We Won the Lotto: ‘A million isn’t a lot if you do the wrong things’

Review: A documentary about Lotto winners suggests winning the big prize can cost you

Carmel and Billy Comer, who won £1.1 million in 1994.

Carmel and Billy Comer, who won £1.1 million in 1994.

 

Be careful what you wish for, suggests We Won the Lotto (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm), a documentary about the grimmer realities behind every wage slave’s sustaining fantasy. The effect is like a champagne cork popping, ricocheting off a red Lamborghini and hitting you full force in the eye.

Imagine, for instance, that your children’s birthdays and a quick pick have finally paid off, and as you contemplate quitting your job and acquiring a small island, you find yourself in a gleaming white room in National Lottery headquarters, welcomed into fortune by a video of Craig Doyle. The dream already seems to wilt.

“Right,” beams virtual Craig from a budget heaven, “it seems that you’re sitting comfortably and you have a glass of something bubbly to hand…” If I had won the lotto, I would want the real Craig Doyle.

Yet this disappointment serves as a useful introduction to director Marion Cullen’s exploration of the lottery and its discontents, even as the programme tries to preserve its effervescent fantasy for as long as possible.

First though, a note on statistical unlikelihood. You have a one in 10.7 million chance of winning the lottery. (At one in a million, you have a much better chance of being hit this year by lightning.)

Eight hundred people have won €1 million or more in the Irish lottery since it began in 1987. Only 5 per cent of Irish winners go public. And of those, for her first episode, Cullen has found just five winners willing to talk about it. It is thus less a representative a sample, than a collection of the adorably innocent and the fascinatingly idiosyncratic.

Jimmy Carroll, for instance, a shy 53-year-old army ambulance driver from Kildare who wins €500,000, seems stunned by the experience, as wary of the bubbles and camera flashes as he is of Craig Doyle. His delight is the springboard into the complicated history of previous winners.

The first we meet is Billy Comer, a one time customs officer who won the equivalent of €1.97 million in 1994, bringing him, bizarrely, closer to the astronomical wealth of his brothers, two successful international property developers eventually worth more than a billion euro. “I rang Brian in London,” recalls Billy. “’Oh Janey, says Brian, welcome to the club.”

The recession really took its toll . . . Depression took its toll as well

Whether it was sibling rivalry, unbridled fantasy or just bad luck that propelled Billy towards a series of bad investments, buying up pubs in Galway or making overseas investments that eventually failed, he does not say.

“A million pounds isn’t an awful lot if you do the wrong things with it,” he says, later fighting back emotion in a long-shuttered bar, beneath a wall decorated with newspaper reports about his windfall. “The recession really took its toll,” he says. “Depression took its toll as well.”

Vincent Keaney may laugh about it, with a customary and mystifying gaiety, but his story is very similar. Winning £1 million in 1994, he bought the dole office in Cobh and turned it into a Titanic-themed bar and restaurant, mortgaging his home when it ran into debt. In 2005 he lost the bar. “It hit an iceberg and I think I hit one too,” he laughs, while the documentary’s choice of music, nimble pizzicato strings familiar from more diaphanous reality TV, is just as curiously blasé.

Perhaps, like Keaney, the show is slow to burst the bubble. In this, it is assisted by the inventor Anne Canavan, a £1 million winner of the UK Lotto, whose frugal lifestyle in Donegal and utterly eccentric innovations – a tissue-holding wrist-strap called the Snotblot, among them – suggest she is still living in one.

The show may conclude with her, but it hits the jackpot with the staggering ironies of Keaney’s story. “I understand loss,” he says, reflecting briefly on the death of his brothers and his daughter. “It’s not something I’m prepared to dwell on.”

Cullen introduces one astonishing statistic – that 70 per cent of US Lotto winners declare bankruptcy within 20 years of their win. This, you suspect, is something Craig Doyle will never tell us: Winning the lottery can be extremely expensive.

Brought back to see his dream home, lost with the sinking of his Titanic, Keaney speaks like a seesaw of fortune: “If I never won the lottery I’m almost 1,000 per cent sure I’d be living here,” he says. “But you can’t deny good luck. Good luck came with a price.” Think about it. It could be you.

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