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Let’s toast the Irish Pioneers

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Mike's first book cover
'Tis the season to be jolly, and when you’re Irish that means plenty of temptation at holiday open houses! On one such evening, a friend wrapped his arm around my shoulder and raised his glass in a toast.

“Two Irish guys that come from a long line of drunks -- the tradition lives on!”

He had a look of surprise and disappointment when I didn’t lift my pint in response.

Both of my parents were Irish Pioneers, and they gave an oath to God around the time of their Confirmation to never touch a drop of alcohol. Many of their siblings and their children took the same oath.

According to the official Pioneer website, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association (PTAA) of the Sacred Heart was founded by the Wexford priest Father James Cullen in Dublin in 1898. As the story goes, his motivation in setting up the Pioneers was to address the enormous damage that he saw excess alcohol was doing in the Ireland of his times.

Many workers were heavy drinkers, and alcohol was the greatest drain on the weekly earnings of the family. Members pledged three things -- to abstain from alcohol for life (which Cullen referred to as “the heroic sacrifice”); to say the Pioneer prayer twice a day; and to bear witness by wearing the pioneer pin at all times.

The PTAA has always been underpinned by devotion to the Sacred Heart, and its emblem reflects this.

The existence of this organization comes as a complete surprise to the average Irish American, as well as some Irish-born people I know. Yet a dry household is a critical element to my Irish upbringing and has produced some interesting Irish customs.

Until recently, my mother would write to the Hallmark card company in protest over their portrayal of the Irish as drunks in their St. Patrick’s Day greetings. Public displays of liver-abusing reindeer games never played well with my parents, and we were always discouraged from partaking.

“Can yeh believe she’s walkin’ around like that?” Mom would huff, motioning her head in the direction of a bride walking from table to table at a wedding reception with a beer in her hand.

“Shows no class a’tall. Some people think the only way to have a good time is to have a drink in their hand.”

I don’t remember ever being asked by either parent to join the Pioneer movement when I was being confirmed; I don’t think I could have signed up for that, but there are times when I wished I did.

Coming to in a New Orleans gutter as a drug addicted drag queen rifles through your pants pocket for a wallet and God knows what else is one time when being a Pioneer would have been a good thing.

Waking up next to what looked like a warthog with lace undergarments caught in her tusks is another time that being a Pioneer would have been a good thing.

Steadying yourself with one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on a bottle of Windex as you gamely attempt to wipe the dried vomit from the passenger side carpet of your wife’s brand new car while your head pounds mercilessly is yet another instance where being a Pioneer would have been a good thing.

You get the idea. 

If I know my mother, she just read the last few paragraphs and said aloud to no one, “The eejit didn’t get that example from his parents!” As usual, my mother is right on the money.

“Lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself,” is a twist on the Lord’s Prayer that I usually utter before a shot of Jameson’s goes down the gullet, and truer words have never been spoken.

Despite the pristine example of clean living set by my parents, the bottle has tempted me into dark neighborhoods and it hasn’t always been easy to throw the car into reverse gear.  I never had to go down the road of attending church basements except for fundraising suppers, and for that I thank the Lord.

Speaking of the man upstairs, I’ve asked the Lord to take the wheel in those dark neighborhoods and you reading this proves that Jesus has mad stunt driving skills!

I was a bartender once, which is never a good profession when the bottle calls to me as loudly as it sometimes does. Back then, club soda was my best friend because it looked like a real drink when you dropped a wedge of lime into it.

“Let’s re-work that toast,” I say before pouring a club soda in a pint glass. “To the Pioneers and their sacrifices – let’s pray they gain entry into heaven a full half-hour before the devil knows they’re dead!”

Now THAT is something I’ll drink to!

(Mike Farragher's collection of essays makes a great gift! Check it out on www.thisisyourbrainonshamrocks.com.)

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