The Temperance Movement in Ireland: The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association

The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association (PTAA) was founded in Dublin in the Presbytery of St Francis Xavier Church, Gardiner Street in December 1898 by Father James Cullen SJ. Present at that first meeting were four well known Dublin women: Anne Egan, Lizzie Power, Mary Bury and A.M. Sullivan. Although little is known of these four women, they formed the very first group of an Association that would grow to become one of the prominent Catholic movements in the first half of the twentieth century in Ireland. The temperance movement had been growing in many countries during the nineteenth century, but an essential component of this new Association was devotion to the Sacred Heart, with a focus on the spiritual element in the work of the PTAA.

Father James Cullen, founder of the PPioneer Total Abstinence Association, UCD Archives, P340/239.
Pamphlet for the PTAA, UCD Archives, P340/114 (2).

From the beginning Fr Cullen envisaged the Association operating under a tightly controlled structure emanating from a central administration. He based the movement on the parish unit with a spiritual director overseeing the activities of each centre. Overall control was administered by a central council based in Dublin. Each centre was affiliated to the central council and also included a president, secretary, treasurer and four or more councilors. A rigid structure for meetings was also laid down by Fr Cullen which included the reading of minutes and correspondence, treasurer’s report, applications for membership, temperance business on a local and national level and prayers, the most important of which was the concluding prayer or Heroic Offering. Membership of the Association was based on a probationary period of two years after which full membership was granted. By the end of 1914 membership of the Association had reached an estimated 280,000 and by the 1950s this figure had risen to almost 500,000 members. By 1918 there were Pioneer centres in existence in England, Scotland, the USA, Australia, South Africa and Switzerland. 

Book of sermons, annual reports and rules of the PTAA, UCD Archives, P340/114 (1).

The association was initially funded through the sale of Pioneer pins, just one of the administrative duties delegated to the Sisters of Charity, North William Street, by Fr Cullen in 1899. In return for their administrative support the Sisters received a contribution towards the upkeep of their orphanage. However, the acquisition of new offices by the Association in Upper Sherrard Street in 1944, combined with difficulties regarding the distribution of Pioneer pins saw an end to this arrangement. 

Assorted PTAA badges, pins and medals, UCD Archives, P340/235.

As the Association began to grow and expand, efforts were made to increase the Association’s profile and promote its message. To this end a weekly column simply entitled ‘Pioneer Column’ appeared for the first time in 1912 in the Irish Catholic. The column was written by Fr Cullen until shortly before his death in December 1921. It became one of the longest running regular columns in Irish newspaper history and included items such as temperance issues, reports from centres, Pioneer activities including meetings, rallies and pilgrimages and was generally used to publicise the Association.

PTAA Magazine, UCD Archives, P340/357.

In 1948 under the directorship of Fr Seán McCarron the association began to publish a magazine to act as the official organ of the PTAA. The Pioneer continues to be published today. The popularity of the PTAA remained steady throughout the 1940s and 1950s during which the Association celebrated two major milestones, the Golden and Diamond Jubilees. Croke Park hosted the celebrations on both occasions. Official figures estimated that approximately 100,000 people attended the Golden Jubilee in 1949.

Parade through Dublin during the PTAA Golden Jubilee, 1949, UCD Archives, P340/289 (17).
PTAA members in Croke Park during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, 1959, UCD Archives, P340/294 (64).

Through the 1960s, 70s and 80s the popularity of the Association began to wane and it struggled during the cultural changes that took place in the 1960s and 70s attracting fewer members and in general appealing less and less to adolescents and young adults. The PTAA needed a new direction and began to turn its attention to other challenges and possibilities, in particular focusing on Africa and the potential of attracting members in emerging African countries. Today the membership of the PTAA continues to grow in Africa and Latin America. Through its publications, events and website the Association maintains a presence in Irish society.

Members of the PTAA Ndeke Centre, Ndola diocese, Zambia in 2004, UCD Archives, P340/340.

A very significant transfer of archival material was made from the PTAA to UCD Archives in 2019 and cataloguing has just been completed. The collection comprises over 70 boxes and thousands of items. It is envisaged that the material will be available to researchers in the near future, and will be announced on our social media channels and website.

This post was written by Sarah Poutch and Orna Somerville, UCD Archives.

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