The Sweepstake is generally referred to as the Irish Sweepstake or Irish Sweepstakes, frequently abbreviated to Irish Sweep or Irish Sweeps. The Public Charitable Hospitals (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1930 is the act that establishes the lottery. This act expires in 1934, in accordance with its terms, and the Public Hospitals Acts are the legislative basis for the scheme thereafter. The main organisers are Richard Duggan, Captain Spencer Freeman and Joseph McGrath. Duggan is a well known Dublin bookmaker who has organised a number of sweepstakes in the decade prior to setting up the Hospitals’ Sweepstake. Captain Freeman is a Welsh-born engineer and former captain in the British Army. After the Constitution of Ireland is enacted in 1937, the name Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake is adopted.
The sweepstake is established because there is a need for investment in hospitals and medical services and the public finances are unable to meet this expense at the time. As the people of Ireland are unable to raise sufficient funds, because of the low population, a significant amount of the funds are raised in the United Kingdom and United States, often among the emigrant Irish. Potentially winning tickets are drawn from rotating drums, usually by nurses in uniform. Each such ticket is assigned to a horse expected to run in one of several horse races, including the Cambridgeshire Handicap, Epsom Derby and the Grand National. Tickets that draw the favourite horses thus stand a higher likelihood of winning and a series of winning horses have to be chosen on the accumulator system, allowing for enormous prizes.
The original sweepstake draws are held at the Mansion House, Dublin on May 19, 1939 under the supervision of the Chief Commissioner of Police, and are moved to a more permanent fixture at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) in Ballsbridge later in 1940.
The Adelaide Hospital in Dublin is the only hospital at the time to not accept money from the Hospitals Trust, as the governors disapprove of sweepstakes.
From the 1960s onwards, revenues decline. The offices are moved to Lotamore House in County Cork. Although giving the appearance of a public charitable lottery, with nurses featured prominently in the advertising and drawings, the Sweepstake is in fact a private for-profit lottery company, and the owners are paid substantial dividends from the profits. Fortune magazine describes 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 Glassworks, Irish Glass Bottle Company and many other new Irish companies are financed by money from this enterprise and up to 5,000 people are given jobs.” At the time of his death in 1966, Joe McGrath has interests in the racing industry, and holds the Renault dealership for Ireland in addition to large financial and property assets. He is notorious throughout Ireland for his ruthless business attitude and his actions during the Irish Civil War.
In 1986, the Irish government creates a new public lottery, the National Lottery, and the company fails to secure the new contract to manage it. The final sweepstake is held in January 1986 and the company is unsuccessful for a licence bid for the National Lottery, which is won by An Post later that year. The company goes into voluntary liquidation in March 1987. The majority of workers do not have a pension scheme but the sweepstake has fed many families during lean times and is regarded as a safe job. The Public Hospitals (Amendment) Act, 1990 is enacted for the orderly winding up of the scheme, which has 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.