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‘A Public Nuisance’ - Athlone’s illegal lottery

In our latest edition – the final article of the current series – we look at the fundraising efforts led by Athlone’s Canon John Crowe. For a few years during the early 1920s Athlone was known for its annual bazaar and carnival. Held during the summer, the eclectic mix of attractions drew crowds from across the midlands. The carnivals brought a welcome boost for local people and businesses but their primary function was to raise funds for the construction of a replacement for the town’s St. Peter’s Church.

Built during the 1790s on the site of what is now the Dean Crowe Theatre, St. Peter’s had long passed its heyday by the 1920s. Cold, small and crumbling, it was described by Crowe’s predecessor as ‘a plain barn-like structure without spire, tower or belfry’. It was apparent to Crowe and his parishioners that a new church was needed and it was equally apparent that the carnivals, although very popular, were insufficient to fund its construction. In this article we will look at Crowe’s response to that fundraising dilemma: a response that would lead to a confrontation with the Irish Free State.

 

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The Church of Saints Peter and Paul, Athlone (Wikimedia Commons)

 

High hopes

Crowe, who was born in County Galway, studied at Summerhill College, Sligo, and later at Maynooth, being ordained in 1906. He arrived in Athlone in 1921, aged 38, and quickly became a dominant religious and social presence in the town, taking control of pre-existing plans to replace St. Peter’s.

A few years ago I conducted an interview with Dr Patrick Murray, the esteemed historian, author and academic. Dr Murray had researched Crowe’s activities as part of his book Church of Saints Peter & Paul, Athlone: an illustrated history and guide. Crowe, as he explained to me, was deeply interested in Athlone’s ecclesiastical past and was determined to build a church that honoured its history. Those aspirations, however, required money and lots of it. Crowe judged that the project, as he envisioned it, would require about £60,000 (in the end, it cost around twice that figure) but the funds available to him in the early 1920s, despite the success of the carnivals, were an insufficient £19,000.

Meeting that shortfall would not be easy in a country that was emerging from civil war. Not only were the state’s finances in a parlous condition – resulting from the need to fund the National Army and the anti-Treaty IRA’s destruction of public infrastructure – but so were the finances of families and individuals across the country. Figures compiled by the new Irish government in 1922, show that households then spent, on average, around 87 percent of their income on food, clothing, rent, and fuel for heat and light, leaving little room for non-essential items.

Crowe attempted to overcome the hardship and parsimony of the times by expanding his efforts beyond the locality and beyond the state. As explained by Patrick Murray, the canon never missed an opportunity to raise funds ‘throughout the entire period of the planning and building of the church’. He sought funds ‘from every parishioner, big or small,’ and he made ‘visits to America, South Africa and Europe to get ideas for the church and to fundraise’. Yet it was Crowe’s fundraising through sweepstakes, a form of lottery, that drew the most public attention.

Crowe first proposed holding a sweepstake in 1923. They had become popular in Ireland during preceding years and numerous examples could be found across the state at that time, despite being prohibited under Irish law. Nevertheless, Crowe, acting as if the need for a new church in Athlone took precedence over the law of the land, continued with his plans, holding a sweepstake in 1924.

The sweepstake, with a total prize fund of £12,500, was organised under ‘the distinguished patronage’ of five well-known people, including General Seán MacEoin and Roscommon-born Sir Thomas Stafford, whose names appeared on each ticket as a means, apparently, to assure the public of the scheme’s bona fides. The lottery, known as the ‘Athlone Sweep’ (also referred to in contemporary sources as the Athlone Annual Sweep and the Athlone Club Lottery) made sales across the world. However, it was the ticket sales made in Ireland that threatened to bring about Crowe’s downfall.

 

 

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A sketch which appeared in the Freeman's Journal newspaper on 1 September 1923. Crowe rejected this design, perhaps because it resembled St. Mary’s Catholic Church on the other side of the River Shannon.

 

‘good law’

By 1924 the government was making a concerted effort to curtail the proliferation of sweepstakes and Crowe was summoned to appear before Dublin District Court on 10 June 1924, charged with running an illegal lottery and selling tickets to the public. Yet, as Patrick Murray explained, Crowe ‘always argued that the building of the church took priority over any legal objections’ and, with regard to the sweepstake, he ‘was never averse to that kind of tactic in order to raise money’. Crowe’s belief in the legitimacy of his actions were demonstrated by the fact that he chose not to attend the court, although he was represented by a barrister. On this occasion, the judge concluded that he could not rule on the case, since it was brought in the name of a police inspector rather than in the name of the attorney-general, as required by the relevant legislation.

After taking note of the judge’s decision, the state renewed the prosecution on 31 October 1924 but, again, Crowe did not attend the court. Crowe’s absence infuriated the prosecuting counsel, future Taoiseach John A. Costello, and the Offaly Independent reported that there were ‘lively exchanges’ between Costello and Crowe’s barrister, Mr. E. Burne (‘Burn’ in some accounts). Crowe had provided Burne with a letter that displayed, at least as described in the press, an indifference towards the court that strayed close to contempt. In the letter, Crowe declared his annoyance with the court, stating that it was ‘very unfair’ that ‘the authorities appeared to think that he had nothing to do but to go to Dublin at their convenience’.

The district justice, a judge named Collins, was seemingly unperturbed by Crowe’s letter, directing his thoughts to Costello and raising the point that the ‘there has been no case of this kind in this country before’. Costello accepted that was true but made reference to a recent case in England, stating that, if convicted, ‘a person should forfeit £50 and be deemed to be a rogue and a vagabond’. The state, Costello argued, had no option other than to proceed with the case since ‘these sweeps were becoming a public nuisance’ and must be stopped: an outcome that could not be achieved ‘unless the law was applied’.

Burne intervened, declaring that the possibility of Crowe being deemed ‘a rogue or a vagabond’ exceeded his ‘wildest imagination’ and demanding that Costello answer the question: ‘What is the prosecution going for in this case?’ Costello gave a succinct response: ‘To put your client in jail for the minimum period of one month.’ Costello also warned Burne that his client would have to attend the court: ‘If he does not appear … I will apply for a warrant for his arrest and have him here.’

In response, Burne argued that Crowe’s summons should be dismissed. If the case was to proceed, he declared, all those who purchased tickets in the sweep should be similarly prosecuted since they had ‘aided and abetted’ the lottery. Burne then named some of those who had purchased tickets, including his ‘friend on the other side’, a reference to Costello, and the Governor-General, Timothy Healy (the Governor-General was the representative of the British Crown in the Irish Free State).

Perhaps Burne expected that his naming of Costello and Healy, among others, would cause enough of a scene to sway the court, although contemporary reports give the impression that he delivered the argument in a sarcastic, even facetious manner. Either way, it had no discernible effect on Justice Collins, who decided that ‘the summons as brought was good law and that the prosecution could proceed on it’. Canon John Crowe would have his day in court, whether he liked it or not.

 

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An image of Athlone, taken in 1962 (National Library of Ireland). The Church of Saints Peter and Paul can be seen in the background. The church, which opened for public worship on Saint Patrick’s Day 1937, forever altered the character of the town’s centre.

 

‘his people’

A week later, Crowe appeared before Justice Collins at Dublin District Court. Crowe represented himself, having dropped Burne. Perhaps Crowe was punishing Burne for failing to have the summons dismissed or, given the state’s persistence in prosecuting the case, perhaps he felt that it was the appropriate time to display his full majesty before the court.

The session opened with the testimony of a police inspector Patrick O’Connell, who said that, on 2 May 1924, he had purchased tickets for the ‘Athlone Club Annual Sweep’ at 110 Saint Stephen’s Green (Crowe’s Dublin office): ‘the sale of which ticket was not authorised by any Act of Parliament’. O’Connell later returned to ‘the promises in Stephen’s Green and interviewed Canon Crowe’. He asked Crowe ‘who was responsible for the sweep’ and ‘the Canon replied that he accepted full responsibility.’

Collins then asked Crowe if he wished to give evidence but the canon refused to do so, instead reading from a prepared statement, whose contents were reported by many newspapers. Crowe ‘did not want to deny the fact that the sweep was organised’ although, he said, ‘it was not organised for any personal gain, but for the purpose of building a church in the town of Athlone, so as to relieve his people there.’ Crowe told the court that he ‘had no other way of raising a sum of £30,000 or £40,000’ and that, in organising a lottery, he was following an established tradition: ‘As long as he could remember lotteries … and sweeps had been organised in Ireland for church building and charitable purposes, and he had never heard of any serious action being taken by the authorities’.

According to press reports, Crowe declared that the ‘sweep did no damage to moral principles or ecclesiastical authority’ and that ‘he wished that it should go forth’ that the court case ‘did not reflect in any way on the straightforward manner in which the draw took place’ and that it should not create ‘any doubt in the public mind as to the payment of prizes’. Crowe continued, saying that ‘he knew there was some legal difficulty in regard to the matter, some criminal enactment forbidding those sweeps’ but ‘at the time he commenced to organise the sweep matters were in a state of chaos with regard to sweeps, and he thought the law was still not very clear on them’.

At that point, he attempted to deflect blame, or a portion of the blame, on to others, saying that ‘he had given orders to his staff that they were not to sell tickets, and he did not wish to sell any in Ireland’. Crowe claimed that, personally, he ‘sold no tickets’ and while that may have been true, his other claims – that he ordered his staff not to sell tickets and that he wished to avoid their sale in Ireland – were implausible.

Nevertheless, in giving his judgement on Crowe’s actions, Justice Collins said ‘there was no suggestion against his character’ and that there ‘were extenuating circumstances in the case’. Collins noted that, ‘although the Lotteries Act was over 100 years old this was the first prosecution in this country’ [although, around the same time as Crowe’s case, the state was also prosecuting the organisers of rival sweepstakes]. As such, he ‘would not convict’ but Canon Crowe ‘would have to be bound over in his own security to come up for judgment when called upon’ and ‘would have abstain from taking part in a lottery for two years’.

Crowe gave the necessary guarantees and the case ended. He would continue to seek new fund-raising opportunities for the church and he later held another sweepstake which, remarkably, far surpassed the first effort in both its scale and in the controversy it created. Crowe eventually gained the requisite funds and fulfilled his ambition to build a grand new church in Athlone: the Church of Saints Peter & Paul, which opened for public worship on Saint Patrick’s Day 1937.

 

Sources

Report on the Cost of Living in Ireland - June 1922, Ministry of Economic Affairs, Dublin, 1922; Report on the Cost of Living in Ireland – October 1923, Ministry of Industry and Commerce, Dublin, 1922; (see also ‘Percentage expenditure weights used for the 1922 Consumer Price Index’ on the CSO website); interview with Dr Patrick Murray, November 2015; Freeman’s Journal, Irish Independent, Longford Leader, Offaly Independent, Westmeath Examiner and Westmeath Independent. For more detail, see John Burke, Athlone 1900-1923: politics, revolution and civil war (The History Press, 2015); Marie Coleman, ‘The Origins of the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake’ in Irish Economic and Social History, volume 29, (2002); Patrick Murray, Church of Saints Peter and Paul: an Illustrated History and Guide (Saints Peter and Paul’s Parish Forum/Pastoral Council, 2007); and Gearoid O’Brien’s A Brief History of the Dean Crowe Theatre.

 

Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 01/12/2023