By Martin Gleeson
In Ireland: PITCH AND TOSS
There is an old gambling game played by throwing a coin towards a mark (called a moth) that has been popular for many years throughout the world. However, when I was growing up in a Co Tipperary town in the 1950s, another game also called Pitch and Toss involving pennies was often played on Sunday mornings in a quiet lane.
Men from the town would gather to do a bit of gambling. They all watched the person who threw the two pennies into the air. A cigarette packet or comb was used to hold the pennies as they were pitched upwards. Most men carried a comb in their pockets and because they used a plentiful supply of hair oil, they combed their hair regularly. A comb was often called a ‘rack’.
Men would bet for either two heads or two harps – these were Irish pennies – to show up on the ground. When the coins showed one head and one harp, they would be tossed upwards again. Even though pennies were tossed in the air, the bets laid were usually a shilling, two shillings or half-a-crown. These were sizeable wagers when we remember that in the nineteen fifties, a man was lucky if he earned more than £10 in a week.
The men knew that gambling on the streets was illegal, and I remember being told that if the Gardaí appeared, everyone was to put their money in their pockets, and to pretend they were just talking about the weather!
History tells us that when the stakes were substantial, Pitch and Toss games could become extremely serious. In Dundalk in 1914 a man died following an altercation during a game of Pitch and Toss when an argument arose as to who was entitled to the winnings.
With added prosperity and television, by the ’70s playing Pitch and Toss on the streets had almost disappeared in Ireland.
(At school, we threw a penny towards a jack. Whoever was closest got to toss all the coins; he (this was a boys’ school) kept those that came down heads. The others were then tossed by the next-closest to the jack until all had turned up heads. At the end of 10 minutes at lunch, you might be two or three pence ahead or behind. Innocent times. Ed.)
In Australia: TWO-UP
Just as in Ireland, Pitch and Toss, called Two-up, has been popular in Australia since the first convicts arrived, many from Ireland. The two coins are thrown upwards by the ‘spinner’ from a thin paddle called a ‘kip’.*
The game was played extensively by Australian soldiers during World War 1. For that reason, it has become a regular part of Anzac Day celebrations, on April 25 in both Australia and New Zealand. Down Under, thousands of people take out their old pennies and ‘kips’ to play the game.
Usually, a white cross is painted on the tails of two pennies. The person running the game is called the Boxer (croupier). The game supervisor is called the Ringie. The Spinner, who usually places a bet on heads, uses the kip to toss the two pennies into the air.
Meanwhile the punters have placed bets on either heads or tails. For those who chose heads, two heads are needed for a win. For those who chose tails, two tails are needed for a win. If the toss results in a head and tail, this is called ‘One Them’ and the coins are thrown again.
Because it is viewed as an unregulated game, Two-Up was outlawed by the New South Wales Government in 1981, but this does not apply on Anzac Day. Thus, for one day of the year only, Two-Up is a much-enjoyed tradition for thousands of people who want to have a little bit of fun while they honour their dead war heroes. People in bars and in the RSL Clubs play Two-Up with great Australian pride.
The Pitch and Toss game that was popular in Britain during the days of the Empire was the type when the coin was thrown to land as near as possible to a mark. Of course, the sides of the coins were called Heads and Tails (not harps).
In his poem IF Rudyard Kipling says;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss.
Those lines have immortalised the game of Pitch and Toss.
*comment from Dymphna Lonergan: while the origin of the word ‘kip’ is still ‘unknown’, I think we should consider Irish cipín, a short stick, the ín being the suffix for ‘small’. The word is used in every day life as well as in technology: a cipín cuimhne is a ‘memory stick’, and cipín is the word for the stick that holds an icey pole or an ice block (ice pop when I was growing up) together. Before the formal kip was made, the means for tossing the pennies up must have been readily found nearby. A small piece of stick would do the job.
Martin Gleeson sends us the following background information: I come from Thurles, in Co. Tipperary. Over the years I have worked as a Marine Radio Officer, a Radar Technician and a Lecturer in the Limerick Institute of Technology. I retired 10 years ago and live with my wife Carmel. One of my five children, Rory, lives in Melbourne, a city I dearly love.