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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Establishment of the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake

The Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake is established in the Irish Free State on November 17, 1920. The lottery is established to finance hospitals.

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.


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Birth of Sir Peter O’Sullevan, Horse Racing Commentator

Sir Peter O’Sullevan, Irish-British horse racing commentator for the BBC, and a correspondent for the Press Association, the Daily Express, and Today, is born Newcastle, County Down on March 3, 1918. He is the BBC’s leading horse racing commentator from 1947 to 1997, during which time he describes some of the greatest moments in the history of the Grand National.

O’Sullevan is the son of Colonel John Joseph O’Sullevan DSO, resident magistrate at Killarney, and Vera (née Henry). As an infant, the family returns to his parents’ home at Kenmare, County Kerry and he is raised in Surrey, England. He is educated at Hawtreys Preparatory School, Charterhouse School, and later at Collège Alpin International Beau Soleil in Switzerland.

In the late 1940s O’Sullevan is involved in some of the earliest television commentaries on any sport, and makes many radio commentaries in his earlier years (including the Grand National before it is televised for the first time in 1960). On television, he commentates on many of the major events of the racing year, including the Cheltenham Festival until 1994, The Derby until 1979, and the Grand National, Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood until he retires in 1997. During his career, he commentates on around 30 runnings of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris and racing from the United States and Ireland as well as trotting from Rome during the 1960s.

During his 50 years of commentating on the Grand National, O’Sullevan commentates on numerous historic victories. These include Bob Champion‘s run on Aldaniti in 1981 after recovering from cancer, 100/1 outsider Foinavon‘s win in 1967, and the three-times winner Red Rum in 1973, 1974 and 1977. He also commentates on the 1993 Grand National, which is declared void after 30 of the 39 runners fail to realise there had been a false start, and seven go on to complete the course. As the runners approach the second-last fence in the so-called “race that never was,” O’Sullevan declares it “the greatest disaster in the history of the Grand National.”

O’Sullevan becomes known as the “Voice of Racing.” In a television interview before his 50th and last Grand National in 1997, he reveals that his commentary binoculars came from a German submarine. He is knighted the same year – the only sports broadcaster at the time to have been bestowed that honour. He is also a racehorse owner, including of Be Friendly, who wins the King’s Stand Stakes at Ascot, and Prix de l’Abbaye de Longchamp. He is twice successful in the Haydock Sprint Cup (then Vernons Sprint) in 1966 and 1967. Another horse he owns is Attivo, whose victory in the 1974 Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival is described by O’Sullevan as the most difficult race to call.

Attivo also wins the Chester Cup and the Northumberland Plate during the 1970s. O’Sullevan’s final race commentary comes at Newbury Racecourse for the 1997 Hennessy Gold Cup, and he visits the winners’ enclosure as a winning owner in the race which follows courtesy of Sounds Fyne’s victory in the Fulke Walwyn Chase. He is succeeded as the BBC’s lead commentator by Jim McGrath.

After his retirement, O’Sullevan is actively involved in charity work, fundraising for causes which revolve around the protection of horses and farm animals, including the International League for the Protection of Horses (ILPH), the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation Centre and Compassion in World Farming. The National Hunt Challenge Chase Cup (run at the Cheltenham Festival) is named after him in 2008 to celebrate his 90th birthday. In 2010, Aintree Racecourse names O’Sullevan as one of the eight inaugural “Grand National Legends.” His name is inscribed on a commemorative plaque at the course, alongside the likes of Ginger McCain and Captain Martin Becher.

O’Sullevan meets his wife Patricia, daughter of Frank Duckworth of Manitoba, Canada, at a ball in Manchester in 1947. She dies of Alzheimer’s disease in 2010.

O’Sullevan dies of cancer at his home in London on July 29, 2015.


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Birth of Michael James O’Hehir, Commentator & Journalist

michael-james-ohehirMichael James O’Hehir, hurling, Gaelic football and horse racing commentator and journalist, is born on June 2, 1920, in Glasnevin, County Dublin. Between 1938 and 1985 his enthusiasm and a memorable turn of phrase endears him to many. He is credited with being the “Voice of the Gaelic Athletic Association.”

His father, Jim O’Hehir, is active in Gaelic games, having trained his native county to win the 1914 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship title in hurling. He subsequently trains the Leitrim football team that secures the Connacht Senior Football Championship title in 1927 and he also serves as an official with the Dublin Junior Board.

O’Hehir is educated at St. Patrick’s National School in Drumcondra before later attending the O’Connell School. He later studies electrical engineering at University College Dublin, however, he abandons his studies after just one year to pursue a full-time career in broadcasting.

At the age of eighteen O’Hehir writes to Radio Éireann asking to do a test commentary. He is accepted and is asked to do a five-minute microphone test for a National Football League game between Wexford and Louth. His microphone test impresses the director of broadcasting so much that he is invited to commentate on the entire second half of the match.

Two months later, in August 1938, O’Hehir makes his first broadcast – the All-Ireland football semi-final between Monaghan and Galway. The following year he covers his first hurling final – the famous “thunder and lightning final” between Cork and Kilkenny.

By the mid-1940s O’Hehir is recognised as one of Ireland’s leading sports broadcasters. In 1947 he faces his most challenging broadcast to date when he has to commentate on the All-Ireland Football Final from the Polo Grounds in New York City with over 1,000,000 people listening to the broadcast back in Ireland.

In 1944 O’Hehir joins the staff of Independent Newspapers as a sports sub-editor, before beginning a seventeen-year career as racing correspondent in 1947.

In 1961 Ireland’s first national television station, Telefís Éireann, is founded and O’Hehir is appointed head of sports programmes. In addition to his new role O’Hehir continues to keep up a hectic schedule of commentaries.

O’Hehir’s skills do not just confine him to sports broadcasting and, in November 1963, he faces his toughest broadcast. By coincidence he is on holidays with his wife Molly in New York City when U.S. President John F. Kennedy is assassinated. O’Hehir is asked by Telefís Éireann to provide the commentary for the funeral. The live five-hour broadcast proves a huge challenge for him, as he has had no association with political or current affairs broadcasting up to that point and lacks the resources available to more established television stations. O’Hehir’s commentary, however, wins widespread acclaim in Ireland and shows a different side of his nature.

In August 1985 O’Hehir is preparing to commentate on the All-Ireland hurling final between Offaly and Galway. It would be a special occasion as it would mark his 100th commentary on an All-Ireland final. Two weeks before the game he suffers a stroke which leaves him in a wheelchair and with some speaking difficulties. This denies him the chance to reach the century milestone. He hopes to return to broadcasting one day to complete his 100th final, however, this never happens.

In 1987, the centenary All-Ireland football final takes place Croke Park. The biggest cheer of the day is reserved for O’Hehir when he is pushed onto the field in a wheelchair by his son Peter. Nobody expects the standing ovation and the huge outpouring of emotion from the thousands of fans present and from O’Hehir himself.

Over the next few years O’Hehir withdraws from public life. He returns briefly in 1996 when his autobiography, My Life and Times, is published. Michael O’Hehir dies in Dublin on November 24, 1996.