Irish Sweepstake: The Scandalous Lottery Set Up To Fund Hospitals

The Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes or Irish Sweepstakes as it was better known, was established in 1930 by the then recently formed Irish Government.

It was one of the largest ever lotteries formed and its purpose was to fund a nascent Irish Hospital system.

The founders knew that similar lotteries were banned in both the UK and USA. They realised that they needed to penetrate both markets in order to maximise their sales and were not put off by the legislation governing lotteries at the time.

At one stage with approximately 4,000 employees it was the biggest employer in the State during its 57-year existence.

These staff numbers were certainly required as millions of lottery tickets were being sold worldwide each year. Its employees, mostly women, were badly paid – very much in contrast to its super wealthy stakeholders. The size and scope of the operation was beyond breath-taking.

The Irish Government were delighted with the injection of funding into the healthcare system as Ireland was one of the poorest countries in Europe at the time.

This may have caused them to be very relaxed in terms of legislation, which in hindsight was far from being watertight. A situation which the Sweepstakes founders were ready to take full advantage of with a view to enriching themselves.  

Had the Sweeps achieved its primary purpose of refurbishing old hospitals or building new ones, the healthcare system in Ireland would have been the envy of many throughout the world, given that tickets sales were estimated to be worth a staggering £16 million by 1959.

Instead it turned out to be one of the greatest scandals ever – one which made its dishonest founders very wealthy. It also shone a light on the greed, nepotism and political corruption that was prevalent in Ireland at the time.

Some estimate that just 10% of the overall money raised from ticket sales actually made its way to the hospitals.

The owners continued unabated with their shady operation until the 1970’s, by which time it is estimated they had channeled off in excess of £100 million pounds.

There were so many loopholes in the legislation that the founders were able to draw down large salaries that were non-taxable in Ireland in addition to unvouched expenses.

Incredibly, the hospitals that were in receipt of the small percentage of funds that did actually find their way to the intended cause were taxed at 25%.

Particularly sickening – if you will excuse the pun – for many people was the use of blind children to assist in the draws. In one instance two blind boys with their names on cardboard, drew the numbers from a barrell. The devious founders later replaced them with nurses and policemen to demonstrate their ‘legitimacy’.

They had become so wealthy that they had purchased companies such as Irish Glass Bottle Company and Waterford Glass – both big employers at the time. They threatened politicians who were beginning to ask questions, that there would but huge loss of employment with layoffs, should they be stopped.

There were many accusations of insider purchases of winning tickets, funding of election campaigns for ‘friendly’ politicians and of associations with former paramilitaries.

The political situation in the country at the time had allowed the fiasco to continue until 1987.

It is true that some of the money found its way to the hospitals, but few were sorry to hear of its closure after a journalist exposed its workings.

It was a particularly difficult blow for the workers, mainly underpaid women, and their families who were given little notice, and to add insult to injury, subsequently discovered shortfalls in the pension fund.

Eventually the Sweepstakes was replaced with what we now know as the Irish Lotto, a completely above-board lottery with no connection to its murky predecessor.

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