Cork Total Abstinence Society Medal
Given that January is usually devoted to the often futile attempt of adopting a new year’s resolution it might be sobering to contemplate a small medal in the collection of Independence Museum Kilmurry.
A small relic indeed but it reflects the roots of one of the most extraordinarily successful (however brief) mass movements in Irish social history, ultimately enlisting millions of Irish men and women. Although a teetotalism movement was already underway in Cork it was under the leadership of Father (Theobald) Mathew, from 1836, that the Cork Total Abstinence Society took off; under his influence branches of the organization soon spread throughout every parish in Ireland despite being badly disrupted by the Great Famine.
The mass pledging (some 3 million people or roughly half the population) that ensued no doubt had the effect of reducing alcohol consumption and the knock on effect on the crime statistics of the period is significant. It was recorded that robberies, assaults, arson and even homicides were thus reduced by half in the pre-Famine period before 1845.
Bringing his message further afield to England Father Mathew’s crusade yielded similar success. In 1849 he visited America but while there he fell afoul of the Abolitionist (to abolish slavery) movement whereby, having had to give assurances to the Catholic Hierarchy there that he would not stray outside his remit of battling alcohol consumption, he had to refuse an invitation to condemn slavery.
This soured his deep friendship with the former slave and famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass who had been so impressed by his interaction with Father Mathew on his visit to Cork in 1845 that he undertook to receive the pledge from Father Mathew himself. Having co-signed a petition in 1841, with Daniel O’Connell (along with 60,000 Irish people) encouraging the Irish in the U.S. not to partake in slavery and given his own efforts for the downtrodden and marginalised in Cork there was little doubt which side of the debate held the sympathies of Father Matthew. However as he was basically on a fund-raising effort for the temperance movement he was reluctant to muddy the focus of his efforts; “I have as much as I can do to save men from the slavery of intemperance, without attempting the overthrow of any other kind of slavery.”. It does seem that Douglass realised the reasoning behind the decision but held no sympathy with it, ‘we had fondly hoped … that he would not change his morality by changing his location … We are however grieved, humbled and mortified to know that HE too, has fallen.’ Their mutual friendship never recovered.
It does seem that the success of his movement was also its downfall…..in that it attracted the unwanted attention of other movements which were covetous of its sizeable membership and network. One of these was nationalist leader Daniel O’ Connell’s who opportunistically co-opted the temperance movement to further his agitation for repeal of the union between Ireland and Britain; likely taking advantage of already existing associational networks and mass gatherings.
In the regeneration of national consciousness on the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion, Fr. Mathew had at least 3 dedications in his name thus indicating the influence that his temperance movement had on the resurgent nationalist movement; much as the Gaelic League was likewise at that time identified with and shared many members with the turn of the century temperance movements, “Ireland sober is Ireland free“.
Whatever the reason(s) Fr. Mathew’s movement eventually broke down and sobriety also duly decreased amongst the population.
He is fondly remembered in Cork today more for his association with the City and his lasting effort on behalf of its more unfortunate citizens than for any long term effect of endeavours on behalf of the temperance movement; his imposing statue on Cork’s St. Patricks St., is regularly adorned with empty alcohol bottles from the previous night’s activities. That this cheeky activity is more out of affection rather than any disrespect to the Capuchin friar became manifest in 2000 when a proposed plan to remove ‘The Statue’ to another location in the City was shot down when met with widespread opposition among the people of the City.
Fr. Mathew is buried in Cork’s St. Josephs Cemetery which he himself had helped establish to facilitate the burial of the Catholic poor of the City.