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From the September, 2005 issue of Touchstone


Mathew's Passion by Mike Aquilina

Mathew’s Passion

Father Mathew’s Crusade by John F. Quinn

Father Mathew’s Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and Irish America
University of Massachusetts Press, 2002
(256 pages, $20.95, paperback)

reviewed by Mike Aquilina

Take heart, culture warriors. If you think you can’t change public opinion or widespread vices—never mind city hall—read John F. Quinn’s excellent study of the nineteenth-century Irish temperance preacher Father Theobald Mathew. In Ireland in the 1830s, per capita annual consumption of beer and whiskey hovered around 3.5 gallons of each. In 1825, when a temperance group in Ulster tried to limit the city’s butchers to three glasses of whiskey a day, “most found the rule too burdensome and quickly dropped out.”

Habitual drunkenness kept the Irish people impoverished and resentfully dependent on their British overlords, unable to sustain any movements of social change or to progress toward self-rule. A third of Ireland’s people in the 1830s were paupers.

It was the general consensus in Ireland at the time that the violent uprisings of 1798, most notably the battle of Vinegar Hill, had failed because the Irish forces were simply too drunk to fight well. Contemporary sources attributed the disunity of Irish nationalists to the same problem. Resistance meetings regularly degenerated into drunken brawls.

Mathew’s Miracle

Then, in the mid-1830s, Father Theobald Mathew joined the fray. Father Mathew (as he was widely known) was almost single-handedly responsible for accomplishing what the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell called “that astonishing moral miracle”: the sudden sobering-up of an island that had long suffered from a colossal drinking problem.

A little over two years after he joined the movement, he had brought 2.5 million people into it—30 percent of the total population of Ireland. By the time of the Potato Famine, in 1845, that number had more than doubled, to 6 million, and teetotalers held a clear majority.

Quinn summarizes Father Mathew’s success in a dazzling array of statistics:

The number of gallons of spirits consumed in Ireland fell 48 percent from 12.3 million in 1838 to 6.45 million in 1844. Since the population increased during these years, the decline in per capita consumption of spirits was even greater . . . the number of distilleries decreased 29 percent from 87 to 62; the number of spirit dealers declined 30 percent from 455 to 317; and the number of whiskey retailers dropped 38 percent from 20,399 to 12,646 . . . crime rates in Ireland declined . . . convictions for serious crimes decreased 33 percent in Ireland [from 1839 to 1844].

Mathew’s own brother, a distiller, was driven out of business, and he died from the sadness.

Father Mathew’s critics were many, and they challenged him on many grounds, from the practical to the theological. Jesus, after all, changed water into wine; why should anyone wish to abstain from this good thing he created? Father Mathew prevailed over his critics and eventually took his message to America, where he administered the total-abstinence pledge to more than half a million of the 23 million people then living in the States and territories.

Mathew was himself something of a miracle. His movement transcended denominations and nationalities. And he accomplished this at a time when the Catholic bishops in both Ireland and America were in a decidedly unecumenical mood.

The Know-Nothing riots in Boston and Philadelphia were a recent memory, and the public-school Bible controversies were just heating up in New York. In the US Army, Catholic men were being flogged for refusing to attend Protestant services. And in Pittsburgh, the citizens elected an illiterate jailbird as mayor; his chief occupation: anti-Catholic rabble-rouser.

Mathew’s Lessons

Quinn tells the story of Mathew’s triumph with generous use of contemporary sources. The book is abundantly documented, but not excessively so. Quinn is a skillful storyteller with a keen eye for the telling detail, but he never lets minutiae bog down his story.

And the story doesn’t stop with Mathew’s death in 1856. Quinn traces the further development of the temperance movement in Ireland and Irish America, with the emergence of more enduring groups, like the Pioneers.

Whether we agree or disagree with total abstainers like Mathew, we have much to learn from them. Without their early successes, prohibition never would have become the law of the land. For better or for worse, they shaped history.

And surely, in their personal apostolate, they changed lives for the better. Before Father Mathew’s time, many Christians favored moderation rather than total abstinence. But they knew their methods were ineffective for the people they dismissed as “drunks.” Mathew showed that teetotalism could cure the people who would one day come to be called “alcoholics.” Without Mathew’s work, later developments like AA would have been more difficult.

There are cautionary tales, too, in Father Mathew’s life. He alienated friends and allies when he refused to speak publicly in favor of the abolition of slavery, because although he was an ardent abolitionist, he thought it unwise to mix causes. Yet neither would he disavow his early statements against slavery. So he lost supporters on both sides.

He infuriated the Catholic hierarchy with his easy fraternization with Protestants and even freethinkers.

And he gravely miscalculated the mercy of his countrymen when, toward the end of his life, having spent most of his own income on his cause, he accepted a pension from Queen Victoria. This made him suspect in the eyes of many Irishmen, as an accomplice in their oppression.

Broken Hero

He died broke, broken in health, and publicly humiliated, feeling very much a failure, but also close to the Cross and seemingly at great peace with his Savior.

We should take notes. If one man could dry out old Ireland, imagine what Christians today might do for modern America.

Mike Aquilina is vice president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (www.salvationhistory.com) and a general editor of The Catholic Vision of Love catechetical series.

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