Tuesday 15 October 2019

The Great 1916 sweepstakes

'The greatest bleeding hearts racket in the world' - The Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes turned its founders into very wealthy men. Photo: Independent archives
'The greatest bleeding hearts racket in the world' - The Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes turned its founders into very wealthy men. Photo: Independent archives
'Practical patriot' - Joe McGrath insisted his family fortune was re-invested in Irish enterprises but his empire would disappear completely before the dawn of the new century. Photo: Independent archives.
Todd Andrews, left, with Eamon de Valera, who was anti-Treaty. Photo: Independent archives
The Irish delegation at the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 included Robert Barton, Erskine Childers and Michael Collins. Photo: Independent archives
Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Many of the revolutionaries of the Easter Rising, and the subsequent War of Independence and Civil War, were canny businessmen who would use their political and military skills, and the connections they had forged, to found some of Ireland's wealthiest and enduring dynasties. Liam Collins traces the fortunes of the McGraths, the de Valeras, the FitzGeralds and others who did well out of the founding of the new State

They were young men from humble backgrounds with patriotic ideals . . . but many of the revolutionary leaders who survived the conflict around the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War, ended up wealthy old men who spawned business and political dynasties that lasted well beyond their lifetime.

The year 1916 may have been about idealism and Irish freedom, but in the decades that followed some of the 'founding fathers' (and mothers) prospered in the State they created, and just as the despised aristocracy they overthrew intermarried and intermingled, so too did these families on both sides of the Civil War divide.

Tragically for the new State, many of the idealists were dead or gone by 1923, executed after 1916, or killed in the War of Independence and the blood feud of the Civil War.

But that left the way clear for some particularly clever young men, who had waged a guerrilla war, to emerge into a new Ireland of business opportunities, trophy homes and status-defining possessions.

After wresting control of the State from the British establishment, some of them even went on to ape many of the manners of the empire they had overthrown - country estates, horse-racing and hunting, the top hats and other niceties of the British establishment that so much blood was sacrificed to demolish.

At the heart of it all was a coterie of strong, revolutionary young women, but once the 'Troubles' ended, they were either marginalised or became subservient to their husbands, and little was heard of most of them again.

Dublin was a frontier city after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921 and, as with all post-conflict zones, there were many and varied opportunities in the new State, and some of these would fall to the smart men who put their pistols and uniforms in the bottom drawer, and emerged in the new dawn dressed in smart suits and armed only with briefcase and brolly.

While the British had used the public-school old-boy network and aristocratic interbreeding to further their interests, the common thread running through some of those who prospered in the emerging State was membership of the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).

Foremost among the 'new men' was Joe McGrath, born in humble Rutledge Terrace in Dublin's south inner city. A bright boy, he sold newspapers on street corners before securing a job in the accountancy firm Craig Gardiner. There he got to know the equally bright Michael Collins, who swore him into the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

McGrath saw sustained combat in Marrowbone Lane during Easter week, and while his commanding officer, Eamonn Ceannt, was executed, McGrath and his IRB comrades, WT Cosgrave and Cathal Brugha, were exiled to Brixton Prison. After taking part in the War of Independence, McGrath was appointed minister for industry and commerce in the new Free State government. In 1924, faced with the Army mutiny, McGrath, who had always been a reluctant politician, resigned from government in support of his old comrades.

In 1929, Joe McGrath, bookie Richard Duggan and an English associate, Spencer Freeman, obtained a licence from the WT Cosgrave government to run the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes. Over the next 50 years, the 'founding families' of what Reader's Digest later described as "the greatest bleeding hearts racket in the world" would make personal fortunes of over IR£100m from the enterprise.

Joe McGrath bought Cabinteely House in south county Dublin, while his son Paddy cruised around the city in a Rolls-Royce Phantom VI, the only one of its kind in Ireland. The family, which, after Joe's death in 1966, was controlled by his sons Paddy, Seamus and Joseph, had also acquired Glencairn Gallops in south Dublin, and Brownstown Stud farm in Co Kildare for its extensive bloodstock interests.

The fortunes of the Sweepstakes founders were eventually consolidated into a company called Avenue Investments which owned the Irish Glass Bottle Company (now Ardagh) and its subsidiary, Waterford Glass, which then employed 3,000 people. It also owned Aynsley China, and Switzers department store in Grafton Street. It also acquired the postcard company, John Hinde, and the Smith Group, which owned the Renault car franchise in Ireland.

Through six subsidiary companies, it also held significant stakes in the first Irish commercial airline Avair; Memory Computers; health-care firm Fannin Holdings; Squash Ireland; Odearest, the mattress makers; RJ Goff, the bloodstock agents; Ergas, and Hibernian Insurance, among others.

Despite much negative publicity about the Irish Sweepstakes, it was an empire that employed tens of thousands of Irish people before the era of 'foreign direct investment'. It had helped to build hospitals and support charitable organisations that would not have otherwise survived. McGrath was also a practical patriot, insisting that the family fortune was re-invested in Irish enterprises, when it would have made more business sense to diversify abroad.

Bad publicity over its contributions to hospitals, the displacement of the Irish Sweepstakes by the National Lottery and poor business decisions resulted in a fire sale of Avenue Investments's assets and the sale of the McGrath family's landholdings in south Dublin.

"What started off as a shareholding split between three people, is now split between 60 or 70 of the Duggan, Freeman and McGrath families," Paddy McGrath said ruefully in 1986, as the company began a 'disinvestment' process that would see his father's empire disappear completely before the dawn of the new century..

If Joe McGrath had taken the Treaty side in the War of Independence, his colleague-in-arms, Eamon de Valera, had led the anti-Treaty side. But for all his wishes that the Irish populace live lives "satisfied with frugal comfort", 'The Long Fellow', as he was known to old comrades, enjoyed a lifestyle that was not unlike those in the British establishment he'd helped to dispossess.

Born of an Irish mother and Spanish father in the United States, De Valera would found a family fortune during the War of Independence, rather than after it. While others were fighting the guerrilla war on the mountainsides and back-streets of towns and cities, 'Dev' was in the United States, raising millions of dollars for 'the cause'.

Controversially, it was mostly contributions from Irish-Americans that eventually provided the finance for the foundation of the Irish Press in 1931. In the decades that followed, the publishing company was controlled by Dev and later his son Vivion, also a Fianna Fail TD, and his grandson, also called Eamon.

Although the once popular newspapers ceased publishing when the company closed its Burgh Quay operation in 1995, the company still exists, owning Thom's Directory, and reporting an operating loss of €1.3m in its latest returns filed in 2014.

In his daily life, de Valera lived in some splendour on Cross Avenue - which backs on to his alma mater, Blackrock College - in Bellevue until 1940, and later across the road in Teac Cuilinn, a large stone mansion in extensive grounds, on one of Dublin's most impressive avenues.

If the de Valeras came to represent the soul of Fianna Fail, the son of another veteran of the 1916 Rising, Desmond FitzGerald, would come to represent the soul of Fine Gael in a more modern age.

Desmond FitzGerald, who served in the GPO during 1916, became Minister for External Affairs and Minister for Defence in subsequent Irish governments, after taking the pro-Treaty side in the Civil War, reluctantly supported by his more radical wife, Mabel. According to Roy Foster, in his book Vivid Faces, the couple came close to separation because of their differing stances on the Treaty.

Their son, Garret, went on to became an economist, lecturer, TD and eventually Taoiseach. After his political career ended, Garret became a member of the influential board of Guinness Peat Aviation (GPA), the company founded by aviation tycoon Tony Ryan. When it collapsed spectacularly on the eve of an initial public offering (a share sale to financial institutions which was expected to raise hundreds of millions), FitzGerald and the other directors and executives were exposed to huge losses, so much so that he had to reach a financial settlement with Allied Irish Banks, which saw a large portion of the debt written off.

Mark FitzGerald, a son of Garret Fitzgerald and his wife Joan, went on to become a founding figure in the auctioneering business, Sherry FitzGerald Group, and made a great deal of money when it became a public company. His marriage to Dearbhail O'Higgins cemented another alliance with 'old' Fine Gael, as she is a descendant of Kevin O'Higgins, the Cumann na nGaedheal minister, who was assassinated as he walked to Sunday Mass in Booterstown, Co Dublin in 1927.

The reason for the murder of O'Higgins was the execution of Rory O'Connor, Liam Mellows, Dick Barrett and Joe McKelvey on December 8, 1922 which, as a member of the cabinet, O'Higgins had supported in reprisal for the assassination of pro-Treaty TD Sean Hales.

That event also involved another 1916 dynasty, in that the officer in charge of the firing squad which executed the four republican leaders was Lieutenant General Hugo MacNeill, a former second-in-command of the IRA. He was a nephew of both Eoin MacNeill, the Sinn Fein leader who tried to stop the 1916 Rising, and James McNeill, the second Governor General of Ireland.

While the first three IRA men at that execution died by the firing squad, Joe McKelvey was only wounded, and, as he lay on the ground, Hugo MacNeill stepped forward as the commanding officer and delivered the coup de grace to his former comrade.

Former politician Michael McDowell SC and his economist brother Moore McDowell are direct descendants of the MacNeill family.

On hearing of the deaths of these four republican martyrs, Muriel MacSwiney is said to have remarked that they were better off dead than living in the new Free State, which she hated with a passion. A strikingly beautiful young woman who could still pass for a Vogue model today, she was the daughter of the wealthy Murphy family who owned the Midleton Distillery in Cork (another branch of the family owned the brewery).

She was also the widow of Terence MacSwiney (a marriage her parents had strenuously opposed) who died in Brixton Prison after a 74-day hunger strike in December 1920. De Valera immediately sent Muriel to America to raise awareness for 'the cause', and two months later she was the first woman to be awarded the Freedom of New York City where she declared, in an echo of what would convulse America in the 1960s, "my parents aren't quite like myself".

Muriel MacSwiney left Ireland in 1923 with her baby daughter, Maire, and lived in Berlin and Paris, consorting with various European radicals and revolutionaries before dying, largely forgotten, in England. When Maire returned (or was kidnapped, according to her mother) to Ireland, she didn't know anything of her father's death or her family's revolutionary past. Yet she ended up marrying into republican royalty when she wed Ruairi Brugha, a son of Cathal Brugha, her mother's revolutionary comrade.

After Cathal Brugha (originally Charlie Burgess) died in a hail of bullets during a gun battle with Free State soldiers on O'Connell Street in 1922, his widow Kathleen survived for some time on a pension from Lalor's candle makers, where her late husband had been a partner. Then she and her brother, Charles Kingston, established Kingstons menswear at 9 Upper O'Connell Street, and later added another department store at 9/10 South Great George's Street. "A Kingstons shirt makes all the difference" was a well-known Dublin catch-cry. Ruairi Brugha became a Fianna Fail TD and managing director of Kingstons, which went into voluntary liquidation in 1980.

There were many other 1916 women who were drawn to the cause and would become part of the political and business elites in the new State, but among the foremost were the Ryan sisters of Tomcoole, Co Wexford.

Their brother, James Ryan, although still a student, was 'medical officer' in the GPO in 1916, and was later jailed in Frongoch in Wales. He founded the New Ireland Assurance company in 1918, along with Eamon de Valera and Michael Staines. His radical sisters were deeply involved in 1916 and its aftermath, but the outcome of the Treaty negotiations would split the close-knit sisterhood.

Mary Kate Ryan, who was in love with executed 1916 leader Sean McDermott, was herself arrested after the Rising. In 1918, she married Sean T O'Kelly, who served in the GPO in 1916. Her sisters, Josephine (Min) and Agnes, had married two other powerful 1916 veterans, Richard Mulcahy and Denis McCullough, respectively.

But when the 'split' came over the Treaty the sisters found themselves at odds. Sean T O'Kelly, his wife, Mary Kate, and her brother, Jim Ryan, and her sister, Phyllis, were opposed to the Treaty, while sisters Josephine and Agnes stood by their Free State husbands, Mulcahy and McCullough.

Sean T O'Kelly and Jim Ryan went on to become founder members of Fianna Fail and served as ministers in various de Valera governments, with Sean T O'Kelly elected President in 1945. By this time, his wife, Mary Kate Ryan, had died, and he had married her elder sister, Phyllis Ryan.

On retiring from the Dail, James Ryan served in the Senate until 1969. His son, Eoin Ryan, was also a senator at the same time and remained so for much of his life, concentrating on a dual career of politics and business. He became chairman of New Ireland Assurance, as well as holding directorships of Smurfit, Lyons Irish Holdings, Ulster Investment Bank, PV Doyle Hotels, the Smith Group and Aran Energy. His son, also Eoin, was a senator, TD, junior minister and MEP.

Another Ryan, no relation, Senator Seamus Ryan and his wife, Agnes V Ryan, were not directly involved in 1916, but moved to Dublin from their native Tipperary during the Troubles, opening a shop called The Monument Creamery in Parnell Street, Dublin, a haunt of on-the-run IRA men and women during the War of Independence.

They went on to found a chain of 38 shops, a cafe, bakery and pub in Dublin. Seamus Ryan, a close associate of de Valera, was a founder member of Fianna Fail, and it was widely and wrongly believed that it was Dev's money that was behind the dramatic expansion of the Monument Creamery chain.

With their newfound wealth, the Ryans moved to a fine house, Rockwell on Orwell Road in Rathgar. A colourful character, Seamus Ryan drove around Dublin in a fancy Minerva limousine. Ryan was appointed a senator by de Valera and was one of the chief fundraisers for his new party. When he died suddenly in 1938, he was given a State funeral, with thousands lining O'Connell Street to watch the cortege proceed to Glasnevin Cemetery, where Ryan and his family are buried on the edge of the republican plot.

The Barton/Childers family were also deeply entwined in his history of 1916, with Erskine Childers the man who landed rifles for the Irish Volunteers in Howth from his yacht, the Asgard. His first cousin and "best man", Robert Barton, was a British soldier when the Rising broke out. The Bartons owned Glendalough House and an estimated 15,000 acres of Wicklow, and the family was closely related to the wine-producing Barton family of Straffan House (now the K Club) and Bordeaux.

Robert Barton abandoned his army career and along with his sister, Dulcibella, threw himself into Irish revolutionary politics, and was jailed in Portland Prison in the UK for various seditious activities. He was also Minister for Agriculture in the second Dail and a founding director of the Sinn Fein sponsored National Land Bank in 1921. Barton and his cousin, Erskine Childers, were part of the Sinn Fein delegation which negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty. He reluctantly signed the Treaty, but, along with Childers, rejected its terms. While Childers was executed during the Civil War, Barton survived, later becoming chairman of the Agriculture Credit Corporation and a chairman and director of Bord na Mona.

He was the last surviving signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty when he died at Glendalough House on August 10, 1975.

There was also a "revolutionary chic" associated with desperado IRA gunmen such as Michael Collins, Harry Boland, Dan Breen, Tom Barry, Ernie O'Malley and Emmet Dalton, among others. Collins and Boland competed for the affections of Kitty Kiernan and later, it is said, Lady Hazel Lavery. It was also rumoured that Collins was having a love affair with Lady Edith Londonderry, the powerful and influential London hostess, whose weekly gatherings attracted politicians, newspaper tycoons and socialites. But while Lady Lavery certainly drove Collins and Boland around London and wrote them love letters, the Londonderry connection is fanciful.

In the aftermath of the War of Independence, the exploits of the protagonists certainly interested publishers and movie makers intent on turning the bloody events of the struggle for Irish independence into money-making blockbusters.

Dan Breen's memoir My Fight For Irish Freedom was really the script for a Hollywood film that was never made. Emmet Dalton, in whose arms Michael Collins died, went on to become an entrepreneur, and eventually made a career for himself in the film industry, founding Ardmore Film Studios in Bray, Co Wicklow, in 1958.

The year 1916 and the War of Independence also created men who not only had political vision, but also business connections that would help them shape modern Ireland and create family fortunes.

CS 'Todd' Andrews was too young to take part in the 1916 Rising, but joined the Irish Volunteers in 1917 and fought in the War of Independence and the Civil War.

He went on to become managing director of Bord na Mona and is credited with creating a thriving peat industry. In 1958, he was appointed executive chairman of the State transport network, CIE, and is equally credited with closing down much of the Irish rail network in the years that followed.

His sons, David and Niall, became Fianna Fail TDs, with David Andrews becoming an influential government minister, and Niall an MEP. His grandsons include Barry Andrews, a former FF TD who is now chief executive of the aid agency Goal, and Chris, an aspiring Sinn Fein politician.

Michael Joseph (MJ) Costello was another IRA man who was appointed to the rank of colonel-commandant by Michael Collins at the age of 18, and later became director of military intelligence in the Irish Army. He left to become general manager of the Irish Sugar Company in 1945 and established Erin Foods. He finally resigned in 1966 and was replaced by Tony O'Reilly.

The Cosgrave family, too, have founded a dynasty on 1916, with WT Cosgrave and his son Liam both becoming Taoiseach. But theirs was a political rather than a business dynasty, although the family were independently wealthy through WT Cosgrave's wife, Louisa Flanagan, whose father, Alderman Michael Flanagan, was a large landowner whose marketing gardening business based around Portmahon House in Rialto supplied much of Dublin with vegetables.

Louisa was a sister of the well-known character, drinker and practical joker Willie 'Bird' Flanagan, who, according to Ulick O'Connor, once walked his horse into the foyer of the Gresham Hotel in O'Connell Street and asked for a drink.

"It's after hours, sir," said one of the porters. "It's not for me, you fool, it's for the horse," replied the 'Bird'.

The Bolands were another 1916 dynasty. Gerald Boland served under Thomas MacDonagh in the Jacob's factory in 1916, and his brother Harry was elected secretary of Sinn Fein in 1917 and was a close friend of Michael Collins, before being shot dead in a gun-battle with Free State forces during the Civil War. Gerald Boland, along with Sean Lemass, was a founding member of Fianna Fail in 1927 and became a minister in successive de Valera governments.

Boland's son, also Gerald, founded the accountancy firm of Haughey Boland in 1951 with his school friend, Charlie Haughey, who by this time had married Sean Lemass's daughter, Maureen. Gerald Boland's brother, Kevin, was a Fianna Fail minister and, along with Charlie Haughey, was sacked from Jack Lynch's government during the Arms Crisis.

There were many other business ventures undertaken by the men of 1916, some successful, some not so. A largely forgotten figure from that era is Darrell Figgis, a tea importer and secretary of Sinn Fein, who was jailed in England for his part in the 1916 Rising. Unlike many others in the pantheon of Irish political heroes, Figgis has been largely written out of history because of his business dealings in the new State, his wife's suicide with a pistol given to her for protection by Michael Collins, and Figgis's sad and lonely suicide in a London boarding house after his girlfriend died while she was undergoing a back-street abortion.

Figgis, who was one of the innovators of the new Free State cabinet, advocated the setting up of 2RN, the forerunner of RTE. As a member of the Dail committee, he had dealings with an English businessman who was anxious to get his hands on the licence. When Figgis denounced him, the businessman, Andrew Belton, replied that he had given Figgis money to cover his election expenses.

The rest, as they say, is history, or hidden history, depending on how you look at it.

In the end, there will always be young men who want to make their mark on whatever society they live in. But it is also true that 1916, the War of Independence and the Civil War created a coterie of ambitious, battle-hardened young men.

Those who rose to the top were either ruthless or high achievers, or both, and the new State presented them with opportunities that they were ready and able to seize, because of their experience in a guerrilla war and the political back-stabbing that followed.

As the centenary of 1916 dawns, the dead will be celebrated, but many of those who lived on and created this new State will be written out of the official history because they made their money "fumbling in the greasy till", something that still remains a badge of dishonour in the Ireland they created with their bullets, bombs and business acumen.

Sunday Indo Life Magazine

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News