Then & Now

Joe MacAnthony - Journalist

Joe MacAnthony - Journalist

Journalist Joe MacAnthony left Ireland for Canada more than 35 years ago but the story for which he is best remembered, his 1973 exposé of the Irish Hospital Sweepstakes, still makes waves – 90-year-old former taoiseach Liam Cosgrave criticised him before Christmas at the launch of David McCullagh’s book on John A Costello.

MacAnthony was born in Dublin and christened Joseph Macantoni – his grandfather was Belfast-born Francesco Marcantonio, and he later added a "h" and changed the "i" to "y" – and came to journalism in a sideways fashion. He began his career with a couple of years in the Army, a stint in The Irish Timeslibrary, and as a contributor to an RTÉ consumer affairs programme called Home Truths in the 1960s. He was also involved in setting up a housing association which built 64 houses in Coolock, Dublin and stood as an independent in a byelection in Dublin South County in 1970, gathering almost 3,500 votes. He worked on the Late Late Show, the Irish Independent,and This Week(a weekly news magazine which had a cover story on the Sweeps pulled by its owner, Hugh McLoughlin) before joining the Sunday Independent.

He had already done a number of investigative reports before turning his attention to the Sweeps, a scandal which involved huge amounts of money, cronyism, bribery, smuggling and opaque financial dealings, all backed by successive governments with the imprimatur of the State and the cover of a good cause, funding Irish hospitals. It was founded by two bookmakers and Joe McGrath, a trade unionist who became, via Sinn Féin and the IRA, the minister for industry and commerce in the first Cumann na nGaedheal government. The scheme was illegal in every country except Ireland and was described by the American Readers' Digestas the "greatest bleeding hearts racket in the world" (also the title of Damian Corless's recent book on the Sweeps).

MacAnthony’s comprehensive exposé in January 1973 revealed that the hospitals received less than 10 per cent of the money collected and ran to some 8,000 words about the Sweeps’ shady underground operations abroad and how it enriched its promoters. It reputedly led to the then owners of Independent Newspapers, the Murphy family, selling the group because of their friendship with the McGraths: the latter’s influence was so extensive that there was scarcely any follow-up to the disclosures in other media.

In the immediate aftermath, a senior politician asked for MacAnthony's Army file and he was tipped off by a friend in the Irish Press that Sweeps people had been in its library searching for anything critical of him from his housing association days. Liam Cosgrave, who became taoiseach some weeks after the Sweeps exposé, showed what he thought of it by appointing Paddy McGrath, son of Joe McGrath, to the Seanad.

MacAnthony followed up with a report a year later on Ray Burke's "consultancy" work for builders in north Co Dublin. However, he has claimed that the Independent'snew owner, Tony O'Reilly, wanted rid of him: he was refused a pay increase in line with that of all other journalists in the Independent group. RTÉ paid him for a six-month contract on its Seven Daysflagship current affairs programme but did not let him do any work. No other jobs in Irish journalism were offered to him and he took up a short-term contract with CBC television in Toronto.

He stayed there, working on CBC's investigative programme The Fifth Estatefor 12 years as a reporter and producer-director. Among the programmes in which he was involved were controversial reports on the Canadian secret service's illegal activities, the international trade in tainted blood, and the discovery of a hitherto unknown serial killer. The latter, in jail for one murder, secured a court order to stop the programme, and MacAnthony left when CBC refused to challenge the decision. He went on to write three thrillers, Prime Target, The Blood God(about the tainted blood trade) and The Setanta Operation, all of which were translated into several languages. Now in his 70s, he lives in Toronto and is still writing.