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Father Theobald Mathew In Ardmore

The Ardmore Journal

17. Father Theobald Mathew In Ardmore
While the organisation and conduct of Father Mathew's temperance meeting at Ardmore on Sunday 25 September 1842 was like so many others he had been holding around the country for nearly three years, it is of particular Interest because of the implications of the disorder that followed the meeting on the Sunday night. This disorder, and Father Mathew's response to it, suggests that everyone in the drink industry may not have shown the same degree of good humoured resignation as the brewer in Waterford who asked for his blessing, saying the least Father Mathew could do, as he was ruining his trade, was to give him his blessing! (1)

Because of its geographical position the first teetotallers in Ardmore may have taken the pledge from Father John Foley of Youghal, who was given credit for converting 30,000 to the cause in east Cork and west Waterford by the end of 1839. But the temperance movement in County Waterford, as elsewhere in Ireland, was fast becoming associated almost entirely with Father Mathew. Bishop Foran invited him to Waterford at the end of 1839, when the Waterford Mirror put the number taking the pledge at between 60,000 and 80,000, the great majority of them coming in from the surrounding countryside. Further visits to the city and County over the following three years, as well as the vigilance of Bishop Foran and many of his priests, led to a great decrease in drunkenness and widely reported improvements in public behaviour. Daniel O'Connell cited the absence of agrarian outrages in County Waterford as an example of the beneficial effects of temperance and the Waterford Temperance Society proudly drew attention to the decrease in the number of prisoners committed to the county gaol in the three year period 'before temperance' (1836-1838) and the three year period that followed (1839-1841). Father Mathew himself rejoiced that miners at Knockmahon, who had previously been notorious drunkards, were not only keeping their families in comfort but had money in the savings bank at Kilmacthomas. (2)

A crowd of 20,000 which included temperance bands from Knockmahon, Dungarvan, Cappoquin, Cloyne, Midleton and Killeagh assembled on the Sunday when the picturesque local landscape, in the words of the Waterford Chronicle 'shone responsive to the sunlight whose glories it reflected'.  At the conclusion of his sermon in the church Father Mathew thanked Sir Richard Musgrave, who was present, for his contribution to the building of local churches, and welcomed James Silk Buckingham, temperance reformer and traveller, who had given the first of his lectures on 'America and the Americans' at Waterford Town Hall the previous Monday. When the church was opened to permit more of the waiting crowds inside to take the pledge, Father Mathew began with a speech defending the holding of temperance meetings on Sundays, warning against cordials, which he saw as a device to get people to take alcohol again, and stressing the need for the sober to take the pledge as an example to others. As the church could only hold a proportion of the crowd at any one time, he spent several hours giving the pledge to large batches at a time, pausing at times to address those outside waiting their turn. It was estimated that about a quarter of the 20,000 present took the pledge, as many of them, the Chronicle felt, had already taken it when Father Mathew had previously been in the areas. (3)
The drunkenness that took place in the village that night and the 'partial rioting' that occured as a consequence were sufficiently serious for the local police officer to say that he would bear them in mind when publicans' licenses came up for renewal, and for the Chronicle to ask why there should be 'four licensed public houses in such a little hamlet as Ardmore'. Father Mathew went further. Not only were the public houses, by their presence the occasions for drunkenness and subsequent disorder, but the disturbances were in all probability organised by the publicans to counter the good effects of temperance. The revellers may even have been bribed to act as they did, he went on, but gave no evidence other than his assurance that he had known publicans to have given away free drink on similar occasions.
Could the publicans have done so?  Though his own family was engaged in distilling and had lost money through his crusade, Father Mathew's consistent advice to people in the drink trade was that they should invest their money in something else. Publicans should sell something less harmful than alcoholic drink. Some did this with success: at Nenagh he told the story of a Galway publican who changed over to selling bacon and not only became better off but had the comfort of knowing that his customers benefitted from his services. There were suggestions from supporters of the cause that as less whiskey was bought more money would be spend on bread, thus creating openings for more bakers. When he was asked in London what had become of Irish publicans, Father Mathew answered that they had all become grocers, bakers and butchers and were much happier than they had been before. (4)

But it must be doubted whether the alternative openings in the retail trade were readily available for the sixty publicans in Waterford city who had closed down their premises through lack of trade by March 1840, or the dozen or so who had to do the same in Dungarvan, where most of the fishermen had taken the pledge. Many would have had to surrender their independence, accept greatly reduced earnings in jobs, if they were able to find any in conditions of widespread unemployment, or they could have joined the large numbers who were emigrating. Faced with these alternatives it is hardly surprising that many publicans were resentful, and some were not prepared to surrender their livelihood without a struggle. At the beginning of 1842 there were reports in Waterford of 'races and steeple chases' organised by publicans with a view to getting teetotallers to return to drinking. If the publicans of Ardmore did indeed intend to discredit the temperance movement that was ruining their trade it can hardly be surprising. That so few attempts to do so have been recorded in the eleven years of his crusade in Ireland must be an acknowledgement of the great personal esteem in which Father Mathew was held. (5)

Text: Colm Kerrigan
Scanned By: Joanne Connors Parandjuk

Author: Siobhán Lincoln

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