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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.
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. The winning entry was determined based on the outcome of several horse races, including the Cambridgeshire Handicap, Derby and Grand National, where 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 May 19th 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.
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." 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 and is now unoccupied but is held by the Office of Public Works.
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 plan 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, which had by then almost £500,000 in unclaimed prizes and accrued interest.
At the time of the Sweepstake's inception, lotteries were generally illegal in the United Kingdom, the USA and Canada. In the absence of other readily available lotteries, the Irish Sweeps became popular. Even though tickets were illegal outside of 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. The United States Congress had outlawed the use of the U.S. Postal Service for lottery purposes in 1890. A thriving black market sprang up for tickets in both jurisdictions.
From the 1950s onwards, as the US, UK and Canadian governments relaxed their attitudes towards this form of gambling, and went into the lottery business themselves, the Irish Sweeps declined in popularity.
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."
The Sweeps are mentioned in "Rage in Heaven" (1941), starring Robert Montgomery and Ingrid Bergman.
Photographs taken in 1939 of the Irish Sweepstake Building, Ballsbridge, Dublin; from the collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects: