Saturday 20 January 2018

Review: The Greatest Bleeding Hearts Racket in the World by Damian Corless

Damian Corless on the scam that was the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes
Gill & Macmillan
Sweeping the whole world off of its feet

Winning ticket: Red Skelton, Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly star in the Sweeps-themed movie Du Barry Was A Lady.
Winning ticket: Red Skelton, Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly star in the Sweeps-themed movie Du Barry Was A Lady.

Hollywood, 1935. MGM is in its golden age as the most powerful and star-spangled studio on the planet. The MGM lot is a hive of activity as the cameras roll on a new movie called The Winning Ticket. But the most powerful figure present is neither the director, producer, star nor a studio executive.

He's a shady enforcer in the pay of three Dublin-based businessmen who've told him to make sure the studio sticks strictly to the script.

The Winning Ticket was a big-budget promotional film for the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes dressed up as a comedy feature. Its making is a measure of how the Irish Sweeps had come from nowhere to sweep the globe in the space of five years.

The nature of its making was also a reflection of the methods employed by the creators of this super-lottery as they brought down the wrath of foreign states on the Irish Government, revived the fortunes of the IRA in the US, and counted some of America's most powerful men in their pockets.

The man who posted his enforcer on the MGM lot was the feared Washington political commentator and radio star Drew Pearson -- recruited by the Sweeps promoters while on a visit to Dublin. Pearson ran an incredible double life. In public, he was the scourge of presidents and senators. In secret, he controlled a massive smuggling and bribery network running between Ireland and the US. His reward was a massive under-the-counter salary of $50,000 a year, plus a luxury car with a chauffeur.

Other big Sweeps-themed movies included Lucky Partners with Ginger Rogers and Ronald Colman, and the Cole Porter musical DuBarry Was A Lady starring Gene Kelly and Lucille Ball.

The Sweeps was the creation of three gamblers: Richard Duggan, Joe McGrath and Spencer Freeman. Their plan was to sell tickets into foreign territories using Irish emigrant communities for distribution. Ireland's crumbling hospitals were the token good cause. The promoters succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, despite the fact that their super-lottery was illegal in their target markets.

The Hospitals Trust demanded, and got, light-touch financial regulation from successive governments. This was key because their enterprise relied on the bribery and corruption of police, customs, postal officials and politicians to grease the wheels of the biggest smuggling network on earth. The Irish State became adept at looking the other way.

Duggan styled himself Dublin's most honest bookie, with his slogan: "Whatever Duggan Lays He Pays." This cut little ice with the courts in the mid-1920s when they nailed him for running sweepstakes into Britain.

The Sweepstake was a two-tier lottery where millions of tickets might go into a drum with a few plucked out. Each was matched to a horse in a race like the Grand National or Epsom Derby. In other words, each prize was a bet on a race, but with the payout on a win vastly multiplied.

Duggan swore in court he'd forsake Sweepstakes. He lied. Instead, he joined forces with Joe McGrath, an ex-chief of army intelligence and former government minister. McGrath's pull helped secure an astonishing sweetheart deal, giving the Hospitals Trust the state's blessing to cook the books and lie about the true volume of its massive turnover.

But in the heady early days, no one was counting. Ace showman Spencer Freeman orchestrated spectacular street carnivals for each thrice-yearly draw which transformed drab Dublin into a rollicking Rio.

From Adelaide to Alaska, newspapers ran special editions carrying the draw results. Many who sent money to Dublin for tickets couldn't pin Ireland on a map of the British Isles, never mind the world. Others didn't have the foggiest as to what the Sweeps were.

Relations between Britain and Ireland nosedived as British customs began searching passengers from Irish ships. This didn't stem the torrent of tickets arriving in suitcases with false compartments, in crates of laundry, and by other means. One large shipment was stuffed inside novelty plastic fish and transferred on the Irish Sea from an Irish fishing trawler to a Welsh one. Concealed in crates of real fish, the tickets were safely landed in Wales.

One English magistrate was exposed as a big winner only days after fining a businessman for selling tickets. Tormented, Westminster imposed a blanket media ban on all mention of the Sweeps.

The promoters retaliated by becoming the biggest advertiser with the fledgling Radio Luxembourg. Boasting the world's most powerful transmitter, Luxy beamed Sweeps-sponsored shows into Britain where all radio advertising was forbidden.

The Sweeps were an instant sensation in the US, too, where the sleeping IRA network was revived to control and expand distribution. This alarmed Washington, as did the bribery of the US postal and customs services to turn a blind eye to smuggling.

One price for the Irish government's light-touch approach was that when furious foreign powers appealed to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera to rein in the racket, he could only respond that it was a private and legal entity. The dilemma was that for every smear on Ireland's good name, there was another cash injection into our economy.

With a workforce that at times topped 4,000, the Sweeps was for years the State's biggest employer after the civil service. McGrath repeatedly threatened instant mass lay-offs unless he got his way. The politicians caved in every time.

Spanning five decades, the story of the Irish Sweeps bears many parallels to the plotline of The Godfather. In fact, Joe McGrath's son and successor, Paddy, boasted that his close friends nicknamed him 'The Godfather'.

The legalisation of gambling in the US in the 1960s marked the beginning of a slow death for the Sweeps, which closed in 1987, the promoters having failed to land the running of the new National Lottery that year.

It was sensational and it was sordid, but all of human life was truly there.

The Greatest Bleeding Hearts Racket In The World, by Damian Corless, is published today by Gill & Macmillan.

Irish Independent

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