The History and Future of Bingo in Ireland

25 July 2019
By Elaine Murphy
elaine@TheCork.ie

Entertainment

There are many out there who’ll say you can’t beat a good game of bingo, whether it’s for the excitement of the game itself or just for the social aspect of meeting up with a few friends and making an afternoon or an evening of it. Eyes down, look in and hope and pray that the numbers on your card match the ones the caller shouts out. The atmosphere can get tense in the halls at times, but make no mistake, it’s enjoyable, too.

The game has really taken off in the UK and it’s not just the domain of the older generations. Step into a bingo hall in Britain and you’re just as likely to see young people as you are pensioners. You could see them playing more traditional styles of bingo or revamped versions of the game, which is also the case, too, in Ireland.

Where did it all begin?

The origins of bingo stretch back several centuries – all the way to the 16th century, in fact, since it was based on the Italian National Lottery — but in Ireland the game first materialised in the 1960s. Many consider Catholic church bingo responsible for triggering the craze in the country. Today, the game is still just as popular. Bingo has even helped Ireland into the Guinness Book of Records, since Cork is home to a bingo hall which owns the world’s largest bingo card! In case you’re wondering, it’s 1 000 times the size of a regular bingo card.

Interestingly, bingo as a business came about in Ireland out of a drive to revive the Irish language. In the early 1950s, a group of graduates and undergraduates were looking for ways to raise money to pressure the Irish government into being more proactive in promoting the Irish language. The group noted the success of the football pools in Britain and, in compliance with Irish laws, created a private lottery, which they called Gael Linn. In 1953, an organisation formed which took the same name.

The organisation started to establish a range of cultural institutions and schemes, such as scholarships, an Irish language institute and theatre, to promote the language. In the 1960s, the organisation became incorporated as a company and started up its bingo operations, which were hugely successful. When two cinemas closed down — the Cabra Grand building and the Whitehall Grand — in the 1970s, Gael Linn bought them and turned them into bingo halls — they’ve now become protected buildings.

Bingo in Ireland today

Bingo has come a long way since those early days. The transformation of these cinemas into bingo halls has made the game part of life in Dublin now. Quirkily, the gay community has added some extra colour to bingo and citizens can attend gay and drag queen bingo nights. One show — Bingo with Shirley Temple Bar, at The George nightclub —has been running for more than 20 years! It’s incredibly popular.

Another club that injects additional colour into the game is the Let’s Bingo club in Dundalk, Leinster. How? The design. You can’t fail to miss it. The façade is bright yellow and pink and there are bingo balls painted on it. As well as being open every day, the club offers little extras like free tea and coffee, plus an electronic bingo device and chocolates on your birthday.

The shift to online

It’s no secret that the arrival of the internet has changed the face of gambling. The creation of online gaming has made bingo and other types of gambling much more accessible, allowing people to play on the go or from the comfort of their armchair rather than having to visit a brick-and-mortar store or go into the next room and start up the desktop computer.

As online bingo operators have materialised, so have affiliate operators such as Bingoport. Competition is fierce and players have lots of choice, but affiliate sites can make the decision easier for them by allowing them to compare games and promotions. As saturated as the market is, these sites can help players cut through it much more quickly and get on with playing bingo.

What does the future hold for Irish bingo?

One thing is for sure and that is there’s never a dull moment when it comes to playing bingo in Ireland. Besides drag queen bingo and the general popularity of the game in the gay community, another trend has become popular in the country in the last few years: drive-in bingo. Following the introduction of no smoking in bingo halls, some players have found they couldn’t handle several hours without smoking, so one business decided to operate bingo games in a field and simply charge players for books as they drove in to play.

This isn’t the only take on bingo. A hipster-style bingo has started to attracted students and millennials in general and, as you might expect, deviates from the traditional version of the game. The standard calls are replaced with jokes, slightly long-winded calls and references to social media. Some bingo companies have made changes to the game because they believe millennials are looking for different things from the game compared to the older generations. There are also fears about the closure of bingo halls, not just in Ireland but in England too, and this is leading companies to think up new ways to revive the game and attract young people.

Bingo purists, however, aren’t crazy about the changes, to say the least, and some believe that this style of bingo could put off fans of the traditional game. One thing that neither they nor anyone else can dispute, though, is that whether you’re in the UK or in Ireland, you’re in a place that has a love affair with bingo. The calls may or not be the same; the bingo caller may or not be dressed in drag or as a hipster; the venue could be a traditional hall — or it could be in a field or elsewhere; but the excitement is as intense as it’s always been. That’s what counts.

 

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