The history of the Irish Sweepstakes illustrates the futility of prohibition

Irish-Sweepstakes-HistoryNowadays, the biggest lottery in the world is Spain’s Christmas Lottery, whose main prize is known as El Gordo (The Fat One). But during the last century, the biggest thing in the lottery game was the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstakes, which is the subject of a new book by Damian Corles, The Greatest Bleeding Hearts Racket In The World.

The Sweepstakes began in the 1930’s, ostensibly as a fundraiser for Irish hospitals, but it relied on the ex-pat Irish communities in England and America for a lot of its ticket sales and distribution, despite (or more likely as a result of) lotteries being illegal in those territories. It may seem hard to believe, but a simple lottery was once subjected to the same kind of American federal law enforcement crackdown nowadays reserved for those dastardly online gambling operators.

With the US government having passed the postal service version of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 1890, Irish Sweeps tickets had to make their way into the US via false-bottomed suitcases or even stuffed into the bellies of plastic fish hidden inside crates of genuine fish. US Customs agents opened bundles of Ireland-bound mail, confiscating millions of counterfoils that otherwise would have gone back into the drums being spun in the Emerald Isle to determine the winners.

And what did all this activity accomplish? In the end, it wasn’t the efforts of law enforcement that put a stop to the Irish Sweepstakes, but the ending of the prohibition against domestic US and UK lotteries, which made the Sweeps just another player in an overcrowded field. Given today’s attitudes toward online gambling, it appears that there is indeed much truth to that famous phrase, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.