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Irish Catholic Temperance

This video is based off of the work I did during my PhD research, which focused on liberalism among the Irish Catholic population of Canada in the mid-to late nineteenth century. One of the areas I looked at was temperance.

At first blush, linking the Irish and the crusade to end, or at least severely curb, the consumption of alcohol seems strange. I thought so, and so did others who pointed this out to me along the way! But when I was doing my Master's research on Irish nationalism in Canada, I came across myriad references to temperance societies. These organizations seemed particularly present during St Patrick's Day celebrations. For instance, in the 1862 St Patrick's Day celebrations in Ottawa the St. Patrick Temperance Society marched at the front of the procession with each member displaying on the breast of his coat a badge of green and white silk. Impressed upon this badge in gold bronze was the harp of Erin and the name of their association. At the head of their place in the gathering was raised the temperance banner, showing a life-sized portrait of Father Mathew. A newspaper report of the celebrations noted that St. Patrick’s Day went off in an orderly manner, and that no person could point out a son of Erin who was anything the worse for liquor.

So there was clearly something going on involving temperance and the Irish. Indeed, over the course of my research I came to understand that temperance among the Irish Catholics was used for multiple reasons and purposes, though all had to do some some form of identity. The middle classes were using temperance as both a way to display their growing success and social mobility to an often hostile Protestant population in places like Toronto and Montreal, and inculcate middle class values within the working class Irish population. The Catholic Church used temperance as a part of a broader strategy to increase church attendance among the Irish, as well as their loyalty and devotion to the clergy. Indeed, one of the heroes of the temperance movement was Father Theobald Mathew, who motivated thousands into taking the temperance pledge when he was head of the Cork Total Abstinence Society in the 1840s. Nationalists, on the other hand, used temperance as a way to further their cause in various ways. Using the respectable veneer of the societies as a front for militant actions, as was the case in Toronto in the 1860s leading up to the Fenian Raids in 1866. Nationalists also enlisted the temperance cause as a means to instill discipline in it's supporters, as the phrase "Ireland Sober, Ireland Free" indicates.

So, while it is worth noting that temperance and Irish identity have a long and rich history, please don't let that dampen your "spirits" this St Patrick's Day!

Have any further questions? Shoot Mike an email!

Further Reading

Larkin, Emmet. “The Devotional Revolution in Ireland, 1850-1875.” American Historical Review 77, no. 3 (June 1972): 625-52.

Malcolm, Elizabeth. Ireland Sober, Ireland Free: Drink and Temperance in 19th Century Ireland. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Neswald, Elizabeth. “‘The Benefits of a Mechanics’ Institute and the Blessing of Temperance’: Science and Temperance in 1840s Ireland.” Social History of Drugs and Alcohol 22.2 (Spring 2008): 209-227.

Quinn, John F. Father Mathew's Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and Irish America. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

Townend, Paul. Father Mathew, Temperance and Irish Identity. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2002.


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