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Irish Examiner article on Fr. Dan Dargan SJ (RIP) & Pioneer Association

The Pioneers had a sobering effect that we need now more than ever

By Diarmaid Ferriter
Irish Examiner
04 October 2007

LAST week witnessed the death of Fr Daniel Dargan, the Jesuit who directed the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association (PTAA) from 1957-’77.

Some of his obituaries referred to what many consider his greatest claim to fame— overseeing the organisational triumph that resulted in a gathering of more than 100,000 people at Croke Park in 1959 for the association’s diamond jubilee.

It was the second such triumph — in 1949, 80,000 had crammed into Croke Park for the golden jubilee celebrations, at a time when Fr Dargan was the assistant director.

The scenes witnessed in 1949 and 1959 were not savoured by all, and provoked the ire of the brilliant writer and notorious drinker, Flann O’Brien, who lambasted the association for bringing Dublin to a standstill on the hottest day of the year in June 1949 in order to, as he saw it, parade their piety.

He remarked: “Dublin’s working man with his wife or four children intent on spending a day at the seaside does not have to journey to Croke Park to prove that he is not a slave to whiskey. If he can manage a pint of porter a day, it is the best he can do… I can call nothing comparable to yesterday’s procedure and I hope somebody will examine the legality of it. If the abstainers are entitled to disrupt transport in their own peculiar and selfish interest, there is in our democratic mode no reason in the world why the drinking men of Ireland should not demand and be given the same right. Let everybody stay at home because the boozers are in town! I would advise these Pioneer characters that there is more in life than the bottle, that fair play to others is important and that temperance — taking the word in its big and general value — is a thing they might strive to cultivate a bit better.”

O’Brien and other critics of the Pioneers need not have worried. Just as the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 temporarily masked many of the pointers to a decline in the influence of the Catholic religion (such as a fall in vocations and people making up their own minds about contraception), the Pioneer rallies masked the fact that the association and its influence had peaked.

Behind the scenes, Fr Dargan and some of his colleagues admitted that such gatherings were not going to be feasible in the 1960s and beyond. The Pioneers, whose devotion to the Sacred Heart through abstinence from alcohol had saved many from a lifetime of alcoholism, were losing some of the bigger battles. In the same year that the PTAA diamond jubilee was celebrated, the report of the Intoxicating Liquor Commission recommended more liberal licensing laws. As Taoiseach, Seán Lemass decided to ignore the appeals of temperance reformers to resist this tide of liberalisation. He absolved politicians of any responsibility for this area and squared the circle of episcopal disapproval by asserting in the Dáil “drunkenness is a sin for which men are responsible to a higher court than ours”.

As Fr Dargan put it a few years later, “unfortunately some elements in government circles seem anxious to throw off restraint where liquor laws are concerned. Nevertheless, the government is far better qualified than any other group to prevent this abuse”.

This was recognition that as a non-political organisation, and in the face of the mighty power of the vintners, the Pioneers’ influence could only extend so far. The Pioneers were also frustrated that the intoxicating liquor report in 1959 had offered the bogus conclusion that “drunkenness has ceased to be a problem in the State” on the grounds that prosecutions for public drunkenness had declined since the 1920s.

This myth that Ireland was not remotely a drunken nation continued to be pedalled for many decades. In 1996, for example, the Department of Health’s national alcohol policy maintained that “historically, the Irish have often been described as having a legendary and unenviable reputation for drinking. There is evidence that the description of the Irish as a particularly alcohol-prone race is a myth. Indeed it is doubtful whether Ireland ever occupied a prominent role with regard to alcohol use or misuse”.

This was nonsense, and still is nonsense, no more than Flann O’Brien’s contention that the Pioneer movement was a bourgeois neurosis was untrue. At least the Pioneer Association acknowledged the problem of excessive drinking and attempted to do something about it, even if its methods were not to everybody’s taste. Nor were the leaders of the Pioneers in the past the extremists that O’Brien liked to believe.

There was nothing fanatical about Fr Dargan.

Ten years ago I spent an afternoon with him in Limerick to talk about a book I was writing on the history of temperance and alcohol in Irish society. He was a gentle, courteous man, who was also frank and philosophical, and he did not believe alcohol was an evil to be chased out of Ireland like the snakes, but did want to offer people an alternative.

He had welcomed Alcoholics Anonymous to Dublin in the late 1940s when they opened their first European branch there, and was convinced that both organisations could do much together to, as he put it, “remove the stigma from alcoholism and to make it easier for people with drink problems to seek help”.

AS SOMEONE who had been involved in the Pioneers in their heyday, he also witnessed their decline and seeming irrelevance in the last quarter of the 20th century as they struggled for status and direction while consumption of alcohol continued unabated, as did the rise in teenage drinking. Between 1989 and 1999 there was a 41% increase in alcohol consumption, whereas in 10 other European countries it dropped.

Fr Dargan also pointed out that the main growth area for the PTAA was Africa and South America, which is still the case: they now have 400,000 members in those continents.

This seemed to me to be ironic; it was as if it had been decided that the temperance work should shift from a “developed” region to “underdeveloped” regions as if we, as a developed region, had come to terms with our drink problem.

Much media attention is now focused on the abuse of cocaine — admittedly a big problem, brought sharply into focus by Justine Delaney Wilson’s new book on the subject — but it is still the legal drug alcohol that is doing the most damage.

Much of this damage is being done quietly at home and is not necessarily measured through public drunkenness and related incidents, which suits the marketers of alcohol, who are also aware that home consumption will continue to rise.

Maybe it’s just as well Fr Dargan did not live to witness the advertisements that have been playing this week for yet another milestone in our culture of alcohol consumption — the opening of a large off-licence in Sandyford, Co Dublin. All the advertisements, of course, contain the qualification — meaningless in this country — that we should enjoy alcohol sensibly. It would probably be enjoyed more sensibly if there were a ban on advertising it.