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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Mac Innes Photography The launch of Winning Streak in September 1990 with Mike Murphy at its helm.
Happy Birthday

'The Irish took to it straight away': Looking back at 30 years since the National Lottery began

How to hide winning tickets, bonus balls, and that unshakable phrase: “It could be you”.

THERE’S SOME ROLE reversing going on at the Lotto offices today. This time, it’s the staff themselves celebrating.

It has been 30 years since the National Lottery was set up with an aim of whipping up funds that could be pumped into good causes around the country.

Since then, they’ve set up the Jackpot, Telly Bingo and Winning Streak – all in an effort to keep the public’s interest.

Ireland has quite a high rate of participation in the National Lottery when compared with our neighbours in the UK.

“[The Irish] people took to it straight away,” says National Lottery CEO Dermot Griffin, mentioning Ireland’s two million Lotto players.

He shares some of the stories of how Lottery winners protect their tickets once they’ve learned that they’ve won: some hide them behind picture frames or in Bibles, others place them on the mantelpiece.

Others are a little less orthodox.

One winner moved the wardrobe, lifted up the carpet, put the ticket under the floorboards, put the carpet back down, put the wardrobe back, and kept all the windows closed so it would be secure.

Another put their ticket at the back of the dog’s kennel, not thinking about what the dog might do it, he recalls.

“Ticketholders might call their bank manager either, who would be only too delighted to get up in the middle of the night to put the ticket away safely.”

When Griffin tells people that he works for the National Lottery, he says they usually “hand you the six numbers they expect you to call out at the next draw”.

When the Lotto began

The National Lottery was set up in 1987 to generate funds that would then spread money out across the country through various projects.

It was organised after the controversial Irish Sweepstake was dismantled. The popular game involved pulling tickets out of a drum that corresponded to a racing horse. Races were then held and the ticket holder of the winning horse would take home the cash prize.

(On a side note, in an episode of Breaking Bad, the main character Walter White is told “You’re alive, as far as I’m concerned, that’s the Irish sweepstakes.”)

Scratchcards were the first game that the National Lottery began with; and then in March 1988 the Lotto draw was set up, where you have to match the six randomly selected plastic balls, chosen live on television, with the six numbers on your ticket (there’s also an additional bonus ball).

Soon after, the 50 pence price per line gave a 28-member Dublin syndicate an idea. The group spent six months preparing different combinations, and in the days before a draw they tried buying up all possible combinations to win all prizes on offer.

They did this with an 80% success rate, and forced the Lotto to take measures to protect themselves from exploitation (though, that amount of preparation does deserve some credit).

In total, more than 800 prizes of over €1 million have been paid out over the years.

It costs €4 to buy two lines on the Lotto, and you have an 11 million to one shot of winning the jackpot.

The luckiest shop (and winners) in Ireland

The GPO in Dublin has sold the most amount of winning tickets at 14 – a total giveaway of more than €15 million over the years.

But O’Neill’s newsagents in Co Donegal have had an incredible 12 winners over the years; and Ardkeen Superstores in Co Waterford have had eight tickets worth €19.5 million.

Pearse O’Neill, owner of O’Neill’s Newsagent in Bridgend, said, “We have people coming into the shop from all over the country in the hope that they are our next big winners.

We haven’t had a jackpot win for a while so we’re definitely due another big one very soon to cement our place on top of the list!

Dolores McNamara National Lottery Dolores McNamara holds up her winning cheque. National Lottery

In 2005, Dolores McNamara smashed National Lottery records to become the biggest ever jackpot winner – taking home over €115 million in the EuroMillions jackpot.

Dan Morrissey National Lottery The Dan Morrissey Syndicate of 15 colleagues from Carlow. National Lottery

The Dan Morrissey Syndicate of 15 work colleagues from Co Carlow won the largest Lotto jackpot prize of €18.9 million in 2008.

But there’s often a huge burden that comes with being a Lotto-made millionaire: the requests from the public, the obligation to family and friends, and the new-found and sudden status as a person of means.

Lotto winner David Kevitt from Drogheda told Marian Finucane in 2015 that he’s often wondered (but can’t honestly say) whether his grocer’s shop failed due in part to his £1.35-million Lotto win.

“People would walk by and say ‘That’s yer man who won the Lotto’ and I used to hate that because I didn’t want to be tagged as that person,” he said.

And on occasion you’d have someone questioning the pricing of something that’s in the shop, and in fairness, we were selling stuff really cheap.

“If I had been a self-made millionaire, would that have made a difference?”

He said that word spread like wildfire, so even if he had tried to remain anonymous, he wouldn’t have been able to.

To maybe prove his point, when we tried to contact past winners, the National Lottery said that none of them expressed an interest in speaking, anonymously or otherwise.

The causes behind the draws

Although the Irish Sweepstake seemed to be a charity, it was actually a private company where “its handful of stockholders have used their earnings from the sweepstakes to build a group of industrial enterprises that loom quite large in the modest Irish economy”, according to Forbes Magazine at the time.

The Irish Sweepstake was wound up, but a replacement was needed to continue generating funds.

Around 30 cent of every €1 generated by National Lottery sales goes towards projects in the areas of sport and recreation, health and welfare, national heritage, the arts, and the Irish language.

“That amounts to around €500,000 every day. Last year alone, €210 million was raised for good causes… which help to define Ireland, our communities and our culture,” Griffin said.

Some of those that benefitted from last year’s intake include 895 local sports projects awarded over €45 million; arts projects that got over €78 million in funding; the National Lottery fund contributed over €2 million towards Irish language support schemes; and over €7 million in National Lottery funding was awarded by the HSE and the Department of Health.

One of the only blips in the National Lottery’s history was in 2015, when the lotto draw was cancelled for the first time in its history because of issues with ticketing machines.

In the aftermath, it was accused of making “savings and shavings” to recoup some of its massive outlay to buy the licence, but even then – people jumped to its defence.

Finance Committee chair Liam Twomey said at the time: “The National Lottery is a popular national institution which also makes an important contribution to social projects nationwide.”

Read: These are Ireland’s top 10 shops for selling winning Lotto tickets

Poll: Would you give up working if you won €4.5 million on the Lotto?

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