John Daly: Raising a glass to when abstinence was the norm - with no '12 pubs of Christmas'
Published 12/12/2015 | 02:30
I was confronted by one of the less palatable sights of the yuletide season earlier this week, when a throng of young men well into 'The 12 Pubs of Christmas' invaded the mellow interior of my local.
By the volume, the swearing and general disorder circulating about them, I estimated they were probably at the 10th station - and wished, like most in the pub, that they had embarked on this annual inebriation expedition to somewhere like Newcastle or Nantes. Anywhere but here, in fact. After they finally departed the premises an hour later, we were prompted to wonder - does anyone practise abstinence anymore?
During the All Souls month of November, a long-standing Irish custom saw many people choosing to go 'on the wagon' as a sacrifice for the salvation of the departed. Apart from getting some credit in the world, there was the added bonus - given the expensive excesses of December - of having a few bob in the bank to boot.
In small town Ireland, where appearances can often deceive, many pub regulars would openly declare their intention to 'go off the gargle' for the month, leaving their stools vacant for an eternal 30 days. This was often a fiction, as many of these alcohol penitents would then temporarily adopt a different public house a few streets away, where they held forth to a new audience, with their favourite tipple at their elbow for the month's duration. An uncle of mine described such hypocrisy as 'taking a little holiday from everyday life' - and even exchanged his usual pint of stout for neat whiskey during the break.
While many pubs have banned groups doing The 12 Pubs trip, the root of the problem goes much deeper. James Shevlin, President of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, says: "The total of those drinking at a younger age has reached a crisis point and the liberal availability and low pricing of alcohol is a major contributor to this problem. I am anxious to develop strategies to keep younger people as active Pioneers."
Mind you, any of us who have attempted to give up alcohol for even the briefest period will have suffered the usual litany of perplexed comments: "A month? Are you on antibiotics?", or "Janey, what must you think of us when we've a few on board?". I'd really rather not say, lady.
Pioneer pins, worn proudly on the lapel, were a common sight in the Ireland of old. Indeed, many's the seasoned boozer kept a weather eye for them. At its height in the 1960s, the association had well over 500,000 members - a number that now hovers around 130,000. Becoming part of social media through Facebook and Twitter in recent years has helped raise the association's profile, with up to 3,000 new members under 40 having taken the pledge. A recent Rose of Tralee, Maria Walsh, said the concept of becoming a Pioneer came naturally to her, saying: "When I moved to the US and told people I didn't drink, many assumed I must be an alcoholic. There was always peer pressure when I was a teenager to have alcohol, but I never needed it to benefit anything."
Kerry sports legend, Míchael Ó Muircheartaigh, like most, joined the Pioneers in primary school as an extension of the Confirmation Pledge, and says: "Because they are inexperienced, young people need to be challenged and encouraged to do things. Indeed, I think that we don't ask young people enough - they would surprise us with their idealism and generosity."
One wonders what Father Mathew, the reformer Capuchin priest who founded the Cork Total Abstinence Society in 1838, would make of modern Ireland's affair with the bottle. Advocating commitment to the principle of total abstinence, he successfully encouraged over 150,000 to take 'the Pledge' within 12 months of its formation. Daniel O'Connell, who took part in one of the huge temperance processions in Cork in 1842, declared: "He is the greatest man that Ireland ever produced." Within six years, the society had three million members - over half the adult population of the country.
Little wonder statues of him were erected in Dublin's O'Connell Street and Patrick Street in Cork. His message of saying no to alcohol converted tens of thousands - with crime rates everywhere plunging by over half as a result. During a visit to the US, he was invited to dine at the White House, and addressed tens of thousands at rallies across the country, and wrote: "I thank heaven I have been instrumental in adding to the ranks of temperance over 600,000 in the US."
Alcohol has always had its place in Irish literature - it fell to John B Keane to best encapsulate its enduring hold, writing: "I love the plop of whiskey into a glass. I love to listen to it. I love to see the cream of a pint. I love the first powerful, violent impact of a glass of whiskey when I throw it back into me, and when it hits the mark."