When I was a little kid growing up in the Glengarry countryside, I frequently heard vague rumours of persons in our community selling Irish Sweepstake tickets. But it was all hush hush. Gullible buyers, with the naïve hope of winning, were apparently eager to snap them up, even though the odds of winning these tickets, illegal in Canada, were one in 1,200,000. They were somehow smuggled into Canada three times a year. Most of the Irish Sweepstake tickets were sold in the United States, where they were also illegal. It was not widely known that our government considered lottery tickets a petty crime. Canadian authorities did not take the issue very seriously. Sellers were seldom prosecuted and buyers usually got off with a light fine.
Buyers were buying a dream – a dream of winning big. Although there were numerous prizes, they always talked about winning the $100,000. Little did they know that many of their ticket stubs never made it back to Ireland for the draw. And many were fake tickets that went nowhere. Back in Ireland many years later, the Sweeps, as they were also known, turned into the country’s greatest scandal, as only about of one-tenth of the money raised ever went to support hospitals, the original purpose for this lottery when it was initiated by its government in 1930. The winning tickets were based on a ridiculously convoluted system by which lottery tickets drawn were somehow matched with horses scheduled to run in prominent horse races at various times throughout the year. Somewhat mysteriously, the lottery ended up in private hands during its 57-year history, and the bulk of the money went to a few rich people who became multimillionaires.
Although I never once heard the name of anyone in our community who was actually selling these tickets, adults often let on that they knew somebody who knew somebody who sold them. When quietly gossiping, usually out of earshot, about their chances for great wealth, the adults seemed to hold these dream merchants in awe, almost as if they had acquired an elevated status in the community.
A hundred grand seemed like an unimaginable sum to a 10-year-old kid in the 1940s. To an adult in our poor farming community, where it was still possible to buy a 100-acre farm for $4,000, winning the sweepstake would be the ultimate dream come true, the opportunity for a lifetime of happiness and leisure. At no time while growing up did I ever hear of anyone in our community winning any jackpot, big or small. It was a dream, but one that was out of reach, like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.