By Gene Cooney
My first introduction to an Irish Pioneer was 40 years ago when I met Ambrose Kelly from Westport, Co. Mayo Ireland. I found it hard to believe when he told me that he would never allow alcohol to touch his lips and that he would abstain from any consumption of alcohol for his life. For an Irishman to accomplish that would be like asking Hawaiians to avoid the sun for life.
That was the unwanted and often embarrassing stereotype for the Irish. They were considered mad for the drink and history shows that it to be true. Alcohol was so prevalent and abused by generations of Irish people throughout its existence. It was negatively effecting all sorts of Irish communities, especially families, businesses and their civilization.
Fr. James Cullen was from New Ross, Co. Wexford and ordained a priest in 1864. His Catholic passion was devoted to mission work and spreading the works and teachings of Jesus Christ. Fr. Cullen always preached against the evils of drinking which paved the way for the beginning of the venture for totally abstaining from alcoholic beverages. In December of 1898, Fr. Cullen invited four woman to a meeting to start a movement for total temperance. They were Mrs. Sullivan, Mrs. Egan, Mrs. Bury and Mrs. Power. They would call it the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association (PTAA). It was originally restricted to women only but soon invited men to join. It was a movement that only had three simple obligations in order to become a member. To abstain from alcohol for life; to recite the prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus twice a day and wear the Pioneer emblem in the form of a pledge pin. The pin would be the symbol of sobriety that is a shield surrounding the Sacred Heart.
The pledge would be called
“The Heroic Offering.”
‘For Thy Greater glory and consolation,
O Sacred Heart of Jesus.
for Thy sake, to give good example, to practice self-denial,
to make reparation to Thee for the sins of intemperance
and for the conversion of excessive drinkers, I will abstain
for life from all intoxicating drink.’
It was a strict pledge drafted by Fr. Cullen and the four women at the first meeting and it was a pledge until death. Hundreds of thousands took the pledge and Fr. Cullen set forth to promote the movement in other parts of the world that left behind Pioneer Halls, Pioneer Centers and Pioneer magazines helping those in their temporal needs. The pledge is given to all those in Ireland at the completion of grammar school, usually at Confirmation. Children have the option of taking the pledge until the age of 18. They can opt to take the pledge for life or they can decline taking the pledge.
The original movement of temperance began in 1829 with organizations called Temperance Societys. These societies were short lived until another priest named Fr. Theobald Mathew joined the movement. With his Catholic and spiritual guidance, The Cork Total Abstinence Society was born. Fr. Mathew was from Tipperary and became known as the “Apostle of Temperance” and “Mathew the Martyr.” In a short period of time millions had taken the pledge, drinking habits changed, consumption declined as did crime and public drunkeness. Then due to the tragedy of the Great Famine, Fr. Mathew had to change his mission to getting food on the tables of the Irish people and away from keeping drinks out of their hands. The movement stalled until Fr. Cullen resurrected it.
The third man in what I call the Holy Trinity of Pioneers was Matt Talbot. A Dubliner, he was one of 13 children and they all had a history of alcohol abuse. Matt was a hard worker but his first job was at the Guinness Brewery. He had started drinking at the age of 13 and continued heavily until he was 28. He was a hopeless drunk 15 years spending his earnings at the pub. He once sold his working boots to pay for his drinks. One day while thirsty and penniless he asked his cohorts and coworkers for drinking money. After being declined by all he went home and told his mother that he decided to take the Pioneer Pledge. His surprised mother reminded him that the Pioneer Pledge is a pledge to God and must be taken seriously. Matt Talbot took the pledge for three months and then he took it for life. For the next 40 years he abstained from drink for life. He attended mass at least once a day and although illiterate as a child, he taught himself to read about the lives of saints and consumed theological books at a tremendous rate. He paid off all his debts while giving any extra earnings to the poor and less fortunate. Pope Paul the VI declared Matt Talbot Venerable which is one step from becoming a saint himself. He was a great example to the power of prayer. Matt Talbot died on Trinity Sunday in Dublin in 1925. When his body was discovered and examined, he was found with several chains wrapped around his arms, his chest and legs used as a daily reminder for prayers as a slave to the Blessed Mother Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Today he is the patron of all those struggling with alcohol and addiction and many plaques, statues and prayer halls bear his name.
And so, in order to research this article further I contacted the Pioneer Association in Ireland and told them I wanted to take the pledge myself. It would be the short term pledge during the Lenten Season of 2019. For around $21 I received a video describing the history of the PTAA, a little prayer book and a pledge pin. I took the pledge to abstain from alcohol from Fat Tuesday until Easter Sunday. Now I have vowed to give up drinking for Lent at least a dozen times in my life but strayed from that promise to myself during St. Patrick’s Day, my birthday and many days in between. But I knew that a pledge to God would be different. I made a few pledges this Lent. I would not drink, I would make daily mass throughout and walk my dog every day. I succeeded in each of those and it a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and I would highly recommend it. I discovered a few things in this experience of what I thought I could never have done. Without the power of the prayer to the Sacred Heart, I don’t think it could have been done. With these daily prayers and daily mass, I am closer to God. I haven’t felt this healthy in a long time and I have never slept better. My dog loves me. And I saved a lot of money not buying rounds of drinks, although the bartender and the daily patrons at my favorite watering hole had thought I had died.
The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association started in a small room in Dublin with one chapter. Now it is global with hundreds of centers catering to the needs of the Pioneers. The numbers are hard to survey but one member tells me that they are millions strong with over 140,000 of them in Ireland and a growing number of members in Africa, South America, Britain, The United States and Australia. The PTAA will go down in history as being successful in changes in both drinking habits and spiritual culture through prayer.