July 2, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

A Cultural Remission, or Not: Drinking and the Irish

Young America was a land where tremendous grain crops were commonplace, and many took advantage of the abundance by entering the distilling business. Our first President, George Washington was a very successful distiller, and many joined him in a trade that used up all that extra grain that didn’t make it to market in its natural state. This overabundance was balanced by voices that declared, “moderation in all things”, including that of Washington himself, but America became a land of excess drinking in the early decades of the 19th Century.

The consumption of spirits reached its apex by 1830, when 4 gallons of pure alcohol per capita was being consumed, both medicinally and for recreation after the work day. Many who labored in the most physically taxing professions were given a dram or two just to make it through the day, and found a bit of solace there in the evening as well. Prestigious families other than the one at Mount Vernon succeeded financially from the distilling business, including the McColgan family of Baltimore…more on that later.

This was in spite of many who did not drink at all, often due to age or religious reasons, and those who did partake were in the midst of a wave that was overcoming many. The consequences of drunkenness affected many families, businesses and individual lives. Leaders in society became resolute in their opposition to such an abundance of intoxicants, and temperance organizations began in the 1830’s.

Baltimore of all places was central in this drama. We might learn a bit about that in the stories surrounding its nickname of “Mobtown”, and the city’s role in bringing a young nation to war against the British crown in 1812. Fell’s Point’s workforce performed tremendously in the shipbuilding industry, but also developed a decided dislike of the ways of the British fleet on the open seas, where vessels they built and served on were hassled in dramatic ways.

Courage was built up in the waterfront bars of the era, and rioting made its way to Baltimore’s businesses and residences that displayed a measure of loyalty towards Britain, including the shops of newspaper printer Alexander Contee Hanson (pictured).

Perhaps it is logical that a city like Baltimore would be where some of the earliest efforts towards temperance would begin. Earliest records show that some hard drinking men went to hear an abstinence preacher one evening, and compared notes. Conviction was the operative word of the evening, and the group of six gathered at Chase’s Tavern on Liberty Street on April 2, 1840 to consider what they had heard, and what could be done. The Washingtonian Temperance Society was the result. It was named after our founding father who spoke often of moderation.

The organization flourished locally, and proved to be a catalyst towards a national temperance movement. Thousands became members, and meetings were held all over the city, including one on March 3, 1841 at a little place on the west side of Baltimore known as the Poppleton Street Catholic Schoolhouse. The school itself was run by Sisters of Charity and lay teachers, just a few blocks north of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s Mount Clare Station.

It was a positive move on the Washingtonian’s part to hold a meeting there, offering their own type of deliverance to those who needed the support of others who sought sobriety. Good for them… but another sheriff came to town. Archbishop Eccleston brought Father Edward McColgan (pictured) to Baltimore in 1842, with the intention of establishing St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church at N. Poppleton and Hollins Street for the developing Irish community of West Baltimore. The young priest was part of a family of distillers, but had decided to take a different path in the early years of his ministry.

The abuse of alcohol in Baltimore was obvious to the Father as he visited the nearby Almshouse, where he gave pastoral care to many. Wives and children left to their own devices arrived there as well, neglected by husbands and fathers who spent their paychecks at the corner saloon. Relief of these children was one of the first priorities of Father McColgan and his fledgling parish.

The young Pastor and a group of men met at newly named St. Peter’s Schoolhouse on October 23, 1842 to establish the Young Catholics Friend Society, whose purpose was to lend material and spiritual support to young boys of the area, especially those experiencing neglect or abandonment. The society would grow to the point that nearly every parish in Baltimore had a chapter, and these were instrumental in the formation of St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys in 1866. Thousands benefitted from the care given there in the coming decades, including a young man named George Herman (Babe) Ruth. He had been baptized at St. Peter’s in 1895, but did not do so well being raised above his father’s saloon.

Rev. McColgan founded the Catholic Temperance Society of Baltimore in 1849. This was the first of several temperance organizations at St. Peter's Church, and the Society became the largest Catholic temperance association in Baltimore. Temperance societies of the era tended to stay within the Catholic community, rather than having their men attend non-denominational gatherings around the city. Anti-Catholic bias at many of those meetings was fierce, especially during the period dominated by the Know-Nothing party of the 1850s.

St. Peter’s became a meeting place of several temperance organizations, including the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of Maryland. The Union had 12 chapters statewide, with over 1,000 members.

The Society of the Sacred Thirst was formed in later years, and via unique circumstances. A group of English meat cutters arrived in Baltimore in 1870, and several worked at Hollins Market (pictured above), located in St. Peter’s parish. Many were dissipated, and thought of as threatening characters by the local population as they brandished knives while under the strong influence of drink. McColgan called a meeting for the men of the congregation.

The basement of the church was filled to overflowing, and Father McColgan challenged those who were an embarrassment to their religion to take a pledge of total abstinence. Many did, and the Society of the Sacred Thirst was formed to aid the men in maintaining their commitment. Membership did not require a promise of total abstinence, but members committed to attend monthly meetings and do daily recitations of prayers included in the Societies’ handbook.

Rev. McColgan was just one of many Catholic leaders who advocated for temperance among their congregations. They did so within their own local parishes, but also on full display at gatherings such as St. Patrick’s Day parades. The 1873 gathering featured four divisions of marchers, but none was larger than the Fourth Division.

That division was led by prominent pastors from the Catholic community, including Rev. Edward McColgan of West Baltimore’s St. Peter’s Church, Rev. Edmund Didier of St. Vincent de Paul and Father Bernard McManus (pictured above) of St. John the Evangelist Church: each an Irish parish. The pastors rode in barouches drawn by four horses each, and were followed by 1,000 men devoted to temperance. It seems that the Irish of the day saw no paradox between their Irish heritage and a life of sobriety.

This was the case in Ireland as well, as many followed the example of Father Theobald Mathew, a Capuchin priest who took the abstinence pledge in 1838. He led the Cork Total Abstinence Society, and was instrumental in changing the perception of such “dry” organizations from being under a bit of suspicion to a commonplace, mainstream gathering of support and care. Mathew began his movement with just a few hundred teetotalers, but by 1842 an amazing 5,000,000 Irish had taken the pledge. Doing so was considered a way of asserting to British authorities that the Irish people were a sober, industrious race. Daniel O’Connell, known as the Liberator by Catholics, also became a temperance man.

Taking the pledge as a patriotic display did not work for the Irish as they had hoped. The devastating famine of 1845-52 showed them that a more ominous threat than drink was upon them.

Reverend Edmund Didier (pictured below), pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, purchased the former McKim home on East Baltimore St. in 1879 with his own $7,000. He had a vision for a gathering place for churches and Catholic organizations of the greater Archdiocese that would offer an alternative to the diversions found at local street corners and saloons. He named it Carroll Hall after America’s first bishop, John Carroll.

The first floor was rented out to others, including Joseph Strauss, a music teacher. The upper floors were used for a bowling alley, billiards and an auditorium, as well as meeting rooms. Small dividends were used by the pastor to feed the poor out the back door, on Watson Street.

Pastor Didier’s perception of how popular a “dry” venue would be did not manifest itself, and contrasted with the financial realities of running a social hall for Baltimore’s greater Catholic community. Rental prices were beyond what many were willing to pay at a social hall that did not allow alcohol to be served, as per the pastor’s requirements. Some Catholic organizations looked for accommodations at a discount, or even free of charge.

The board of Carroll Hall was forced to open its doors to secular organizations, just to make ends meet, and the goals of Pastor Didier were compromised. Rather than sending good money after bad, Carroll Hall was sold to a group of parishioners on March 13, 1888 at a considerable loss. It later became the Labor Lyceum.

Baltimore, and notably its Irish community has had its share of struggles with alcohol and overconsumption. Times do change, and people are a bit shocked when they learn that St. Patrick’s Parades of 150 years ago included 1,000 men marching on behalf of temperance.

Each of us whose family has been in Baltimore for many years have ancestors who went to churches where the pastor was likely a temperance man, and strove to bring his congregation into the fold. However, some modern men of Irish and other ethnicities often consider non-drinkers as odd, and under suspicion as holier-than-thou figures.

An interesting comment was made concerning the dichotomy by author Richard Stivers in a book on Irish and the drink (citation below). His studies led him to view Ireland’s relationship with the drink in the late 19th century in this way: "Male drinking was a moral demand in Irish culture; a cultural remission"... and yet Jesuit Priest James Cullen formed the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart (image above) just a few years later. It seems that there were two sides of the coin even then.

Our beloved Baltimore and its many Irish continue to run with their own crowds who gather at various points along the spectrum. Some are regular, responsible imbibers, while others take things a bit far, especially during a season where we honor our patron Saint; really? Others choose not to drink, or have taken a more modern pledge of temperance.

This is true of Irish men in many families…loved ones who have “hit bottom”, as Friends of Bill would say, and gather at meetings across town with others who are taking things “one day at a time”. My grandmother had the Serenity Prayer on display in her home for all those years. Men that we both loved gathered regularly around town, working on the twelve steps with others. Their fellow gatherers usually left their surnames at home, whatever they happened to be.

Thanks to each who contributed to this article, including:

Baltimore Sun

Catholic Archives @ St. Mary's Seminary

Christine Balmert Marshall and Family

Additional reading can be found at these sources:

Cullen, William. It's a Long Way from Penny Apples ( TOR/Forge Press), 2004 .(recommended; a book that gives a different perspective from the classic work by Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes)

Elizabeth Fee, Linda Shopes and Linda Zeidman, eds. The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 1991.

Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: a Forgotten Conflict (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press), 1990.

Rorabaugh, W.J. The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (New York: Oxford Press), 1979.

Stivers, Richard. A Hair of the Dog: Irish Drinking and American Stereotype (University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press), 1976.

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