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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 310-311
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Father Mathew, Temperance and Irish Identity. By Paul A. Townend. (Dublin: Irish Academic Press. Distributed in the United States by International Specialized Book Services, Portland, Oregon. 2002. Pp. viii, 327. $49.50.)
Theobald Mathew (1790-1856) is often portrayed as an anomaly. The most celebrated temperance reformer of the mid-nineteenth century was a Roman Catholic priest and the Capuchin provincial for Ireland. In the typical account, the friar's charisma explains the amazing, although brief, success of the pre-famine temperance crusade. At least half of the Irish people, often stereotyped as heavy drinkers, pledged lifetime total abstinence.
Paul A. Townend, who teaches at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, puts this story, familiar in outline, in an impressively rich context. The local society that became a national one, the Cork Total Abstinence Society (CTAS), thrived even before it persuaded one of the best-liked priests in the city, Father Mathew, to become its leader. Irish nationalism—a dream of national regeneration—inspired this remarkable mass mobilization. "Temperance was a means to an end, not an end in itself" (p. 261). For the newly abstaining Irish, nearly all of them Roman Catholics, teetotalism promised a proud national identity, ending sectarianism, poverty, and humiliation.
Mathew contributed mightily to Ireland's temperance reformation of the late 1830's and the early 1840's, but he did not create it out of thin air. Moreover, Mathew's limitations as a leader—his inflexibility, lack of political sophistication, and financial ineptitude—fail to explain the collapse of the movement in the mid-1840's. The rapidity of success made its consolidation difficult. The middle and especially the upper classes held aloof, depriving the abstainers of [End Page 310] financial support and leadership. Without a requirement of literacy or of the payment of dues, membership was "decidedly plebeian" (p. 59). The Roman Catholic hierarchy failed to endorse a moral revolution that it did not control and which raised theological and pastoral problems. Some bishops disliked the ecumenically minded Mathew; Protestants had founded the CTAS. Some bishopsdistrusted friars in general as too independent. Although Mathew sought to keep the movement out of partisan politics, the nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell opportunistically co-opted the temperance movement to further his agitation for repeal of the union between Ireland and Britain.
Mathew extended his temperance work to England and the United States, in part in an unsuccessful effort to raise money for his work in Ireland. In the same year as Townend's book, the University of Massachusetts Press published John F. Quinn's Father Mathew's Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and Irish America. When Mathew died, he regarded himself as a failure. "The breakdown of the movement after 1843 was manifested in widespread pledge breaking, a rise in alcohol production, and... the collapse of the network of local behaviour, practices and sanctions that had been so important in sustaining the cause in its early years" (p. 7).
The revival of a temperance movement among Irish Roman Catholics at the end of the nineteenth century followed a different strategy, a denominational society that avoided emotional appeals to drinkers. In 1999 Diarmaid Ferriter devoted a centennial book to the penitential Pioneer Total Abstinence Society of the Sacred Heart, which in its mid-twentieth-century heyday claimed a half-million members.
The heart of Townend's own book is cultural history, his inquiry into the CTAS ideology, ritual, and practice of temperance. The pledge "embodied self-improvement, historical destiny, religious fervour, as well as national and community identity in the very act of self-denial" (p. 98). Converts took the pledge in public at mass meetings. Enlisting women into the movement, Mathew encouraged tea parties, where men and women mixed freely and even danced.
Those who disagree with Townend's interpretation must rely on his careful research about what actually happened. For instance, he provides a detailed geographical analysis: south-central Ireland was the CTAS stronghold. He gives a statistical face to anecdotal claims about the success of...