John Dolan: All the wrongs in our society... and our government declares war on salt-of-the-earth bingo players?

What a shame that an activity that is played just about every day of the week on Leeside should have been forced to the brink of extinction, says John Dolan in his weekly column
John Dolan: All the wrongs in our society... and our government declares war on salt-of-the-earth bingo players?

NUMBER’S UP?Members of the Save Our Bingo group protest outside the Dáil.

I USUALLY only say this to wind up my missus... but the long list of things I excel at in this world never ceases to amaze me.

I spent my whole life up till last Sunday afternoon not realising that I am a brilliant, naturally talented bingo player.

It’s true.

I had never played the game before, and I rocked up at my local school with the family in tow for a scouts fund-raising event with little expectation.

To be honest, I had always assumed bingo was 99% luck and 1% about good hearing and mental agility (and having a pen with enough ink).

Then I won the first two games — there were well over 100 people in the hall — and I quickly reversed that opinion: Bingo is actually 99% skill and 1% luck, I decided smugly.

Amid my euphoria — having already pocketed a €25 voucher for heating oil and four free cinema tickets — I wondered what prize my brilliance would scoop me next...

Then my magic spell was broken by my wife kicking me under the table, and reminding me it was a fund-raising event and not The Krypton Factor.

Suitably chastened, I realised with mounting disappointment that if I got another full house of numbers, I would have to keep schtum until someone else won, which goes against every competitive instinct I have.

Either that, or else declare ‘House’ before ostentatiously telling my fellow competitors that I would humbly forfeit my prize for the greater good (and possibly to avoid being lynched by the other players, whose luck — and skill, don’t forget — was out).

Alas, I never won another game, and ended up cursing my luck (yes, yes, I decided there was very little skill involved after all).

But I did appreciate the fun and camaraderie that was to be had in this enduring game, which remains incredibly popular in Cork city and in pockets of the county.

As well as the competitive and prize-winning element, bingo is also a healthy pastime for its often elderly cohorts, as it gets them out of the house, socialising and meeting friends, and is even thought to be beneficial for the mind, warding off illnesses such as dementia.

Certainly, as the bingo-caller last Sunday declared ‘Eyes down’ and more than 100 of us scribbled away in rapt concentration, I never realised bingo was about to become the new enemy of the state.

We have a lot of problems with crime and anti-social behaviour in Cork, while our politicians must be very busy trying to fix national scandals such as the health and housing systems.

Enough to be going on with, you’d have thought.

But no. The same government which recently spent somewhere between €1million and €2million on a printer which still isn’t being used, had decided to declare war on bingo followers. Its Gaming and Lotteries (Amendment) Bill 2019 initially aimed to cap bingo prize money at 50% — well below the current going rate of around 75-85% of the takings.

The issue sent shockwaves through what is a hugely popular but often overlooked phenomenon in Cork and nationwide. Lovers of the game said curtailing prize pots would drive them away from bingo, while the owners of some establishments feared the move will drive them to closure.

The industry employs around 4,000 people nationally while around 200,000 people play it regularly — that’s a lot of jobs put at peril and a lot of people’s noses put out of joint.

As well as the bingo aspect, many of these halls also run other community-based activities such as knitting and coffee clubs and pilates classes. All these face being axed if the bingo function ends.

It sounded like an incredibly petty one-size-fits-all law — and another example of politicians being so far away from the grassroots folk who vote for them, and also the reason why turn-outs for last week’s by-elections were so low.

But fans of the numbers game were not going down without a fight. They formed a group called Save Our Bingo in an attempt to stop the Bill and it quickly racked up several hundred signatures.

In Cork, John Purcell, owner of Bingo at the Rock in Togher, told one newspaper that he feared for his enterprise if the bill went through. “It will decimate the business,” he said, “it means the competitive players won’t come in because the prize won’t be worth it.”

You can imagine many of these people simply deciding to cut out the middle man and the social side of their game and just forking out for a scratchcard from the supermarket instead. As Marie McVitty, spokeswoman for the Bingo Players Association, pointed out, the Bill just lumped bingo in with gambling and the lottery, when it is much more than that. “I’ve never heard of anyone being addicted to bingo,” she added.

The hub of the issue, as far as the Government was concerned, was that bingo owners should be ensuring 50% of their proceeds go to prizes, with a maximum of 25% to charitable causes, and a maximum of 25% to expenses.

Minister of State and Cork TD David Stanton, who has responsibility for gambling policy and was steering the bill through the Oireachtas, did not accept bingo halls would be forced to close.

He called it a “modest proposal”, which would “simply ensure that the charities receive a fair share from the bingo operators who act as their agent; that is a minimum of 25% of the proceeds of the bingo.”

An argument which is all well and good for lotteries. But why on earth bingo players should suffer from this edict was the crux of the problem.

Anyway, common sense eventually prevailed and the Government backed down at the last minute. A Sinn Féin amendment to the Bill ensued bingo prize money can remain at 75% of the takings.

But it didn’t spare the Government from accusations that it had been heavy-handed and stubborn.

From my experience, bingo players are the salt of the earth who would never begrudge a charitable cause, but to try to forcibly extract this from their proposed winnings seemed Draconian and an example of nanny-state excess. Playing bingo is not the same as buying a lottery ticket or scratchcard, couldn’t the powers-that-be see that?

What a shame that an activity that is played just about every day of the week on Leeside should have been forced to the brink of extinction.

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