Wednesday 13 December 2017

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

Gill & Macmillan, €16.99

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

IT IS more than half a century since rows of pretty nurses in uniform appeared on our television screens poised in perfect synchronicity to pluck a winning ticket from huge, rolling drums.

The image symbolised for many the iconic Irish institution that was the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes. They were real nurses too, selected from hospitals that benefited from the lottery, lending their integrity to what turned out to be a grubby money-spinner. Like so many Irish institutions of the era, its philanthropic facade concealed a rotten core.

For decades, the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes masqueraded as a charity launched to raise funds from across the world for struggling voluntary hospitals. But of the millions that poured in, about one-tenth went to hospitals. The Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes has long been exposed as a money-making ruse that made millions for its unlikely triumvirate of founders, on the back of international smuggling and racketeering, to which successive Irish governments turned a blind eye.

Readers Digest dubbed it "The Greatest Bleeding Hearts Racket in the World", a phrase which Damian Corless has borrowed as the title of his well-researched new book on the scandal.

According to this detailed chronological account, even the sweep's conception by a well-heeled Dublin bookie called Richard Duggan was vaguely sordid. When the Irish mail boat the MV Leinster was torpedoed by Germans in 1918, Duggan organised a lottery to raise money for bereaved families and raked in a fortune. It became his business model: shackle gambling to a good cause and make a killing.

His next 'good cause' was the plight of indebted, overcrowded voluntary hospitals: he went to the Mater Hospital, promised to clear their £10,000 debt if he could hold a sweepstake in its name. The sweep cleared the hospital's debt, left Duggan in clover, and a string of other cash-strapped hospitals lined up for their turn.

It didn't matter that sweepstakes were illegal in Ireland, the UK, and America. The fledgling Irish governments had more pressing things to worry about the in the country's first decade of independence.

Duggan, by then a tax exile in Lichtenstein, launched the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes on a worldwide scale to enormous fanfare in 1930. He had recruited Joe McGrath, a former IRA man and enforcer for Michael Collins and ex-government minister, to secure the much-needed government endorsement. Spencer Freeman, a Welsh publicity genius, was the third member of the triumvirate.

Throughout the decade, sweepstake mania swept the globe, inspired Hollywood movies and dominated newsreels. Prizewinners from Australia to America became celebrities and an impoverished fledgling nation found its place on the world map.

In America and Britain, in fact in most other countries, the sweepstakes were an illegal headache. Tickets were smuggled to the US and Britain, where they were bought in their millions. Some were concealed in hollowed-out prayer books. One story had bundles of tickets concealed in plastic fish concealed on fishing trawlers bound for the UK. Authorities tried unsuccessful clampdowns. In Britain, a magistrate fined a local businessman for selling sweepstakes tickets only for it later emerge that self-same magistrate was in a syndicate of Freemasons which scooped £30,000. In America, McGrath's contacts in the Irish Republican Brotherhood provided a ready-made smuggling network, along with potential "agents" who touted the illicit tickets for a fee.

Taoiseach Eamon de Valera spurned diplomatic requests to knock the racket on the head, saying it was a legitimate entity. In fact, the government turned a blind eye to its often dubious activities: concerned only to keep at arm's length from potential scandal.

The Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes never again reached the heights it attained before the Second World War. The sweeps still claimed to be all about helping the sick poor, but few were buying that any more. The medical establishment feared the distribution of funds was doing more harm than good, with money going to empty rural hospitals while Dublin hospitals were overburdened. The money was questioned. Politicians became more vociferous. The female underpaid workforce went on strike.

In 1973, journalist Joe MacAnthony exposed -- among other things -- how the money going to hospitals was 25 per cent less than had been promised and proceeds were undeclared. He reported that Canadian police described the sweeps as the "largest smuggling ring outside the mafia".

Despite calls for the sweepstakes to be nationalised, nothing happened for more than a decade. In 1987 the government announced its own National Lottery to aid sports, arts and social projects. When the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes failed to win the tender, the operation shut down and laid off its workers without making any provision for them, in a mean-spirited denouement.

This is a rollicking tale that should canter along. Unfortunately, progress is annoyingly slowed up by turgid transcripts of parliamentary debates regularly dropped into the text -- albeit for our enlightenment. Nevertheless, it is amusing to read politicians of a bygone age fluster and bluster as they toss the sweepstakes hot potato around the Dail. Some things don't change.

Just why successive governments were so pliant to the demands of the Irish Hospitals Trust, which ran the sweepstakes, merits closer examination than it gets here.

In his investigations in 1973, MacAnthony highlighted sweeps donations to politicians of all hues. Dr John O'Connell, the late Fianna Fail TD, talked in the Dail of being "intimidated" and "smeared in his constituency" if he voted against a bill that would have favoured the sweepstakes organisers. Des O'Malley, a critic of the sweepstakes, found himself in a position to curtail the lottery when he was minister for justice. When Joe McGrath's son Paddy got wind of it, he threatened to pull the rug on 800 jobs.

A lot of the sweepstakes' influence came down to the power wielded by McGrath, who died aged 80. He started life as a socialist comrade of James Connolly, fought in 1916 and was an associate of Michael Collins. Thanks to the monumental greed that fuelled the sweeps, he ended life in splendour at Cabinteely House, with a string of racehorses, and interests in the Irish Glass Bottle factory, and Waterford Glass.

He once persuaded the late president, Douglas Hyde, to head up one of his sweeps. Hyde had no objections, as long as Dev agreed. As it happened, Dev said no, thundering that it was scarcely in keeping with the dignity of the president's office.

There is no doubt that Irish hospitals -- and the health of the nation -- benefited. The late Noel Browne milked sweepstakes money to eradicate tuberculosis. But as Corless reports, the money wasn't always so wisely spent. He cites unnamed hospitals with world-class operating theatres but no surgeon, for instance. In fact, the Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes kept alive a "sprawling patchwork of local hospitals unnecessary to service a population of four million people" -- a legacy that still resonates today.

Sunday Independent

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