Irish Hospitals Sweepstake

Joe McGrath was a friend of Michael Collins, a member of the IRB and fought in the Easter Rising of 1916. He was made minister for industry and commerce in the first Free State government but resigned in 1924 and became a businessman. In 1930 he was co-founder of the Irish Hospitals sweepstake, known as the Irish Sweep, and he asked Dora’s company to run it for him. This was a lottery, where people could buy tickets in the hope of being allocated the winning horse in major races, such as the Grand National and the Derby, with the proceeds being shared between winning tickets and Irish hospitals. The draw would be made by women in nurses’ uniforms to emphasise the good deed that the gamblers were doing. In fact, the prime beneficiaries were the Irish Hospitals Trust directors, who made their fortunes. Calculating & Statistical Services also made a huge profit on it and the contract was the jewel in Dora’s crown during the 1930s.

Irish hospitals had largely been founded by Protestant benefactors who then fled the country after independence, leaving their legacies dwindling in value with rapid inflation. At the same time demand was rising, medicine was increasingly expensive to provide and the Irish government was unable to fund the country’s hospitals due to the depressed economic situation. The economic situation was a problem for the lottery provider too, in that Ireland had a small, low income population who couldn’t afford to spend much money on lottery tickets. The Irish diaspora was another matter.

Lotteries were illegal in both the United Kingdom and the USA, but both countries had substantial Irish populations. In Britain in the 1920s gambling was thriving with the football pools, introduced in 1922, and greyhound racing tracks, introduced in 1926, proving enormously popular. The contradiction of gambling for a good cause and annoying the English into the bargain, by doing something illegal, was an irresistible mix for Irishmen living in Britain. Bookmakers and other agencies eagerly took up ticket selling, with many of the tickets being smuggled into Britain in the luggage of Irish residents. The Post Office had been asked to open packets that they suspected to contain sweepstake tickets but this was practically impossible and, in any case, led to other channels being used. Smuggling added an extra thrill to the experience and only increased enthusiasm for the Irish Sweep.

extract from The Times, 1933, about Irish Hospitals Sweepstake
From The Times 31/03/1933

In the first three years of its operation the British government estimated that British residents had contributed £21.2 million to the Irish Sweep, an embarrassing balance of trade statistic which they could do nothing about (see Coleman M, 2005, A Terrible Danger to the Morals of the Country: The Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake in Great Britain 1930-87). In 1934 the Betting and Lotteries Act clamped down on large scale lotteries, banning advertising and the publication of lists of winners, which successfully interfered with the popularity of the Irish Sweep. Instead McGrath and his fellow directors switched their attention to the USA and the sweep continued to thrive. A 1948 edition of the BTM in-house magazine mentions that at that time the Irish Sweep still consumed ten million punch-cards per draw.

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