Fr. Theobald Mathew’s extraordinary temperance movement

The Irish and drink seem to be a combination that go together like gin and tonic or, more wholesome, mom and apple-pie.   In fact our reputation for drinking is somewhat misleading (or probably just jealousy!). This year the Wall Street Journal published a list of the top ten alcohol consuming countries on a per capita basis.  And the bad news – the Irish don’t qualify!  Yup, the most alcoholic country in western Europe is…..tiny Andorra!  It comes in at number 7, downing just 13.5 litres of alcohol per capita per annum! And almost no binge drinking! Topping the list of the mostly eastern and central European countries is…..Belarus at 17.5 litres per capita per annum!  Over a quarter of the people there binge-drink and some 34.7% of deaths are related to alcohol.  By the way, even Poland doesn’t make the top ten – at least we Irish have something else in common with the Poles.

WJS survey:

Mind you CBS News puts Ireland at number 15 out of 27 countries for drunkeness:

CBS survey:

You’ll notice that the listings are different – although the same countries appear in both.  That’s the trouble with surveys – you can get different results from different, but similar, surveys.  Hence the old saw: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics! 

Way back in the nineteenth century there was a highly successful and dramatic attempt to wean the Irish off drink. Fr Theobald Mathew, a Capuchin friar whose statue still marks the entrance to St Patrick’s Street in Cork, ran an astonishing campaign that attracted the attention amazed Americans and Europeans.  Mathew started his campaign in Cork in 1838, and at its height in 1844 some three million people had ‘taken the pledge’ to foreswear alcohol – half the adult population of Ireland at the time!  Fr Mathew must have been truly charismatic – like his contemporary Daniel O’Connell. The Irish temperance campaign actually bankrupted some brewers and probably some distillers – or at least weakened them, so that when the potato famine struck from 1845, several brewers and distillers went under. Fr Mathew died on 8th December 1856 in Queenstown (now Cobh) in East Cork.

Fr Mathew statue

An old photograph of JH Foley’s fine statue of Fr Theobald Mathew, the ‘Apostle of Temperance,’ on St Patrick’s Stteet in Cork. Some years ago there was an attempt to move the statue to facilitate the refurbishment of the street, but a popular outcry forced the city council to back down and the Catalan architect, Beth Gali, had to redesign the refurbishment around the statue. The muck on the street surface was perfectly normal in all towns and cities until the advent of the motor car. The sculptor JH Foley also created the statue of Daniel O’Connell that stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin, and the figure of Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) on the Albert Memorial in London.

Sadly, the advent of the potato famine in 1845 led to the collapse of Fr Mathew’s temperance movement – saving lives afflicted by starvation and its related diseases was much more importance.  No doubt the men (and they were all men) working in Murphy’s distillery in Midleton and in Bennett’s maltings in Ballinacurra were glad – they, at least, had jobs that gave them an income to purchase food.  Bizarrely, it could be suggested, with reason, that the alcoholic drinks industry saved many lives during the Irish famine!

the ultimate failure of his temperance movement due to circumstances beyond his control cannot take from Theobald Mathew’s achievement – anybody who could persuade over three million Irish people to give up alcohol, even if only for a while, deserves to be called ‘great’.

The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association was founded in 1898 by Fr James Cullen SJ as a new movement to encourage Irish Catholics to reject alcohol.  Even now one can find people in Ireland who ‘took the pledge’ as and youngsters – and never broke it!   When I was confirmed by Dr John Ahern, Bishop of Cloyne, we were asked to pledge not to drink alcohol until we were at least eighteen years of age.  Clearly the spirit of the great Fr Theobald Mathew lives on in some places.


2 thoughts on “Fr. Theobald Mathew’s extraordinary temperance movement

  1. Tony, is the Fr Mathew photo showing large gaps in the streetscape folllowing the burning of Cork. I think those buildings on the left hand side are on Oliver Plunkett Street.


  2. Carol, it depends on the date of the photo. It seems to be Patrick Street at the end of the nineteenth century. The statue has always been in the same spot, so the back ground is an interesting view of the older street. Remember, they continued to refurbish buildings until the street was burned by British Auxiliaries, Black and Tans and regular troops on the night of 11-12 December 1920.

    Liked by 1 person

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