Boardwalk Empire: Fighting the ‘empire’ of demon drink

That great philosopher Homer -- Simpson, that is -- once had this to say about Prohibition: “They tried that in the movies and it didn’t work.”


Well, now they are trying it on cable TV. On Sunday, Boardwalk Empire, the new mini-series from America’s greatest director Martin Scorsese, will make its debut on HBO.

Dubbed the “best TV show” of the season by many critics, Boardwalk Empire is about the creation of gambling Mecca Atlantic City -- which happened to come at roughly the same time as alcohol was banned in America.

In fact, a central character in Boardwalk Empire is an Irish immigrant who -- saints preserve us! -- supports prohibition.

Scottish actress Kelly McDonald plays Margaret, a member of a temperance organization who is also in an unhappy marriage. Margaret is befriend by “Nucky” Johnson (Steve Buscemi). Why this powerful, shadowy gangster-type is assisting such a lonely lass is one question that will surely be answered as the show unfolds.

Is there any historical truth here? After all, bad stereotypes aside, it’s a well-established fact that most American supporters of the alcohol ban were small-town or rural Protestants who (to be generous) were suspicious of the Irish and other ethnic groups huddled in big cities.

But as it turns out, Scorsese and the Boardwalk Empire crew have history on their side. There was indeed a vibrant Irish American temperance movement. As Ripley might say, believe it or not.

Now, let’s be clear. The temperance movement was led mainly by WASPs who were suspicious of America’s move towards a more diverse, urban society in the 1920s.

In fact, even the Ku Klux Klan “supported prohibition as a weapon against immigrants,” Daniel Okrent notes in his new best-selling book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.

In fact, Okrent also notes that some “dry” Americans (as the prohibition forces were known) faced a problem when their anti-Catholic feelings ran up against their anti-alcohol impulses.

When New York’s own Al Smith ran for president in 1928 -- with his thick New York accent, Tammany Hall background and Irish roots -- he was the first Catholic to make a serious run for the White House.

This did not sit well with the likes of Rev. Bob Jones, who said, “I would rather see a saloon on every corner than a Catholic in the White House.”

Jones even said that, rather than a Catholic, he’d prefer a black president, though he used a word much more offensive than “black.”

That all being said, Boardwalk Empire’s Margaret has several historical ancestors -- which is to say, Irish American women who sought to end the pernicious influence of “the demon rum.”

There was even a Catholic Prohibition League of America, though its membership rolls were never exactly flush.

A history of the Catholic Total Abstinence League, meanwhile, was published in 1951, entitled The Hibernian Crusade, though good luck finding a copy of that tome (by Joan Bland) these days.
Leonora Barry, for example, was born in Cork and came to America and is best known as a trailblazing union organizer, most notably with the Knights of Labor.

But Barry was also a well-known proponent of prohibition. The same with Limerick native Charlotte Grace O’Brien.

These women, and many others, linked prohibition with the uplifting of the Irish race in America.
They also linked the anti-alcohol movement with labor organizing, Irish independence and other progressive causes.

This should not be surprising because, as scholar Deirdre M. Moloney has written, Irish American reformers were inspired by events in Ireland itself.

They “drew extensively from Father Theobold Matthew’s mid-19th century Irish temperance campaign in forming an American Catholic movement,” according to Moloney, who added that “temperance became an Irish issue.”

Not quite for everyone, of course. But give Boardwalk Empire credit for showing us another side of the Irish American experience.

However, to paraphrase Homer Simpson: “Temperance. Psh. They tried that in Ireland and it didn’t work.”

(Contact Sidewalks at tomdeignan@earthlink.net or facebook.com/tomdeignan)

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