St. Patrick’s Day and Temperance: An Unlikely Duo?

Editor’s Note: For Points readers getting  a head start on their St. Patrick’s day observances this year, we are pleased to present a thoughtful historicization of this generally most unthoughtful of holidays by Mike McLaughlin of Carleton University.  Drawing on research from his dissertation-in-progress, “Imperial Citizens: Irish Catholic Middle-Class Culture in Colonial Canada, 1855-1902,” it will give you something to talk about as you crawl from pub to pub this Saturday– or better yet, provide you with a usable past of pub-avoidance.

Patron Saint of Over-Consumption

Leprechauns, green beer, and shamrocks with quirky sayings on them will be everywhere this 17th of March. Yes, St. Patrick’s Day is a time to indulge in markers of Irish identity. One of the most  prevalent of which seems to be the excessive consumption of alcohol. In their The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day, Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair note the institutionalization of drinking marathons at pubs on the 17th of March.  And according to Beth Davies Ryan, global corporate-relations director of Guinness brewing company, while on any given day 5.5 million pints of Guinness are consumed globally, that number rises to 13 million on St. Patrick’s Day.

The relationship between booze and St. Patrick’s Day is not a new one. Cronin and Adair point out that as early as 1681 the English traveler Thomas Dineley observed that during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland many of the Irish drank so much that very few were found sober at night. In his writings, Dineley presented what he saw as the three main components of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in seventeenth century Ireland: wearing the colour green, adorning the shamrock, and indulging liberally in alcohol (Cronin & Adair, Page 25). These aspects resemble today’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and the not unrelated phenomena of green beer, packed pubs, and general goofiness.Between then and now, however, there was a period when St. Patrick’s Day was not about drunken shenanigans.

In nineteenth century Canada, St. Patrick’s Day was observed by members of the Irish Catholic diaspora as a religious holy day. The highlight of the day was the gathering of Irish voluntary associations in the early morning, and their procession through the streets to the local Cathedral to sit and listen to a stirring mass given by the (usually) Irish Roman Catholic bishop. In St. John’s Newfoundland, St. Patrick’s Day of 1853 was celebrated by the prominent Irish Catholic association of that city, the Benevolent Irish Society (BIS), gathering and proceeding to the Cathedral where they listened to the mass delivered by Bishop John Thomas Mullock. According to the secretary of the BIS, this procession was enhanced by the attendance of the temperance band of the city. Indeed, around this time across Canada Irish Catholic temperance societies were becoming prominent in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Not only were temperance bands part of processions to the local Cathedral, but at St. Patrick’s Day dinners toasts were given to Father Mathew—the zealous temperance advocate from County Cork whose temperance campaigning reportedly led over five million people in Ireland to take the temperance pledge—and the officers of temperance societies were given pride of place at these events.

Father Mathew (1790-1856), "The Apostle of Temperance"

A couple representative examples will be informative. The first occurred in Ottawa at the St. Patrick’s Day celebration of 1862. On that day 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.

This is a significant point. Temperance among the Irish Catholic diaspora in nineteenth century Canada  became an important way they could express their respectability in an often hostile social environment rife with anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment. Prominent members of the Irish Catholic middle class could point to the respectability inherent in the temperance movement as a way to stake their claims to citizenship in Canada.  This is highlighted in my second example.

Organizing for Respectability

At the 1853 St. Patrick’s Day dinner in Montreal, president of Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Society, Thomas Ryan, Esq, looked to the officers of the St. Patrick’s Total Abstinence Society, who were seated at the head table, and said that he felt assured that those officers would act as guarantors that no excess would be indulged in and he expected that he and others would follow their example as closely as possible on this or any other day. He hoped that the people there that evening would not forget the evil consequence of intemperance, but that they would all unite in this respect and that every Irishman would discourage and prevent an offense, no matter how trivial, that was calculated to disgrace their country. If such a sentiment prevailed, Ryan concluded, it would ultimately be beneficial to all Irish Catholics and render their prospects and careers in Canada bright and successful.

By the early twentieth century, however, the popularity of temperance among Canadian Irish Catholics had run dry. And currently, even if people did listen to a speech about the virtues of temperance on St. Patrick’s Day, they would likely do so in an “ironic” way– like the way that guy from 30 Rock wears those baseball caps. It is a moot point in any case; most wouldn’t remember such a speech the next day owing to their intake of many of those 13 million pints the night before.

So what changed? The job of the historian is to offer up possible answers to that very question. So here are a few I have thought of. First, the Irish Catholic temperance movement was organized by the Catholic church. And the period when temperance became popular among Irish Catholics, around mid-nineteenth century, coincided with the period that Emmet Larkin has termed the devotional revolution, when the Irish Catholic church attempted to instil in Irish Catholics a sense of obligation to the rituals and practices of the Catholic church. This was also the period of ultramontanism in the Catholic world, when adherence to Vatican dictates were paramount (at least in theory). As the church’s importance for the Irish Catholic diaspora waned somewhat throughout the twentieth century, so too did the importance of temperance.

Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), "The Liberator"

There was also a strong relationship between Irish nationalism and temperance. Daniel O’Connell, best known for his fight for the passage of the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 in the British Parliament—known as Catholic Emancipation owing to its loosening, somewhat, of British control over Ireland—worked with Father Mathew’s temperance movement in his struggle for Irish self-government. Though in different ways, each movement linked calls for a national regeneration with the consumption, or lack thereof, of alcohol. Temperance thus became a part of Irish nationalist politics, as the slogan “Ireland Sober, Ireland Free” suggests (Elizabeth Malcolm, Ireland Sober, Ireland Free). But like the Catholic Church’s influence in the daily lives of Irish Catholics, the global Irish nationalist movement also waned, somewhat, with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. Hence, so too did the Irish Catholic temperance movement.

Towards an Irish Free State: Bloody Sunday, 1920

(Astute readers will observe that I have strategically included the word  “somewhat” in the last couple of paragraphs. This was done in order to qualify certain statements and thus appease any Irish Studies folks who might have wandered over to this post. I don’t want to start a war).

The factors I have mentioned thus far were global and not specific to the Canadian Irish Catholic diaspora. But internally, change was also afoot that made temperance less of an immediate concern. By the early twentieth century Irish Catholics in Canada had largely established their place as respectable citizens. Temperance had been a vehicle for them to demonstrate their respectability and stake their claim to citizenship. With their place in the social, political, and cultural hierarchy of Canada secured, there was little need to perform respectability to the same degree. Ironically, many Irish Catholics in Canada made their livelihoods in the alcohol trade, and the upward social mobility that these economic activities facilitated played a large role in their achievement of respectable citizenship.

And let’s not forget that not all Irish Catholics adhered to temperate behaviour, in drink or otherwise. The examples I have used of Canadian Irish Catholic temperance activities are drawn from the Irish Catholic middle-class. Evidence suggests that among the Irish Catholic working-class, temperance was received with indifference. Traditional patterns of drinking continued. These included what some might call the excessive consumption of alcohol on important occasions such as saint’s days.

But perhaps the biggest change in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations over the past hundred and fifty years—and the change that has re-established and extended the association between booze and St. Patrick’s Day—has been the mass commodification of the event in the context of accelerated global capitalism. The statistics given by Davies Ryan indicate that there is a lot of money to be made by using discourses of Irish ethnic identity to sell products to consumers. Owners of breweries and pubs, as well as makers of shamrock pins and green dye, would concur.

Walmart, 2011: Éirinn go Brách

5 thoughts on “St. Patrick’s Day and Temperance: An Unlikely Duo?”

  1. Several miscellaneous reactions: (1) in the Anglophone world Irish Catholics (and Catholics in general) are no longer a dangerous “other.” People who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with booze are not necessarily Irish Catholics. In my American college town bar owners invented something called “green beer day” when a calendar change put St. Patrick’s Day into Spring break when most students had departed. Students wear green and drink green beer regardless of ethnicity. Looking at the fading of the “otherness” of Catholics from a different angle, I am bemused by evangelical Protestants dividing their support in the Republican presidential primaries between two Catholic candidates, while apparently most Catholics who vote in the Republican primaries support the Mormon candidate. (2) The shift of middle class Irish Catholics from temperance societies to unashamed drinking is even more dramatically true of middle class Protestants in Canada and the USA. It also is the case of blacks who in the nineteenth century identified freedom with total abstinence and drunkenness with slavery. By the twentieth century drinking was more commonly identified with freedom, I borrow this from a couple of old essays by Denise Herd. (3) In our twenty-first century world what influence does religion have on the choice to drink or abstain? From what I have read, it seems that many young middle class Indians from traditionally abstaining “high castes” now drink alcohol. I see occasional news reports about protests in Muslim countries about the sale of alcoholic drink. In the USA religion has some impact on drinking (think of the teetotal Mormon presidential candidate Romney), but is this most of the time to encourage “moderation”? Last night I saw the boozy film “Being Flynn” in which religion had no mention that I can recall. There also seems to have been no emphasis on Flynn being of Irish descent.

  2. A very interesting piece. If you are working on this question of Catholic temperance, you might want to see my article: Matthew Allen, ‘Sectarianism, Respectability and Cultural Identity: The St Patrick’s Total Abstinence Society and Irish Catholic Temperance in mid Nineteenth-Century Sydney,’ Journal of Religious History, vol. 35, issue 3(September 2011). I argue that the emergence of a Catholic temperance movement in Sydney helps explain the otherwise suprising decline of temperance in the decade after 1845. To summarise my argument, the association of temperance with Irish Catholics at a time of sectarian tension led to respectable protestants withdrawing from active support of the movement. Though I have not looked in detail at the later history of the Catholic movement, my impression is that temperance remained a strong feature of respectable Irish Catholic identity until the early twentieth-century – indeed I argue that in the 1840s and 1850s, Catholics joined the movement in large part to demonstrate their respectability to a society that associated their faith with drunkenness and the convict stain. I suspect that in Sydney at least, the decline of Catholic temperance had less to do with a decline in faith among the Irish and more to do with the growth of a protestant temperance movement with strong connections to sectarian politics. By the early twentieth-century, temperance was increasingly associated with a political movement that was visibly protestant and aligned with capital, against the emerging labor movement which drew much of its strength from the Irish Catholic working class and much of its funding from the brewing industry.

  3. Catholic temperance societies battled ‘Wild Irish’ stereotype
    By Bill Kemp | Historian/archivist, McLean County Museum of History | Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2012 2:00 pm | No Comments Posted
    Courtesy of the McLean County Museum

    This engraving, captioned “Poor Drunkard,” appeared in the 1875 book “History of the Great Temperance Reforms of the Nineteenth Century,” written by the Rev. James Shaw. (Courtesy of the McLean County Museum of History)
    BLOOMINGTON — If you’re still nursing that thumping hangover from celebrating feast day for Ireland’s patron saint, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. For both good and ill, alcohol has long been seen as an integral part of Irish and Irish-American culture.
    On March 18, 1857, The Pantagraph reported that the “sons of the Green Isle” were generally well behaved for St. Patrick’s Day, though “our Irish friends appeared to consider themselves absolved from work, and fully entitled to a play-spell.” That said, “not one, so far as we observed, was under the influence of liquor.” Evidently, such was not always the case. “We can recollect when, not many years ago, St. Patrick’s Day was supposed to confer some peculiar privileges on the ‘Emerald Boys,’” huffed The Pantagraph. “Almost anything short of riot was winked at by the authorities.”
    For much of the 19th century, the local press played to the stereotype by frequently reporting, with heavy dollops of humor, pathos and condescension, the alcohol-fueled debaucheries of one Irishman after another. On Aug. 30, 1876, The Daily Leader (a Pantagraph competitor extremely sympathetic to the temperance cause) detailed the misadventures of a “drunken and disorderly son of Erin” who threatened a Bloomington policeman with a knife before being brought to his knees by the officer’s “billy.” Sent to the “calaboose” (the county jail), he was fined $7, though if unable to pay would “languisheth on the stone pile.”
    The drunken Irishman is an archetype recognized around the globe. But what of the Irish teetotaler? After all, in the 19th century Irish-Americans joined, in large numbers, Catholic temperance organizations, and in doing so announced to the wider world that even the “Wild Irish” could become loyal foot soldiers in the “cold water army” opposed to the sale and consumption of alcohol.
    In the 1870s, there were two international Catholic temperance societies with an active presence in Bloomington. There was the Father Mathew Total Abstinence and Benevolent Society, established in 1838 by a Capuchin friar from Cork, Ireland. In 1873, the Bloomington chapter was led by John Maher, an alderman from the heavily Irish Fifth Ward. At the same time, there was the similarly named Saint Patrick’s Total Abstinence and Benevolent Society, founded in Montreal in 1840 by Father Patrick Phelan. Serving as local head of this group was Peter Duffy, a blacksmith at the west side Chicago & Alton Railroad Shops.
    The “total abstinence” in both names came from the belief — as explained in an 1873 issue of The Bloomington Enterprise, a local Catholic temperance newspaper — that “if strong drink does great harm, weak drink must do some harm.” Therefore, the only “temperate” use of such beverages was to practice “total abstinence.”
    The local chapters for these two societies held regular meetings, public lectures, balls, picnics and the like. In late April 1874, as way of example, the Saint Patrick’s Society staged a “dancing party” at Phoenix Hall on the south side of the courthouse square. The two societies also participated in the city’s early St. Patrick’s Day parades or processionals, which usually involved members of local Irish organizations marching to Holy Trinity Catholic Church. The 1875 procession, for instance, also included Kadel’s brass band, the Hibernian Benevolent Society and the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
    By 1887, if not earlier, St. Patrick’s Day no longer featured the Father Mathew and Saint Patrick societies, though a group called the Temperance Cadets now joined the more-established organizations such as the AOH. That evening the Hibernian Rifles, an honorary military company, held its fourth annual ball, while the newly formed Young Men’s Temperance and Literary Society hosted an evening of music and oration at its hall on Front Street. The group, organized by the Rev. Daniel O. Dwyer of Holy Trinity, aimed to “teach temperance and to cultivate a taste for good literature.” That night’s program included the song “Gathering the Myrtle with Mary,” the recitation “Shiel’s Reply to Lord Lyndhurst,” and the audience singing “God Save Ireland.”
    Yesterday, on St. Patrick’s Day, the McLean County Museum of History opened its latest exhibit, “The Greening of the Prairie: Irish Immigration and Settlement in McLean County.” This long-term exhibit addresses topics ranging from anti-Irish sentiment in the 19th century to the surprising number of rural McLean County Irish who became farmers. Museum Executive Director Greg Koos will deliver the curator’s lecture at 1 p.m. Saturday in the museum’s restored second-floor courtroom.

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