge and the word euro was spelt without the “o”. It was passed in Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, on Jan. 12. No more have turned up.
“There were only a handful of forged notes. They were crude, to put it mildly,” Whoriskey said. “I think the fear of every Central Bank was that counterfeits would appear while people were still unfamiliar with the new currency.”
The chairman of the country’s official changeover body, Philip Hamell, is delighted that everyone embraced the change so calmly.
“We have taken out adverts in the newspapers along the lines of ‘thank you, it went well and goodbye’ to the public and everyone who helped,” he said.