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Irish Hospitals' Sweepstake

Irish Hospitals' Sweepstake

The Irish Hospitals' Sweepstake was a lottery established in the Irish Free State in 1930 as the Irish Free State Hospitals' Sweepstake to finance hospitals. It is generally referred to as the Irish Sweepstake, frequently abbreviated to Irish Sweeps or Irish Sweep. The Public Charitable Hospitals (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1930 was the act that established the lottery; as this act expired in 1934, in accordance with its terms, the Public Hospitals Acts were the legislative basis for the scheme thereafter. The main organisers were Richard Duggan, Captain Spencer Freeman and Joe McGrath. Duggan was a well known Dublin bookmaker who had organised a number of sweepstakes in the decade prior to setting up the Hospitals' Sweepstake. Captain Freeman was a Welsh-born engineer and former captain in the British Army. After the Constitution of Ireland was enacted in 1937, the name Irish Hospitals' Sweepstake was adopted.

Irish Hospitals' Sweepstake
First draw1930
Final draw1987


F. F. Warren, the engineer who designed the mixing drums from which sweepstake tickets were drawn

F. F. Warren, the engineer who designed the mixing drums from which sweepstake tickets were drawn

The sweepstake was established because there was a need for investment in hospitals and medical services and the public finances were unable to meet this expense at the time. As the population of Ireland was unable to raise sufficient funds, because of its low population, a significant amount of the funds were raised in the United Kingdom and United States, often among the emigrant Irish. Potentially winning tickets were drawn from rotating drums, usually by nurses in uniform. Each such ticket was assigned to a horse expected to run in one of several horse races, including the Cambridgeshire Handicap, Derby and Grand National.[1] Tickets that drew the favourite horses thus stood a higher likelihood of winning and a series of winning horses had to be chosen on the accumulator system, allowing for enormous prizes.

The original sweepstake draws were held at The Mansion House, Dublin on 19 May 1939 under the supervision of the Chief Commissioner of Police, and were moved to the more permanent fixture at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) in Ballsbridge later in 1940.

The Adelaide Hospital in Dublin was the only hospital at the time not to accept money from the Hospitals Trust, as the governors disapproved of sweepstakes.[2]

From the 1960s onwards, revenues declined. Although giving the appearance of a public charitable lottery, with nurses featured prominently in the advertising and drawings, the Sweepstake was in fact a private for-profit lottery company, and the owners were paid substantial dividends from the profits. Fortune Magazine described it as "a private company run for profit and its handful of stockholders have used their earnings from the sweepstakes to build a group of industrial enterprises that loom quite large in the modest Irish economy. Waterford Glass, Irish Glass Bottle Company and many other new Irish companies were financed by money from this enterprise and up to 5,000 people were given jobs."[3] By his death in 1966, Joe McGrath had interests in the racing industry, and held the Renault dealership for Ireland besides large financial and property assets. He was known throughout Ireland for his tough business attitude but also by his generous spirit. At that time, Ireland was still one of the poorer countries in Europe; he believed in investment in Ireland. His home, Cabinteely House, was donated to the state in 1986. The house and the surrounding park are now in the ownership of Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council who have invested in restoring and maintaining the house and grounds as a public park.

In 1986, the Irish government created a new public lottery, and the company failed to secure the new contract to manage it. The final sweepstake was held in January 1986 and the company was unsuccessful for a licence bid for the Irish National Lottery, which was won by An Post later that year. The company went into voluntary liquidation in March 1987. The majority of workers did not have a pension scheme but the sweepstake had fed many families during lean times and was regarded as a safe job. The Public Hospitals (Amendment) Act, 1990 was enacted for the orderly winding up of the scheme,[4] which had by then almost £500,000 in unclaimed prizes and accrued interest.

A collection of advertising material relating to the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes is among the Special Collections of National Irish Visual Arts Library.[5]

In the United Kingdom and North America

At the time of the Sweepstake's inception, lotteries were generally illegal in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. In the absence of other readily available lotteries, the Irish Sweeps became popular. Even though tickets were illegal outside Ireland, millions were sold in the US and Great Britain. How many of these tickets failed to make it back for the drawing is unknown. The United States Customs Service alone confiscated and destroyed several million counterfoils from shipments being returned to Ireland.

In the UK, the sweepstakes caused some strain in Anglo-Irish relations, and the Betting and Lotteries Act 1934 was passed by the parliament of the UK to prevent export and import of lottery related materials.[6][7] The United States Congress had outlawed the use of the US Postal Service for lottery purposes in 1890. A thriving black market sprang up for tickets in both jurisdictions.

From the 1950s onwards, as the American, British and Canadian governments relaxed their attitudes towards this form of gambling, and went into the lottery business themselves, the Irish Sweeps, never legal in the United States,[8] [] declined in popularity.

Cultural references

  • The film The Winning Ticket (1935) is about a winning sweepstakes ticket that a baby hides and the drama of trying to find it.

  • In Agatha Christie's novel, Death in the Clouds (1935), one of the characters, Jane Grey, a hairdresser, has won £100 in the Sweeps, so allowing her to be on the flight on which the novel's action begins. Discussing her win later with another passenger, they "agreed together on the general romance and desirability of sweeps and deplored the attitude of an unsympathetic English government".[9]

  • In Evelyn Waugh's novel, Scoop (1938), the Sweeps are mentioned in connection with the protagonist, William Boot's, long-cherished wish to fly in an aeroplane: "[Nannie Bloggs] had promised him a flight if she won the Irish Sweepstake, but after several successive failures she had decided that the whole thing was a popish trick, and with her decision William's chances seemed to fade beyond the ultimate horizon."[10]

  • The plot of the film Lucky Partners (1940) revolves around the purchase of an Irish Sweepstakes ticket by Jean Newton (Ginger Rogers) and David Grant (Ronald Colman).

  • The Sweeps are mentioned in the film Rage in Heaven (1941), starring Robert Montgomery and Ingrid Bergman.

  • In the film Cabin in the Sky (1943), Little Joe is offered $50,000 in exchange for his Sweepstake ticket, whose horse is favoured to win in the final draw.

  • Cork Crashes and Curiosities (1945) is an Irish short film on car and motorcycle racing with Irish Sweep posters visible in several shots. In its RiffTrax commentary, Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett assume that the posters are ads for a mysterious product called "Irish Sweep".[11]

  • In a skit titled " A Sweepstakes Ticket" in the film Ziegfeld Follies (1945), an indigent wife (Fanny Brice) learns via cablegram that she is the winner of the Irish Sweepstakes – only then to discover that her husband (Hume Cronyn) has given the ticket to the landlord (William Frawley) as a substitute for the $3 he was short on rent.

  • In the film Force of Evil (1948), about the legalization of a numbers racket, the Irish Sweepstake is mentioned as a model.

  • In the cartoon The Emerald Isle (1949), a steak is found sweeping. When asked by the narrator (Jack Mercer) what kind of a steak he was, the steak (voiced by Sid Raymond) calls himself an Irish Sweepsteak, a reference to the Irish Sweepstake.

  • In the 1954 episode of I Love Lucy titled "Bonus Bucks", Lucy tells Ricky about her near-misses at winning money, in part, by saying "Five years in a row I didn't win the Irish Sweepstakes".

  • Robert Heinlein mentions the Irish Sweeps in his novella, The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950), and in his novel, Glory Road (1963).

  • An April 1963, episode of I've Got a Secret featured a woman who had won $140,000 in the Irish Sweepstakes[12] — in response to a panelist's question, the woman noted that approximately $100,000 of her winnings would be taken by the Internal Revenue Service, to which host Garry Moore observed that for "a $3 ticket," $40,000 still represented substantial winnings.

  • In October 1964, Bub on My Three Sons wins the sweepstakes and takes his family on a two-episode trip to Ireland.

  • In her collection of poems titled Transformations (1971), Anne Sexton mentions the Irish Sweepstakes in the first stanza of "Cinderella".

  • In Happy Days season 3 episode 8 (1975), Richard Cunningham notes that his father "almost won the Irish Sweepstake".

  • In Stephen King's novel "The Stand" (1978), William Starkey mentions the Irish Sweepstakes in reference to the start of the flu pandemic. "Anyway, Cindy, what I'm trying to say is that this was a chain of coincidence on the order of winning the Irish Sweepstakes."

  • In the 1981 episode of WKRP in Cincinnati titled "Out to Lunch", Johnny and Venus hand out Irish Sweepstakes tickets to the employees of the station as gifts from a record company rep.

  • In the 1983 episode of Fantasy Island titled "The Winning Ticket" Tattoo wins a million dollar Irish Sweepstakes by being the best friend of the newly deceased winner.

  • In the 2006 episode of NCIS titled "Family Secret", Dr Mallard says "I once wagered a five hundred-to-one on the Irish Sweepstakes."

  • In the 2012 episode of Breaking Bad titled "Madrigal", Saul tells Walter that, regarding Walter's luck, "you're alive, as far as I'm concerned, that's the Irish sweepstakes."[13]


Photographs taken in 1939 of the Irish Sweepstake Building, Ballsbridge, Dublin; from the collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects:

  • Interior, staff at work [20]

  • Interior, the laying of the teak floor [21]

  • Interior, the canteen [22]

  • Exterior, the roof [23]

  • Exterior, the west front [24]


Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgColeman 2009.
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgReport (25 July 1933), "Irish Hospitals", The Irish Times, p. 36
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgFortune Magazine, November 1966
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkwww.irishstatutebook.ie"Public Hospitals (Amendment) Act, 1990". Acts of the Oireachtas. Attorney General of Ireland. 1990. Retrieved 11 November 2016.
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkwww.nival.ie"All Special Collections". National Irish Visual Arts Library. Retrieved 20 May 2018.
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgColeman 2005.
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgColeman 2009.
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Link//www.jstor.org/stable/20547430Coleman, M (2006). "The Irish Hospitals Sweepstake in the United States of America, 1930-39". Irish Historical Studies. Cambridge University Press. 35 (138). JSTOR 20547430.(subscription required)
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgChristie, Agatha (1964) [1935]. Death in the Clouds. London: Pan. p. 47.
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgWaugh, Evelyn (1984) [1938]. Scoop. Harmondsworth: Penguin. p. 46.
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkwww.rifftrax.com"Cork - Crashes and Curiosities". RiffTrax. Retrieved 13 March 2016.
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkcarsonscrafts.comIve Got a Secret episode guide for 1963
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkwww.geekenfreude.comhttp://www.geekenfreude.com/breaking-bad-502-madrigal-best-lines-bonus-murder-watch/
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkwww.ribapix.comInterior, staff at work
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkwww.ribapix.comInterior, the laying of the teak floor
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkwww.ribapix.comInterior, the canteen
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkwww.ribapix.comExterior, the roof
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkwww.ribapix.comExterior, the west front
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Link//www.jstor.org/stable/2550624225506242
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM
Citation Linkwww.ribapix.comInterior, staff at work
Sep 29, 2019, 5:40 AM