For most of its modern history, Ireland was a part of first England and then the United Kingdom. It is no wonder then that the history of gambling in Ireland closely mimics the history of gambling in the UK. However, gambling in Ireland predates the English conquest and has existed long before even Romans came to the ‘British Isles’. In the land of Leprechauns and 4-leaf clover, gambling was always a popular pastime and the Irish enjoyed it from times immemorial.
The first written records of gambling in Ireland go back to the rule of Conaire Mór, a High King of Ireland somewhere between 110 BC and 60 AD. People at the time bet on chariot races held regularly at Curragh, which is today the home of Irish horse breeding and the Irish National Stud, a Thoroughbred horse breeding facility owned by the Irish government.
Horse races played a huge role in the history of gambling worldwide, and Ireland is no exception. Following the trend from England, betting on horse racing became popular among the Irish. When England conquered Ireland in the 17th century and made it its colony, many of the laws and customs were copied from London. Wealthy elite traveled frequently between two islands and English influence was very strong. Among other things, horse racing became more structured and established, allowing people to place bets with more certainty. Soon, many official bookie companies started operating on Irish hippodromes, accepting bets from eager punters. The fact that horse racing was always popular in Ireland made it easy to establish institutional gambling, similar to that in England. By 1751, there were 409 separate locations for horse racing in Ireland and you could bet on all of them.
Horse betting remained the most popular form of gambling in Ireland for centuries. It only started to lose ground in the 2010s, when a significant drop in revenue was recorded. From €282 million in 2007, it dropped to €169 million in 2016. Similarly, the number of licensed betting offices was reduced from 1,385 in 2008 to just 850 in 2016, with a continued downward trend. This is not something that is happening only in Ireland, as horse racing continues to lose the battle with more popular forms of gambling, especially online casinos.
For most of the period Ireland was under English rule, gambling remained completely unregulated. London’s rule was always a turbulent one and the English tried not to stir the pot too much and certainly didn’t bother themselves much with the welfare of the Irish population. Apart from collecting taxes, they left most of the local affairs in the hands of local barons and rich landowners. Of course, they had no reason to aggravate the local population and allowed many things they considered useful distractions, like gambling. While it was regulated and even banned on few occasions in England, the Irish continued to enjoy their card games unmolested by the powers that be. Like most things gambling-related, games they played were imported from England, meaning they mostly originated in France and Italy.
Gambling in Independent Ireland
In 1922, Irish Free State was established, granting limited independence to Ireland. Ironically, this is the period that saw the first gambling regulations passed on the island. In 1926, the Betting Act was adopted, aimed at eradicating illegal bookies. From then, the government would issue booking licenses, allowing for strict control of gambling and, more importantly, tax collection. The Betting Act established foundations for the system that is still in place today, almost 200 years later. Every bookie has to have its license prominently displayed, regardless of whether they do business in traditional booking offices or online.
Fr a long game, Ireland didn’t have a state lottery. It was first established in 1986 when National Lottery Act was passed. It proved to be highly successful, as some 40% of all adult Irish play at least one of the games it offers. Games include Lotto, EuroMillions, bingo, raffles, scratch cards, and various online games. Since its creation, the National Lottery has distributed some €6 billion to various causes, like environment protection, health and welfare, national heritage, language and arts, as well as sports and recreation.
Sports Betting in Ireland
Sports betting picked up steam in the latter half of the 20th century all around the globe, including Ireland. Built upon the long heritage of horse racing, sports betting became wildly popular on the island, so much so that the 1962 Betting Act had to be passed to curb illegal sports betting. After that, many of the existing bookies started taking bets on various sporting events. After horse racing, rugby is the most popular sport for punters, but football is closing the gap and threatening to overtake it in the near future. Ireland is also the home of Paddy Power, one of the biggest sports betting operators in the world. Paddy Power was created in 1988 by the merger of the three biggest Irish bookies Stewart Kenny, David Power, and John Corcoran. In 2016, Paddy Power merged with Betfair, creating Paddy Power Betfair. Later, the company changed its name to Flutter Entertainment.
For such a small country, Ireland has a surprisingly big number of traditional casinos. There are more than 25 of them, all located in the biggest population centers, like Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, and Waterford. Casinos operate under the Gambling Control Bill from 2013, which limits their number to 40, as well allowing no more than 15 tables at the premises. The aim of these restrictions is to prevent Las Vegas-style mega-casinos in Ireland. All major online casinos operate in Ireland as well, under the strict regulations enforced by the government.