The Big Win

My latest piece on RTÉ Arena is about winning a few bob… have a listen or read on…



The Big Win

Most of us have been comforted with a winning tale or two. The uncle who scooped three hundred quid on a Quick Pick. The friend of a friend who was one number away from scooping the entire jackpot. The scratch card bonanza! Hard to believe, in the early twentieth century, lotteries were seen as a major moral dilemma throughout Europe. There was concern that gambling on pure luck might spread to the thrifty classes and more importantly, their trustee and post office savings accounts.


While many were debating the misgivings of largescale raffles, Dubliner Joe McGrath was setting up the controversial Irish Sweepstakes, a lottery devised to finance under-resourced Irish hospitals. Each sweepstake draw swam in pageantry and theatre. There were parades of peacocks and magpies, grown men dressed as playing cards. One year saw a procession of old-fashioned policemen, nankeen trousers and swallow tail coats. A number of settings were designed by Harry Clarke Studios, a company founded by the famous stained glass designer a year before his death. 1933 saw the company create sixteen decorative panels on an equine theme, scenes of galloping horses, military shows, a fox and stag hunt in full rowdiness.


cat eye2At the Grand National of 1934, the theme was all about luck, the sweepstake authorities seeking out an ordinary black cat to act as model for the campaign. With £5 pound on offer for the chosen cat, the police struggled to control the queues of owners that turned up. Estimated to be several thousand, they carried the felines in every type of conceivable container, bags and boxes, baskets and tins, make-shift holes for the animals to breathe. One lucky cat was selected as winner and a giant effigy of the creature was created, as big as a house, it sat on the back of a lorry.


For almost a decade, Sweepstake fever gripped the West, only dampening with outbreak of war in 1939. But talk of the ‘big win’ has never really left these shores, In everyday conversation, it’s right up there with bad weather, traffic congestion and Conor McGregor’s accent. For some, it can even overshadow personal ambition, something which reminds me of a story I read once, about a penniless nobleman and a wealthy count in St Petersburg. The count wagered his companion that he wouldn’t be able to drink a gallon of liquor in one sitting. With the deeds to a valuable estate as a prize, the penniless man duly succeeded in working his way through the liquor. He had no more received the deeds into his hand, when he dropped to the floor, dead.  It’s a story that might speak of stubbornness, desperation, the futility in chasing easy money. But surely one piece of advice beats at the heart of it all.
Be very careful what you wish for.



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