There are at least 50 pupils of Ashbourne Community School in Meath in attendance when the man giving the talk asks if any of them have ever gambled before.
About a handful put up their hands.
He then asks if any of them have ever done a scratch card, or a bingo, or a lotto.
The vast majority put up their hands.
As Tony O’Reilly stresses at the beginning of his talk, and at stages throughout, he’s not anti-gambling. Many who buy scratch cards or put a first goal scorer bet on or back a horse won’t have a problem.
But the addiction counsellor describes a young man — not much older than those in front of him — he’d worked with recently. He’d blown the money he had for his third-level education on gambling. Over ten grand.
“I’m anti-gambling harm,” he says. “If you look at the statistics — and the latest research on gambling harm that was out recently — around 50 people in here, five or six of them are going to be affected by gambling. This could be a friend, colleague, family member of yourself.
O'Reilly’s story is well-known to many.
He was a respected and well-liked postmaster who’d been stealing money from his employer for some time to fuel his gambling addiction. It had started with a €1 bet in his early 20s and began to escalate hugely once he got an online betting account. He often bet thousands at a time on the most obscure sporting events.
By the time his theft was eventually discovered, he’d stolen €1.75m from the post office.
It’s 10 years this year since he was sentenced to four years in prison at Wexford Circuit Court.
He co-wrote a book with journalist Declan Lynch, detailing his story that gained notoriety when it was published in 2018.
Now, the fully accredited member of the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy travels to schools around the country to give talks to teenagers and tell his story through the problem gambling charity Extern.
“This is something we do need to talk about,” he says, citing research on suicide and gambling addiction.
O'Reilly’s story is, as he says, on the extreme end of gambling addiction.
“[But] It’s important to say that it’s all relative to whether it’s impacting someone, be it their social welfare, their pocket money or their wages. And also how it impacts a person’s time, a person’s mental health, a person’s relationships.”
Before launching into his own story, O'Reilly says the age of people they’re seeing come to Extern is “definitely coming down”.
“My gambling addiction was a slow burner, over probably 12 years,” he says.
“What we see a lot more nowadays is that problem is developing a lot quicker. That’s because of the ease of access, because of the gamblingification of sport and because of how gambling has become ingrained in society.”
O'Reilly’s views from his experience as a counsellor chimes in closely with a landmark report published recently by the Health Research Board looking at gambling in Ireland.
The headline figure quoted in many quarters was that the number of people who gamble in Ireland has gone down in recent years. Digging in a bit deeper, however, and it’s clear it is a problem, in young males especially.
According to that study, of males aged 15-24 who’d gambled in the last 12 months, almost one in five are either problem gamblers already or are considered to be an “at-risk” gambler.
Consultant addictions psychiatrist Professor Colin O’Gara told thethat even at a “low risk”, this kind of gambling could have a serious impact on their lives.
“There are significant harms here,” he said.
"Have you borrowed money to gamble, do you try to win back the money you lost — these are the kinds of questions being asked. The rates of problem gambling here are significant [...] they are really, really concerning.”
People working in this area point to the regularisation of gambling, and how advertising has sought to make gambling an intrinsic part of sport, as contributing to the levels of harm in society.
One such example was an advert from Ladbrokes in the last decade with a group of young men living “the Ladbrokes life”, as they bet on football games. In England, dozens of football league teams are sponsored by betting firms. Betting sponsorship can also be found in the Irish game too.
The GAA, meanwhile, released a gambling awareness video last week to show how quickly problem gambling can escalate and have a negative impact on people’s lives.
Campaigners welcomed the action from the GAA, and said further supports for younger people to raise awareness and prevent harm were needed.
The room remains quiet as the pupils of Ashbourne Community School hear the blow-by-blow account of O'Reilly’s story.
Feeling on top of the world after the first win of over £40. The steady move towards higher stakes and the first big win of thousands which kickstarted the escalation in how much he would stake and how often he would do it.
They hear how he started to steal money from the post office and the audits where he thought he’d be found out but wasn’t.
He describes finally getting caught, going to jail and his life up to now.
The school children are engaged, taking it in and even behind masks showing their surprise at aspects of the story.
He also touches briefly on the kinds of things that many children would interact with daily that mirror gambling or, in some cases, are forms of gambling.
One of those he cites is the popular Fifa football games. There’s a mode in it called Ultimate Team, which is like a trading card game where you can then use your players to play against other people in the game.
You can get “packs”, which offer you a number of players but only a small chance of packing the best players like Messi or Ronaldo.
People can use the currency they earn by actually playing the game to buy these packs (for instance, get 1,000 coins for winning a game, spend 25,000 coins on this pack etc), or use actual money to buy the pack.
In Ultimate Team over the years, the game would regularly reveal a player by stages. It would first show a flag to signify the country of the player, then the position he plays on the field before revealing the player itself.
O'Reilly says such “loot boxes”, as they’re commonly referred to, are hitting the same brain neurotransmitters as gambling does. It’s granting that same ”reward pathway” when someone playing the game might strike upon one of the best players.
When it came to the Q&A section at the end, there’s a dead silence and a lot of looking around at first. But once one of the pupils asks the first question, it kicks off a flurry of other questions.
Are scratch cards addictive? Does he ever still want to gamble? How does he deal with compulsions? What was it like in prison?
He tells them that, while rare, they are seeing people with addictions coming from the likes of scratch cards and betting on the lotto. The way they offer reward to the people who buy them can make them “highly addictive”, he says.
On the issue of compulsions, O'Reilly says he still does have them but does what he can to keep them in check, using the likes of gambling blockers on his phone so he doesn’t see ads.
He even recalls going on RTÉ’sshow and leaving the studio and feeling a sudden compulsion to gamble again.
“It’s tough,” he says, but points to a strong support system around him and techniques he’s learned throughout the years to keep those compulsions in check.
The trip to Ashbourne is one of many O'Reilly has done on behalf of Extern this year.
The group received some funding from the HSE to deliver talks to schools within different community healthcare regions covering the North-West, East and Midlands.
“That’s just up to the end of this academic year,” he says. “So the hope is to build that up and deliver the talk to more schools next year.
“A lot of schools made contact that we just couldn’t add to our list. We’re hoping to get more funding to deliver it to as many as possible.”
As his talk comes to a close and the pupils get ready to file out, Caroline Matthews from Ashbourne Community School reiterates the message she gave to the students at the beginning of the session.
“We’re hoping this talk will help you, or someone else you can see going down this road,” she said. “You may know somebody in this situation, or you may see it in the future. It’s important to see it and know you can get help.”
- If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, please click here for a list of support services.