April 05, 1982 12:00 PM

Most Americans who bought Irish Sweepstakes tickets pegged to this weekend’s Grand National race at Aintree, England, the world’s toughest steeplechase, knew they were making a contribution to Ireland’s hospital fund. But they were also making Paddy McGrath a little happier and richer. And if they drank a toast to good fortune from a Waterford crystal goblet, they were making him cheery indeed.

Operating out of his Dublin homestead, McGrath, 55, is the patriarch of a family that is Ireland’s equivalent of the Rockefellers. He is the boss of the Irish Sweepstakes and head of a multimillion-dollar corporation whose pride is the fine Waterford crystal that may be Ireland’s most elegant export.

Four of Paddy and Anna McGrath’s five grown offspring work in family enterprises. All but one live in Paddy’s nine-bedroom house on 10 acres. Paddy’s heir presumptive, Patrick, 28, has an M.B.A. from Harvard. “Provided the person can do the job,” Paddy argues, hiring relatives is sound business. The McGraths would have to have been considerably more fertile to keep things all in the family. Their empire comprises some 14,000 workers. With interests in automobile distribution, building supplies and other areas, McGrath’s Waterford Glass Ltd. boosted its annual profit tenfold between 1970 and 1981, to $15 million. Waterford’s reputation, however, rests on some 2,000 artisans who blow, cut and polish stemware and lavish chandeliers that hang in such sites as Washington’s Kennedy Center.

The McGraths did not always drink from, let alone make, crystal goblets. Joseph McGrath (pronounced mick-GRAAH), Paddy’s pop, was an Irish Republican Army rebel imprisoned by the British after the 1916 Easter Uprising. He later served as the republic’s Labor Minister and in 1930, with two partners, founded the Irish Sweepstakes.

The sweepstakes fulfilled its founders’ promise to raise money, some $181 million at last count, for Irish hospitals which had deteriorated during the civil war. But it also made the partners rich. (The hospital fund gets 30 percent of the gross proceeds, the McGraths about 2 percent.) Then in 1950 McGrath, who had meanwhile become a glass bottle magnate, revived Waterford. After thriving in the 1700s, it had shattered in 1851 under the weight of import taxes on the lead needed to make crystal. The company became profitable again in 1966, the year Joseph McGrath died.

Paddy succeeded his father and in 1967 had a heart attack himself, but he bounced back, as he had previously from rheumatoid arthritis at 16 and an appendix disorder at 21 that required nine operations. It was after his bout with arthritis that Paddy first went to work in his father’s bottle works. Even so, Paddy had what he calls a “free and easy” childhood on the family farm. A natural equestrian, however, he wasn’t. “The only thing that kept me in the saddle,” he quips, “was the grace of God and the force of gravity.”

Today McGrath has 14 Thoroughbreds. Some run in the races that determine Irish Sweeps winners, where tickets are drawn and matched to the horses entered, with current prizes of up to $146,000. About one million tickets are usually sold per race. Permitted in Ireland, selling Sweeps tickets in the U.S. and elsewhere is illegal. Still, buying tickets is legal and crates of them are smuggled via connections that in some cases date to the gun-running pre-lndependence days of the IRA. American authorities have never pursued Sweeps ticket pushers with much diligence.

Paddy sees no evil in the lottery. “People recognize it’s for a good cause,” he asserts. As for the work of the estimated 100,000 clandestine sales agents worldwide, McGrath winks, “I don’t care where the tickets are sold, as long as the proceeds come back.”

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