Spending a quiet St. Patrick’s Day with my parents and, as many of us do at a certain age, shamelessly rifling their old personal documents, I came across this item of interest.
It is my father’s Pioneer Pledge, his oath at the age of sixteen to “abstain for life,” albeit with some language about “reparations” that may or may not apply to future “sins of intemperance” as well as past ones. He took it in 1960, near the historical peak of membership in the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart, the movement founded in 1898 by the Jesuit priest James A. Cullen.
The Pioneer movement’s growth early in the century was spurred by the recruitment of policemen and other prominent public figures. Ultimately it worked its way into and became most closely associated with the Catholic sacrament of confirmation, a social initiation into pre-adulthood as well as a religious seal. But, as has been the case in many societies, the first unsupervised drink was also a rite of passage. As Mum attested this weekend, the night of what was actually called “Breaking the Pledge” was a highly anticipated event in the lives of many young Irish people in the 50s and 60s.
The Pioneers are alive and well, albeit with their influence greatly reduced, and the young person’s membership, requiring a pledge only to abstain until the age of 18, is much more common. Indeed, since Father Mathew’s time, the plausibility of the Catholic abstinence pledge has been defended as “not a vow but a simple resolution.” Still, with their powerful language and dramatic, nationalistic imagery, one wonders about a document and an act that initiated a country’s rising generation into adulthood dedicated to the willful violation of a solemn oath. One wonders about the role this kind of unreal language played in a generation that struggled so mightily to come to terms with visible facts of exploitation, abuse, and corruption. No surprise that the go-to history of the Pioneer movement is titled “A Nation of Extremes.” As for the signer of the above document (pictured here around that time), though he never became a dedicated tippler, Thanks be to God, his Pledge was indeed short-lived.