Leinster House becomes bingo Dáil in protest over gambling legislation
Dozens of bingo players gather on Kildare Street against move capping prize money
As Michael Healy-Rae pulled balls from an outsized tray and a giant green cat in a purple suit danced to Rick Astley’s Never Going To Give You Up, Leinster House was transformed into a bingo Dáil much to the delight of dozens of women cackling, smoking and staring intently at numbered cards.
They were all gathered on Tuesday morning on Kildare Street to protest against gambling legislation coming before the Dáil this week, which will have the effect of capping the prize money bingo halls can give out at 50 per cent of takings.
The move will, protestors said, make bingo less appealing and deprive thousands of people of their only social outlet.
Kathleen Reynolds, from Blanchardstown, takes two buses from her home several times a week to a wheelchair-accessible bingo hall in Drimnagh, where she meets friends and watches for the elusive house.
“I am here because bingo the only thing I have left,” she said. “It is a disgrace the way they’re trying to take it away from me. And it is not just me. Bingo is our only social outlet and in the halls we all look after each other.”
She said it was “ridiculous” that bingo had been classified by the Government as gambling. “Once I have my bills paid then my money is my own and I can do I want with it. Bingo is my life now.”
As she spoke a chant rose from the crowd. “Half the pay, we won’t play,” it went.
Edel Hayes from Dublin’s inner city was among those shouting loudest. “Bingo means an awful lot to us,” she said. “But it is not about the money, it is about making friends, socialising and the community spirit. They want to take that away.”
As the operations manager from Jack Potts Bingo which runs four halls around Dublin, Emma Lavelle was thinking more about the money than most in the crowd although she too said it was about more than that.
She said her company paid out more than 85 per cent of its takings in prize money and expressed concern that if they were forced to cut that to 50 per cent as proposed in the legislation, then people would simply stay away and the halls would inevitably close.
“We have around 2,200 customers each week and there are as many as 20,000 people playing bingo every week across Ireland. It is important for them but I don’t think politicians really understand bingo.”
A poster propped up against the Leinster House gates echoed her views. “Leo, posh boys don’t like bingo,” it said simply.
Naomi Reilly is the Save Our Bingo spokeswoman and she insisted it was not gambling in the traditional sense of the word. “It is not about the money, we pay for our sheets or our books and have a good night out. It is a social thing, we are not going to a bingo ad putting our week’s wages down and losing it all in an hour.”
She said that she typically plays twice a week on Friday and Sunday nights: “It costs me €17 for 3½ hours. I don’t drink, I don’t go to the pub.”
She added that if prize money was forcibly reduced then “less people will go and then the bingo halls will all close and we will be left with nothing.”
When the time for the bingo to start came the crowd fell silent. As the green cat in the hat danced to the beat of a silent drum, Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats and Michael Healy-Rae took centre stage to call the numbers.
Before her turn, Shortall stressed the importance of bingo in communities across Ireland and hailed it as “a fantastic outlet, a really important social outlet, particularly for women”. She suggested limiting the prize money at bingo halls had been an “unintended consequence” of the gambling legislation.
Healy-Rae went further. He said the legislation was “attacking people playing bingo” and was “not just wrong, it is sinful”.
He told The Irish Times that he had fond memories of his mother taking him to bingo in Kerry when he was a child and he recalled how he would stare “mesmerised” at the women, marvelling at their mental dexterity as they checked numbers on numbers on multiple cards.
“Just look at the people they are attacking,” he said. “It is a disgrace. When I heard about this I said it was outrageous, it is a crazy decision and it can’t be allowed to happen.”
He went back to calling the numbers. Moments later a cry of check came up from the crowd.
“We have a winner,” he said. “And the prize is a copy of my book.”
Shortall didn’t miss a beat. “And the second prize is two copies of his book.”