Temperance Crusaders

Henry Peel, O.P. This article, which was published in the June 2003 edition of “St Martin Magazine” (ISSN: 1393-1008) and produced by St Martin Apostolate, Dublin, is reproduced here with kind permission.

On June 21, 1840, an assem­bly of about 5,000 people gathered on what had been the site of Donnybrook Fair. Donnybrook was then a village on the outskirts of Dublin City. It would be hard to imagine a greater contrast between this assembly and the drunken revelry of Donnybrook Fair. The assem­bly of June 21, 1840 was to pro­mote the cause of Total Abstinence from alcoholic drink.

As had been the custom at Donnybrook Fair tents had been erected to provide refreshments for the assembly. No alcoholic liquor was available. But it was a festive occasion and a military band played for the entertain­ment of the gathering.

Father Spratt, successor to Father Matthew
At about seven p.m. Father John Spratt, a distinguished Carmelite priest from Whitefriar Street, addressed the meeting. He com­mented on how they were assem­bled ‘on the very spot which has been for ages the scene of so much drunkenness, riot and debauchery.’ Teetotalism had already resulted in more light-hearted, stronger and better men and women and much better Christians. It had been the expe­rience of Father Matthew, the Apostle of Temperance, that a pledge of Total Abstinence was the best and easiest way to rid the country of the scourge of drunkenness. He urged them to continue with the moral regener­ation of their country and to become a sober, peaceful, united and happy people. ‘How glori­ous’, he said, ‘to find all Irish people thus united in promoting the happiness of themselves, their families and their country.’
Father John Spratt had returned from Spain in 1822 where he had studied and been ordained a priest of the Carmelite Order. One year later at the age of twenty seven he had been chosen Prior of the Dublin Carmelite community. It was he who acquired the site of the thir­teenth century Carmelite founda­tion in Whitefriar Street. He was responsible for the building of Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church which was dedicated on November 11, 1827.

In 1822 Father Spratt had acquired the venerable statue of Our Lady of Dublin which he found in an antique shop. It had been venerated in St Mary’s Abbey before the Reformation. He was responsible for renewing this age-old tradition of worship by placing the statue in Whitefriar Street Church. On a visit to Rome in 1835-1836 he acquired the body of St Valentine which he brought back with him to Whitefriar Street where it remains enshrined.

The author of a book entitled Cloncurry and His Times wrote of Father Spratt that ‘His temperance labours rank next to Father Mathew’s and he may be regarded as his authorised representative and successor.’

‘Here goes in the name of God’
Father Matthew O.F.M. (Cap) had begun his Temperance Crusade when he took the pledge of Total Abstinence on April 10, 1838 using the memorable phrase ‘here goes in the name of God.’

There had been Temperance Societies before Father Matthew began his famous crusade. These were mainly of Protestant origin and it was a member of the Society of Friends or Quakers, William Martin who persuaded Father Matthew to lead a Total Abstinence Crusade. Father Matthew was already a well known and celebrated personality which was the reason why he was recruited by William Martin. Father Mathew’s Total Abstinence Crusade was ecumenical in its ori­gin and remained open to all denominations.

Daniel O’Connell was aware of the contribution of Father Mathew’s crusade to the sobriety and orderliness of mass gather­ings of people. He told an audi­ence at Kilkenny that Temperance would bring repeal. Ireland sober would mean Ireland free.

Immense crowds had gath­ered to hear Father Matthew preach and administer the pledge. O’Connell told a crowd at one of his Repeal meetings: ‘Let every parish meet and enroll associated Repealers. The Apostle of Temperance has within his ranks two and a half millions of Teetotallers – let me have as many Repealers.’ O’Connell probably exaggerated the number of teeto­tallers but it should be remem­bered that the Pre-famine popula­tion of Ireland is estimated at eight million.

On the feast of St. Patrick in 1841 the Temperance Societies in Dublin came together for a St Patrick’s Day Parade. The fol­lowing is part of a contemporary description of the event: ‘St Patrick’s Day, 1841, was a very colourful and memorable occa­sion for the movement in Dublin. Before nine o’clock the streets were full of men and boys dressed with bands and sashes and carrying long white rods tipped with ribbons and in many cases with gold shamrocks, harps, crowns etc.; all going to the committee rooms of the soci­eties. The different societies marched with bands playing to the general rendezvous in the Phoenix Park where they began to move at 12. The procession was nearly three miles long. A rough estimate of the number was given as 20,000.’

Local Temperance Halls
Father Mathew’s Temperance Crusade did not result in any countrywide, centrally controlled organisation. Local Temperance Societies with Temperance Halls, frequently with their own bands and recreational facilities, were a common method of organisa­tion. The famine which struck Ireland in 1845 was a much more deadly disaster than abuse of alcohol and virtually brought an end to Father Mathew’s Crusade. But he remains an inspirational figure as the Apostle of Temperance.

The situation which Father Matthew sought to remedy is described by Elizabeth Malcolm in her book ‘Ireland Sober, Ireland Free.’ ‘By the 1820s there was considerable alarm in Ire­land among Protestant landlords, clergy, doctors, lawyers and merchants at the level of spirit consumption, particularly illicit spirit consumption. The Still-licence reforms of 1823 had allowed ‘Parliament’ whiskey to recapture a large share of the market from poteen, much to the government’s satisfaction. But critics simply pointed to massive increases in the consumption of legal spirits alongside a flourish­ing illegal industry.

In a pamphlet entitled A Century of Pioneers, published in 1998, Father Bernard McGuckian S.J. wrote of Father James Cullen S.J., the founder of the Pioneers that he had con­ceived the ‘ambition of being another Father Matthew’ and that ‘he wanted to exorcise the “demon” of intemperance from personal and family life and was convinced that it was one of those that “can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.”