I was raised in Derry Northern Ireland. A city that regularly tops deprivation leagues throughout Ireland. A city in a country that was divided by religion. A nightmarish history of which many of the residents are trying to wake from still smothers the city.
The area in which I grew up had a few pubs, two chapel’s and several bookmakers. Employment for men at the time was scarce. If you managed to get a money for your labour there was always some establishment or another willing to take it off you, none of them as oblique as the bookmakers or ‘bookies’.
Being a religious city, great faith was placed upon the encompassing power of a lord above. Other beliefs also place not far from the grounds of the chapel, that had strange rituals and the worshipping of false idols.
The bookies were an amazing place, as a child you were forbidden to enter by parents or by law, as I grew up in Northern Ireland it didn’t take long to realise that neither opinion mattered much. I would be taken with an uncle as a trip to the bookies was ‘something to do’. The bookies were filled with cigarette smoke, commentators speaking in tongues and men pensively studying racing guides waiting for their epiphany. The smoke would help cover the bravado of the many men who hoped their unfounded confidence would hide their false consciousness. The floor would be covered with betting slips, scrunched up meaningless pieces of paper discarded with negligence, the bet was most likely placed in haste or the conditions weren’t right but the next bet would make up for it and if not, there was always the bet after that.
Deserted luck would someday make a triumphant return to reward their faith, with hopefully spectacular results. Of course, we heard nothing about the losses only the amazing and seemingly miraculous wins. Many patrons of the bookies would practice their pantheistic beliefs on a Saturday, only to sheepishly return to the chapel on a Sunday to beg forgiveness and leave a little donation in the collection plate. Cognitive regret and catholic guilt bonded quite well.
There was always great faith that bookmakers could be beaten, a higher power guided your fate and if you believed, the favourable outcome of sporting events would be granted to the many pious souls looking for fortune. The two great spires of the cathedrals that dominated the city, reminded you that mysterious forces were at work, as did the many army watch towers which tried their best to reinforce panopticism to little or no avail. The illusion of control was practiced by all the opposing sides as well as the gamblers in the city at that time.
Returning to Derry I discovered that the same bookies I visited as a child is still welcoming new believers, each one practicing the strange and weekly rituals of the past congregation. The omnipresence of bookmakers is ubiquitous, their presence can be easily downloaded onto your smart phone or computer so the once weekly practice can easily become daily. Over the years, the power of the church and the visibility of a military presence would diminish, yet the influence of the bookies never faltered, luck it seems is big business.
As I was back for the funeral of my grandfather, I decided to pay a little tribute to him by trying my luck. My Grandfather loved to bet, he would study the betting forms voraciously. Every factor was taken into consideration, past performances, weather conditions, managers/trainers, time of the kick off or the beginning time of the race. A gamblers fallacy beautifully illustrated.
I myself had no such gambling experience, the wasted childhood hours of hanging around bookies and poker machines had somewhat turned me against the chance of easy money. Regardless, I set up my account and placed my bet. I decided on an instant scratch card game. Absolutely no skill or studying of past form was required, you could make the computer automatically scratch a segment for you. After your choice was revealed you had the option to reveal the other choices only to see that what you had missed out on. Ten thousand or two hundred pounds, or another sum which unfortunately I never won but had come so close, if only…
If Only and what ifs were the questions of that night. I tried many rituals, convinced there was a system, covering the screen, finding patterns that didn’t exist, trying to outguess the programme. Convinced that the next one would be the big reveal, I was sure I’d win the jackpot, in-fact I deserved it for such a tragic day.
The thought of a worthy win because of a tragic day was flippant. Believing your circumstances are balanced by some karmic scale that gives with one hand and takes with the other, is a scenario that many in the area which I grew up would find ridiculous.
The seductive and divisive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’ as highlighted by Rowan Williamson (The Archbishop of Canterbury) has made an unwelcome return. I believe many in my hometown at that time may be called ‘undeserving poor’ if I may use those words. They were born in the wrong city, at the wrong time and maybe the wrong religion. There were other factors against them. The church preached that the poor would enter heaven. Those beliefs were not shared in the local bookies, as the lord’s name was taken in vain if your latest losing horse stumbled across the finishing line.
Today, many criticise the outdated rituals and beliefs of the Catholic Church in Ireland. The notion that God is always with you and watching over you is regarded as fantasy. Yet the bookmaker can always be with you, easily downloaded apps onto your phone guarantee around the clock access. The private and personal on-line bookmakers encourage your rituals, your beliefs, your silent prayers, to any God. No longer do you have to feel shame nor guilt for entering a place of such ill repute as a book makers. Today, you can lose all your money in the comfort of your own home, replace your religious beliefs with materialistic, your wooden cross with a gold one. The church of the book makers is all inclusive ecumenical phenomenon. Paddy Power, the famous Irish bookies has sponsored the first Catholic confessional box, moral and gambling tips available under the same roof. Both powers preaching from the same altar, gambling and religion, together at last. It seems that the church to prosper may have believe that life is game in which you can gamble. We don’t need faith or luck to predict how that one game ends.