Even On St. Patrick’s Day, The Concept Of Being Lucky Is Betting Blarney

Written By Dave Briggs on March 17, 2023
Short history of the luck of the Irish

Before drowning yourself in whiskey and Kermit-green beer this St. Patrick’s Day, a warning. Using the “luck of the Irish” as your muse for placing your March Madness bets with an Illinois sportsbook is spectacularly unwise.

In fact, given Chicago’s rich Irish history and annual tradition of turning the Chicago River green, you might want to take a moment to consider just how lucky the Irish have been throughout history before downing your next pint. Sláinte!

Major chapters in the Big Book of Irish good fortune include:

  • About 800 years — give or take — of oppression at the hands of the British.
  • The potato famine in the mid-1800s which claimed about one million of the Emerald Isle’s 8.4 million citizens.
  • Irish immigrants treated with contempt, or worse, on the shores of Amerikay after fleeing said famine on coffin ships.

Sure, you might think the fine folks that gave us Lucky Charms would never steer you wrong. But turns out it’s not easy being green. And it’s definitely not lucky.

Luck is a terrible concept on which to base betting

For sure, luck is a terrible concept on which to base a measured and responsible gambling strategy.

Responsible gambling experts warn against believing such dangerous myths as:

  • People that consider themselves “lucky” will also be lucky when it comes to gambling.
  • Good luck charms can influence the result of gambling activity.
  • “If I keep gambling, my luck will change.” Each time you place a bet, the outcome is completely independent of the previous one. That means your odds don’t improve the more you bet.
  • “I have a feeling today is my lucky day.” Hoping, wishing or even needing to win money has absolutely no influence on the outcome of a game of chance.

And please don’t fall for that one about the Irish being especially lucky on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s complete blarney, especially since March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month.

The origin of “the luck of the Irish”

History informs us that this whole “luck of the Irish” business was actually a slight against the many Irish immigrants that went to the American West in the 19th century to prospect for gold.

The expression was used to mock Irish thought to be so intellectually inferior the only way they could strike gold was through dumb luck.

You can just hear those rascals now mocking the Irish with the kind of cringe-worthy accent you hear in Darby O’Gill and the Little People. (Interesting aside: that 1959 Disney crockfest starring Sean Connery actually has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Don’t fall for it).

But back to our 19th century Irish prospectors.

Naturally, the mirthful gaelic rascals turned that whole “luck of the Irish” mocking thing around and wore the expression like a badge of honor. This only heightened the misconception that the Irish are indeed lucky.

That, in turn, led to a slew of Irish symbols people consider lucky to this day, namely:

  • Four-leaf clovers.
  • Shamrocks.
  • Horseshoes turned upwards to “catch” good luck.
  • Rainbows that are said to reveal a crock of gold if you follow them to the end.
  • Rubbing the head of a ginger (not so lucky for the redhead).
  • Connor McGregor. Word is, if you capture him, he will give you three wishes and lead you to his gold (and we’re not talking about his Irish whiskey, which is putrid).

Disclaimer: None of these things will actually give you better fortune while gambling — and messing with McGregor is especially risky. Don’t believe me? Consider that adopting many of these symbols — including wearing gold on their domes — hasn’t helped Notre Dame win a big game in about 30 years.

Irish’s long proclivity for gambling, particularly horse racing

The history of gambling in Ireland started long, long before the Fighting Irish from the oh-so-Irish enclave of Indiana embraced, at best, the culturally insensitive, cartoonish mascot of a scrappy little Leprechaun fellow.

The real Irish, like many cultures, have been gambling since the earliest days of human history.

Ancient Irish gravesites that pre-date both Christianity and the arrival of the Romans have turned up gambling artifacts such as dice and glass beads.

But it was a deep love of horses that really got the Irish’s gambling juices flowing.

The first written records of gambling in Ireland go back to the rule of High King Conaire Mór between 110 BC and 60 AD. People at the time bet on chariot races held regularly at Curragh. Today Curragh is the home of Irish horse breeding and the Irish National Stud, a thoroughbred horse breeding facility owned by the Irish government.

When English commander Oliver Cromwell conquered Ireland in the 17th century, two important things happened:

  1. Cromwell cemented himself in infamy in the notoriously long memories of the Irish. Nearly 350 years later, legendary celtic punk band The Pogues proved the Irish would never forget how Cromwell sent the Irish to the Caribbean to work as slaves. The band’s song Young Ned of The Hill contains the oh-so-subtle lyrics:
    A curse upon you Oliver Cromwell, you who raped our Motherland
    I hope you’re rotting down in hell for the horrors that you sent
    To our misfortunate forefathers whom you robbed of their birthright
    “To hell or Connaught” may you burn in hell tonight.
  2. English rule helped formalize horse racing and gambling in Ireland. Though, having an increased opportunity to place a flutter on the ponies isn’t a great trade-off for being enslaved and sold overseas.

But, by 1751, there were 409 separate locations for horse racing in Ireland and you could bet at all of them. Horse racing has remained a major obsession of the Irish ever since.

Irish Sweepstakes swept the world

It is believed lotteries started during the Chinese Han Dynasty between 205 and 187 BC. So, the Irish certainly didn’t come up with the concept. But the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstakes is certainly one of the most famous lotteries in history.

The Irish Sweepstakes was started in 1930 to benefit Irish hospitals. It quickly became an international success with more tickets sold in the United States than in any other country. Ticket stubs were returned to Ireland to be drawn from a barrel and matched with the name of a horse running in a major Irish or British race. The largest prizes went to ticket holders whose horses hit the board (win, place or show).

Counterfeit tickets were prevalent and the amount that ended up going to Irish hospitals and other charities was relatively low. Before the scheme was folded in the 1980s, the main benefactors were the men that organized the sweepstakes. They became obscenely wealthy and wielded substantial political influence.

Lucky devils.

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Dave Briggs

Dave Briggs is a managing editor and writer for Catena Media. His expertise is covering the gambling industry in North America with an emphasis on the casino, sports betting, horse racing and poker sectors. He is currently reporting on the gaming industries in Illinois and Canada.

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