By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred sixty-four years ago this week, on April 10, 1838, a little-known Capuchian friar in Ireland founded the Cork Total Abstinence Society. Father Theobold Mathew was the first to sign “the pledge” — a promise to abstain from alcohol forever. It read, “I promise to abstain from all intoxicating drinks except used medicinally and by order of a medical man, and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance.” Just before he put pen to paper to sign the pledge, Fr. Mathew said, “Here goes in the name of the Lord.”
Fr. Theobold Mathew was born in Thomastown in County Tipperary on Oct. 10, 1790. His family was what we might call middle class, as his father was a land agent for a major landlord. Mathew, the fourth of 12 children, entered the seminary at Maynooth in 1807, but later left to join the Capuchian Franciscans. Ordained a priest in 1814, he was assigned to Cork, where he worked for decades among the poor. He established a school and several organizations designed to combat the many social problems associated with poverty.
With every passing year he grew increasingly distressed by the toll taken by alcohol on the impoverished. It sapped their meager resources, ruined their fragile health, and fostered domestic violence. When he voiced his concern about drink to some local Quakers, they encouraged him to establish an organization to combat the scourge of drink. In 1838, he launched the Cork Total Abstinence Society.
Although not particularly charismatic, the Capuchian friar became a national sensation, staging camp revival meetings that drew tens of thousands of people. His message was a mixture of Catholic piety, Protestant-style self-improvement, and strident nationalism (one of his slogans was “Ireland sober is Ireland free”).
By 1844, the Society claimed that more than 4 million members — half the population of Ireland — who had “taken the pledge” to abstain from alcohol for life. Whiskey production in Ireland fell by more than 50 percent from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s. Crime rates also plummeted. Fr. Mathew became known far and wide as the “Great Apostle of Temperance.” Work of his mission reached across the Atlantic to the Irish in the U.S. The Boston Pilot wrote of him in 1839, “The people flock to him in great multitudes, and the number of those whom he has induced to abandon the horrible vices of drunkenness is beyond calculation.”
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The indefatigable Mathew soon toured England and Scotland and added still more to the ranks of those pledged to avoid alcohol forever. Then in July 1849 he arrived in New York to begin a tour of America. He spent two years crossing the country, stopping wherever he found pockets of Irish settlement. Several million turned out to hear him, including Vice President Millard Fillmore. In Washington, D.C., President Zachary Taylor invited Fr. Mathew to dine at the White House. His efforts led to the establishment of many temperance societies that eventually coalesced into the Catholic Total Abstinence Union founded in 1872. “I thank heaven,” he later wrote, “I have been instrumental in adding to the ranks of temperance over 600,000 in the United States.”
However, the rapid growth of the Society was followed by an equally rapid decline beginning in the mid-1840s. Several factors account for this demise. For one, Fr. Mathew began to experience financial difficulties, mostly arising from his campaign to establish temperance clubs and libraries across Ireland and in England. Mathew also encountered opposition from many of his fellow clerics in the church. Simply put, many priests opposed his absolutism on the issue of drink and instead favored moderation. Many priests also disliked the fact that some of Mathew’s biggest supporters were Protestants. The onset of the Great Famine beginning in 1845 likewise dealt a blow to Mathew’s crusade.
Of course, there was also the deeply rooted tradition of drink in Irish culture. For centuries Irish peasants had enjoyed drinking as an integral part of socializing, celebrating, and mourning. It was a custom not easily discarded. This was equally true in America, where Irish immigrants quickly established saloons and taverns as business enterprises and social centers. In Boston, for example, the number of licensed liquor dealers jumped from 850 in 1846 to 1,200 in 1849. Most of the new licensees were Irish.
Thus Fr. Mathew found that it was far easier to get millions to take the pledge than to get them to stick to it. By the time Mathew returned home in 1851, Ireland’s consumption of alcohol had returned to its level of the mid-1830s. Most of the Irish in America who took the pledge likewise stepped off the wagon.
Still, it would be inaccurate to say that Fr. Mathew’s efforts were all in vain. Quite the contrary, he succeeded in establishing a total abstinence tradition in Ireland and America that, although a decided minority position, continues to this day. As historian William V. Shannon once wrote: “For those Irishmen whose hard drinking has made this national trait proverbial in America, there has been an also large, but little-noticed, number of men who were teetotalers and of women whose detestation of the liquor habit among their menfolk was strong and abiding.”
Shortly after Fr. Mathew arrived back in Ireland, there was talk that he’d be made a bishop. But his health had so declined by this point that the idea was never pursued. Mathew soon retired and went to live with his brother in Cork. He died in December 1856.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
April 12, 1847: The U.S. ship Jamestown, loaded with Famine relief supplies, arrives in Cork.
April 13, 1829: Catholic Emancipation takes effect, removing the last vestiges of the Penal Laws against Catholics in Ireland.
April 15, 1848: The Irish tricolor flag is flown for the first time in Dublin by members of the Young Ireland movement.
April 13, 1866: Playwright Samuel Beckett is born in Foxrock, Co. Dublin.
April 14, 1866: Teacher of Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, is born in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
April 16, 1871: Writer John Millington Synge is born in Rathfarnham, Co. Dublin.
Read about Ed O’Donnell’s new book, “1001 Things Everyone Should Know About Irish American History,” or contact him at www.EdwardTODonnell.com.