The Ancient History of Gambling in Ireland

The Ancient History of Gambling in Ireland


Some may say that Ireland is more associated with luck than it is with gambling. Perhaps; but even a cursory glance back through the annals of Irish history shows that gambling and the Emerald Isle have had a long relationship.

Way Back When

It's thought that gambling in Ireland pre-dates the arrival of both the Romans and Christianity. Evidence for this supposition comes from the fact artefacts like dice and glass beads have been discovered at ancient grave sites. Archaeologists have discovered that so-called ‘bone games’ – thought to be a very early form of gambling – were also part of the burgeoning culture on the island during that period.

Fast forward to the Roman period proper and you’ll find evidence of the most stereotypical gambling opportunity around. That’s right, historical manuscripts show that chariot racing took place on the Curragh as early as the 3rd century AD. 10-1 on Spartacus!

Getting Medieval

Though historians have found evidence of gambling activities in Ireland during the Middle Ages, it was really from the 16th-century onwards when what we'd consider modern gambling started to take root. There were essentially two key drivers behind this. The first was the gradual establishment of horse racing as a sport, something the largely agricultural Irish population had a natural affinity for.

In time, regulatory racing bodies and regular race meetings were set up, which in turn led to increasingly larger attendances and greater amounts of cash being gambled. The second driver was the establishment of English (and latterly, British) rule in Ireland.

The Empire Strikes Back

After a number of temporary conquests, England decided to establish permanent rule over Ireland at the beginning of the 17th century, effectively making Ireland a colony of England and subsequently the British Empire. However, the island of Ireland was, in daily life anyway, governed not by the Crown but by landlords of large estates whose chief concern was to make money rather than police the behaviour of the local people.

The attitude shown towards townsfolk and peasants gambling was largely one of complete indifference. For the whole time Ireland was under British rule (more than three centuries) not one attempt was made to prohibit or regulate gambling – the ‘official’ line was essentially: “meh.”

Regulation, Regulation, Regulation...

Following the bitter War of Independence between the British and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Irish Free State was established in 1922. One of the first issues the newly formed independent government tackled was that of regulating the growing betting industry. In 1926, the Betting Act (revised in 1931) – Ireland’s first ever form of betting regulation – decreed that anyone taking bets on a sporting event had to have a licence from the government.

The Gaming and Lotteries Act (1956) was another significant piece of legislation, permitting only charity associated lotteries and prohibiting casinos from operating anywhere in the country. Not to be outdone, the savvy, gambling-loving Irish exploited a loophole that allowed them to establish ‘private members’ clubs’ that were effectively casinos in all but name.

Modern Times

Along with big hair and awful music, the mid-1980s heralded some significant changes to Irish gambling. In 1986, the Irish Parliament approved the National Lottery Act, enabling the state to sell lottery tickets to anyone over the age of 18. Two years later and Ireland’s most famous bookmaker, Paddy Power, explodes on to the scene. It was to become one of the biggest gambling operators in the world.

Of course, the digital revolution that began in the ‘90s has shaped the modern online gambling scene that's grown to be so popular – and controversial – today. Where this journey will lead to no-one knows but you can’t help but wonder what history-lovers will make of it all 100 years from now...

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