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St. Patrick’s Day and Temperance: An Unlikely Duo?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: For Points readers getting  a head start on their St. Patrick’s day observances this year, we are pleased to present a thoughtful historicization of this generally most unthoughtful of holidays by Mike McLaughlin of Carleton University.  Drawing on research from his dissertation-in-progress, “Imperial Citizens: Irish Catholic Middle-Class Culture in Colonial Canada, 1855-1902,” it will give you something to talk about as you crawl from pub to pub this Saturday– or better yet, provide you with a usable past of pub-avoidance.

Patron Saint of Over-Consumption

Leprechauns, green beer, and shamrocks with quirky sayings on them will be everywhere this 17th of March. Yes, St. Patrick’s Day is a time to indulge in markers of Irish identity. One of the most  prevalent of which seems to be the excessive consumption of alcohol. In their The Wearing of the Green: A History of St. Patrick’s Day, Mike Cronin and Daryl Adair note the institutionalization of drinking marathons at pubs on the 17th of March.  And according to Beth Davies Ryan, global corporate-relations director of Guinness brewing company, while on any given day 5.5 million pints of Guinness are consumed globally, that number rises to 13 million on St. Patrick’s Day.

The relationship between booze and St. Patrick’s Day is not a new one. Cronin and Adair point out that as early as 1681 the English traveler Thomas Dineley observed that during St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland many of the Irish drank so much that very few were found sober at night. In his writings, Dineley presented what he saw as the three main components of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in seventeenth century Ireland: wearing the colour green, adorning the shamrock, and indulging liberally in alcohol (Cronin & Adair, Page 25). These aspects resemble today’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and the not unrelated phenomena of green beer, packed pubs, and general goofiness.Between then and now, however, there was a period when St. Patrick’s Day was not about drunken shenanigans.

In nineteenth century Canada, St. Patrick’s Day was observed by members of the Irish Catholic diaspora as a religious holy day. The highlight of the day was the gathering of Irish voluntary associations in the early morning, and their procession through the streets to the local Cathedral to sit and listen to a stirring mass given by the (usually) Irish Roman Catholic bishop. In St. John’s Newfoundland, St. Patrick’s Day of 1853 was celebrated by the prominent Irish Catholic association of that city, the Benevolent Irish Society (BIS), gathering and proceeding to the Cathedral where they listened to the mass delivered by Bishop John Thomas Mullock. According to the secretary of the BIS, this procession was enhanced by the attendance of the temperance band of the city. Indeed, around this time across Canada Irish Catholic temperance societies were becoming prominent in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. Not only were temperance bands part of processions to the local Cathedral, but at St. Patrick’s Day dinners toasts were given to Father Mathew—the zealous temperance advocate from County Cork whose temperance campaigning reportedly led over five million people in Ireland to take the temperance pledge—and the officers of temperance societies were given pride of place at these events.

Father Mathew (1790-1856), "The Apostle of Temperance"

A couple representative examples will be informative. The first occurred in Ottawa at the St. Patrick’s Day celebration of 1862. On that day the St. Patrick Temperance Society marched at the front of the procession with each member displaying on the breast of his coat a badge of green and white silk. Impressed upon this badge in gold bronze was the harp of Erin and the name of their association. At the head of their place in the gathering was raised the temperance banner, showing a life-sized portrait of Father Mathew. A newspaper report of the celebrations noted that St. Patrick’s Day went off in an orderly manner, and that no person could point out a son of Erin who was anything the worse for liquor.

This is a significant point. Temperance among the Irish Catholic diaspora in nineteenth century Canada  became an important way they could express their respectability in an often hostile social environment rife with anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiment. Prominent members of the Irish Catholic middle class could point to the respectability inherent in the temperance movement as a way to stake their claims to citizenship in Canada.  This is highlighted in my second example.

Organizing for Respectability

At the 1853 St. Patrick’s Day dinner in Montreal, president of Montreal’s St. Patrick’s Society, Thomas Ryan, Esq, looked to the officers of the St. Patrick’s Total Abstinence Society, who were seated at the head table, and said that he felt assured that those officers would act as guarantors that no excess would be indulged in and he expected that he and others would follow their example as closely as possible on this or any other day. He hoped that the people there that evening would not forget the evil consequence of intemperance, but that they would all unite in this respect and that every Irishman would discourage and prevent an offense, no matter how trivial, that was calculated to disgrace their country. If such a sentiment prevailed, Ryan concluded, it would ultimately be beneficial to all Irish Catholics and render their prospects and careers in Canada bright and successful.

By the early twentieth century, however, the popularity of temperance among Canadian Irish Catholics had run dry. And currently, even if people did listen to a speech about the virtues of temperance on St. Patrick’s Day, they would likely do so in an “ironic” way– like the way that guy from 30 Rock wears those baseball caps. It is a moot point in any case; most wouldn’t remember such a speech the next day owing to their intake of many of those 13 million pints the night before.

So what changed? The job of the historian is to offer up possible answers to that very question. So here are a few I have thought of. First, the Irish Catholic temperance movement was organized by the Catholic church. And the period when temperance became popular among Irish Catholics, around mid-nineteenth century, coincided with the period that Emmet Larkin has termed the devotional revolution, when the Irish Catholic church attempted to instil in Irish Catholics a sense of obligation to the rituals and practices of the Catholic church. This was also the period of ultramontanism in the Catholic world, when adherence to Vatican dictates were paramount (at least in theory). As the church’s importance for the Irish Catholic diaspora waned somewhat throughout the twentieth century, so too did the importance of temperance.

Daniel O'Connell (1775-1847), "The Liberator"

There was also a strong relationship between Irish nationalism and temperance. Daniel O’Connell, best known for his fight for the passage of the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 in the British Parliament—known as Catholic Emancipation owing to its loosening, somewhat, of British control over Ireland—worked with Father Mathew’s temperance movement in his struggle for Irish self-government. Though in different ways, each movement linked calls for a national regeneration with the consumption, or lack thereof, of alcohol. Temperance thus became a part of Irish nationalist politics, as the slogan “Ireland Sober, Ireland Free” suggests (Elizabeth Malcolm, Ireland Sober, Ireland Free). But like the Catholic Church’s influence in the daily lives of Irish Catholics, the global Irish nationalist movement also waned, somewhat, with the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921. Hence, so too did the Irish Catholic temperance movement.

Towards an Irish Free State: Bloody Sunday, 1920

(Astute readers will observe that I have strategically included the word  “somewhat” in the last couple of paragraphs. This was done in order to qualify certain statements and thus appease any Irish Studies folks who might have wandered over to this post. I don’t want to start a war).

The factors I have mentioned thus far were global and not specific to the Canadian Irish Catholic diaspora. But internally, change was also afoot that made temperance less of an immediate concern. By the early twentieth century Irish Catholics in Canada had largely established their place as respectable citizens. Temperance had been a vehicle for them to demonstrate their respectability and stake their claim to citizenship. With their place in the social, political, and cultural hierarchy of Canada secured, there was little need to perform respectability to the same degree. Ironically, many Irish Catholics in Canada made their livelihoods in the alcohol trade, and the upward social mobility that these economic activities facilitated played a large role in their achievement of respectable citizenship.

And let’s not forget that not all Irish Catholics adhered to temperate behaviour, in drink or otherwise. The examples I have used of Canadian Irish Catholic temperance activities are drawn from the Irish Catholic middle-class. Evidence suggests that among the Irish Catholic working-class, temperance was received with indifference. Traditional patterns of drinking continued. These included what some might call the excessive consumption of alcohol on important occasions such as saint’s days.

But perhaps the biggest change in St. Patrick’s Day celebrations over the past hundred and fifty years—and the change that has re-established and extended the association between booze and St. Patrick’s Day—has been the mass commodification of the event in the context of accelerated global capitalism. The statistics given by Davies Ryan indicate that there is a lot of money to be made by using discourses of Irish ethnic identity to sell products to consumers. Owners of breweries and pubs, as well as makers of shamrock pins and green dye, would concur.

Walmart, 2011: Éirinn go Brách


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