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Irish hospitals' sweepstake

Irish Hospitals Sweepstake draw, 1933.

Irish Hospitals Sweepstake draw, 1933.

Credits:Central Press/Getty Images

The Irish hospitals' sweepstake was a horse-racing based lottery established in the Irish Free State in 1930 to build new hospitals and improve facilities in existing ones. During the 1930s alone gross income from the sweepstake was £71 million, of which £45 million was allocated in prizes and £13.5 million to hospital building.

The sweepstake’s promoters realised that serious profits would only be made if substantial numbers of tickets could be sold abroad. Initially, Britain was the principal market, in spite of laws prohibiting sweepstakes. Alarmed at the amount of money leaving the country, the British government passed the Betting and Lotteries Act in 1934 to curb the sweepstake, and, following the introduction of football pools, sales of tickets in Britain decreased significantly. The phrase ‘winning the Irish sweepstake’ became a byword for good luck and was the theme of many American and British films, cartoons, novels and plays, especially during the 1930s and 1940s.

However, the sweepstake did not have an entirely beneficial impact on Ireland’s international image. Complaints were made by foreign governments of illegal activities, including bribery, being used to sell tickets in countries that outlawed gambling, causing much embarrassment to the Irish government. The survival of the sweepstake was assured by the cultivation of a strong North American market. The gradual legalisation of lotteries in the USA from the 1960s precipitated the demise of the sweepstake. It closed in 1987 and was replaced by the present-day Irish National Lottery.



M Coleman, ‘The origins of the Irish hospitals’ sweepstake’, Irish Economic and Social History, 29 (2002), pp 40-55

M Coleman, ‘“A terrible danger to the morals of the country”: the Irish hospitals’ sweepstake in Great Britain, 1930-1987’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 105 (2005), pp 197-220