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In the aftermath of the great religious revival in the north of Ireland in 1859, many temperance societies were formed.  It was a time when the Industrial Revolution was taking place, and many people were moving from the Ulster countryside to Belfast and the big linen towns like Newry, Portadown and Lurgan. Heavy drinking was a feature of life in the British Isles at the time; alcohol being comparatively cheap, excessive drinking became a means whereby people living in poor and often overcrowded streets could escape from the harsh realities of life.

St. Colman’s Hall (pictured c.1969 shortly before being demolished), where several Newry temperance societies met, with Hyde Market beyond where Father Matthew addressed a gathering of local people in 1840. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
St. Colman’s Hall (pictured c.1969 shortly before being demolished), where several Newry temperance societies met, with Hyde Market beyond where Father Matthew addressed a gathering of local people in 1840. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

The Churches were well aware of the need to counteract this outbreak of heavy drinking and they formed organisations aimed at providing not only an alternative to this, but a means of educating young people about the perils of indulging in excess drinking. One of those who took up this challenge was Theobald Mathew. He was born in Ireland in 1790 and was ordained a priest in Dublin in 1813. Known as a kind and sympathetic clergyman, Father Mathew was popular and looked up to by the poor and the wealthy alike. He became president of the Cork Total Abstinence Society in April 1838 and the organization grew in popularity and membership and, by the end of 1842, the Temperance Movement was considered a national development. During this period, Father Mathew, ‘the Apostle of Temperance’, was receiving invitations to visit parishes throughout Ireland and even in America.

The Most Revd. Dr. Michael Blake, Bishop of Dromore (1833 – 1860), who invited Theobald Matthew to Newry in 1840. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The Most Revd. Dr. Michael Blake, Bishop of Dromore (1833 – 1860), who invited Theobald Matthew to Newry in 1840. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

At the invitation of the Most Revd. Dr. Michael Blake, Bishop of Dromore, Father Theobald Mathew visited Newry in August 1840. He addressed a gathering of people in Hyde Market and formed a temperance society of 5,000 members (including non-Catholics). In a meeting in Newry in 1841, Father Mathew described the progress of temperance in the north as ‘one continued triumph.’ He described the aid of ‘all parties’ as a reason for this success. In 1841 Father Mathew also met with Gavin Duffy, a leading Irish Nationalist and Young Irelander, in Newry. 

The Independent Order of Good Templars was another one of the many temperance societies formed and was introduced into Ireland in the Autumn of 1870. They rapidly increased and lodges spread all over the country. The membership was upwards of 5,000. There were also a considerable number of juvenile lodges, composed of children under sixteen years of age, who were pledged against the use of tobacco as well as alcoholic drinks. Branches were established in many major towns. 

The Temperance Dramatic Society comprised members of the Dramatic Club in connection with the Pioneer Branch of the Sacred Heart Temperance League in Newry.  Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
The Temperance Dramatic Society comprised members of the Dramatic Club in connection with the Pioneer Branch of the Sacred Heart Temperance League in Newry. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

We can see as far back as 1890, that there were many temperance halls and societies in the Newry and Mourne area. In Newry alone, there was The Newry Total Abstinence Society and The Pioneer Temperance League at St. Colman’s Hall whilst Miss Perry is listed as the proprietoress of the Temperance Hotel in Sugar Island. Rathfriland is listed as having four societies whilst there were Temperance Hotels in Annalong, Bessbrook, Kilkeel, Newcastle and Scarva. The first recorded meeting of the Pioneer Association in Rostrevor was in 1893, with the official opening of the Fr. Matthew Hall and Reading Room by Fr. Hugh O’Reilly, a professor at St. Colman’s College and, later, parish priest of Kilbroney.

The years after World War II saw a big decline in membership of the temperance societies, due in large measure to the creation of the welfare state and greater prosperity, allied to the provision of better housing for working-class people. The growing popularity of sporting and recreational activities also provided an alternative to public houses and excessive drinking.

Medal bearing a profile of Father Theobald Matthew (1790 – 1856). These medals were given to those who had joined The Father Matthew O.S.F.C. Total Abstinence Society of the Sacred Thirst.  Newry and Mourne Museum Collection
Medal bearing a profile of Father Theobald Matthew (1790 – 1856). These medals were given to those who had joined The Father Matthew O.S.F.C. Total Abstinence Society of the Sacred Thirst. Newry and Mourne Museum Collection

However, as late as the 1950’s, the Rechabite Movement (a ‘friendly society’), which recruited children and young people, still had a large membership.

Newry and Mourne Museum is temporarily closed.

By Anna Marie Savage

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