Can an Irish party be fun without a fully stocked bar? Absolutely, say members of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, who gathered in the Bronx last Saturday for a night of alcohol-free enjoyment.  Debbie McGoldrick reports.

The Irish and alcohol…well, it’s complicated.  We all know the drunken Paddy stereotype, which gains a new lease on life each year when the St. Patrick’s Day season rolls around.  The rap is -- let’s be honest -- sometimes deserved, but more often than not the Irish are well able to enjoy a cocktail in moderation.

There’s also an extremely sociable group of Irish and Irish Americans who have never sipped a creamy pint after work and are more than happy to drink a soda without the scotch.  In fact, the vast majority of them have never in their lives even had a taste of alcohol.

Who are these people, and how do they not only survive but thrive in this day and age where alcohol is so much a part of the culture?

They’re members of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart, and on Saturday night in the school gymnasium at St. Margaret of Cortona in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, more than 100 of them gathered for their annual dance.  Many proudly wore their Pioneer pins signifying membership in the Catholic-based group which considers alcohol – or, at least, excessive use of it -- a detriment to living a good life.

The focus of the dance, just as it used to be back in the golden days of the Irish dance halls, was socializing and waltzing, meeting new friends and enjoying the music.  There was plenty to drink, too – lots of Poland Spring bottles, Coke and Fanta and ginger ale, and coffee and tea to go with the Irish soda bread and mini apple tarts. 

Irish dancers Olivia Ward, Brianna Gerold, Claire Tunnock.

Irish dancers Olivia Ward, Brianna Gerold, Claire Tunnock.

Everyone had a ball. And not one drop of alcohol was needed to enhance the merriment.  It never is when the Pioneers gather.

“You know, you can’t really miss what you’ve never had,” said Jimmy O’Connor, a native of Co. Kerry who has been a Pioneer all his life.

“And there’s nothing wrong with being clear headed when you wake up in the morning!”

The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart was founded in Dublin in 1898 by Father James Cullen, who was concerned by the ill-effects alcohol was having on the Irish family at the time.  It wasn’t uncommon for breadwinners to head to the nearest pub with their weekly wages, returning home to their families worse for wear and practically broke to boot.

According to the Pioneer website, “From the beginning, members – who joined in their thousands – pledged three things: to abstain from alcohol for life (which Father 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.”

Confirmation time is when Irish children were – and in many instances still are -- asked to take the Pioneer pledge by the Catholic Church.  Nowadays the vast majority break it – and it usually doesn’t take long -- but in the early and middle part of the 20th century being a Pioneer wasn’t at all unusual in Ireland.  Those who have maintained the lifestyle swear by it.

“We look upon it as a sacrifice,” said Father Terence Lee, a native of Co. Cavan and a member of the Mill Hill Missionaries in Hartsdale, Westchester County who serves as the chaplain for the New York chapter of the Pioneers. (Branches of the group exist in other states too.)

“It isn’t that we have anything against drink, but it can cause problems which we all know. Part of the pledge is to make reparation for the sins brought about by alcohol.”

The Tara Gold band took the St. Margaret’s stage to play old time waltzes and other Irish tunes, and the dance floor was comfortably busy throughout the night.  The average age of the guests was older than 65, all of whom were in high spirits – no pun intended – and eager to talk about what being a Pioneer has meant to their lives.

Tara Gold kept the music coming.

Tara Gold kept the music coming.

O’Connor, a native of Kenmare, Co. Kerry and a past president of the Kerrymen’s Association in New York – he also led the effort to purchase the building on McLean Avenue in Yonkers which became the Kerry Hall – will turn 69 this year and has been a Pioneer since Confirmation.  He came from a family of 14 – not all of them kept the pledge – and hasn’t once desired a drink.

“Not at all. That doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else. It’s just that it never mattered to me.  I can have fun without it,” he said.

“Look around here. People are really enjoying themselves. We don’t need drink to do that. I like to remember when I go out, and I wouldn’t want a hangover either.”

Jimmy and his wife Nano, who enjoys an occasional alcoholic beverage, have four children.  They’re American-born, and they aren’t Pioneers.

“That’s fine though. They’re good kids and don’t drink to excess,” he says.

Being a Pioneer brought immense faith and a helping hand to Jimmy’s life when he needed it most.  Diagnosed several years ago with stage four leukemia, he was part of a clinical trial that resulted in a miracle: he’s been cancer-free for 12 years.  After his last chemo treatment, he remembers his first port of call – the Pioneer dance in Queens, where he and Father Lee were being honored.

Jimmy took his new lease on life and challenged himself to run the New York City Marathon, inspired to do so by a runner who helped him in his health battle.  He achieved his goal in 2005, body and mind strengthened, he proudly says, thanks to his faith in the Sacred Heart.

“People can really achieve things if they put their mind to it.  And I think being a Pioneer really helped me so much,” Jimmy adds.

Father Lee took to the gymnasium stage to present a Pioneer certificate confirming 60 years of membership to Hugh Doonan, 86, a Brooklynite whose father was a native of Co. Tyrone.  Hugh also played the bodhran alongside Tara Gold and joked that he had been tempted “many times” by the drink.

Hugh Doonan received his 60-year Pioneer certificate from Father Terence Lee and Terry Reynolds.

Hugh Doonan received his 60-year Pioneer certificate from Father Terence Lee and Terry Reynolds.

“I really wanted to make the sacrifice,” he said.

The Pioneer prayer was recited at the dance, which members say every single day: “For thy greater Glory and consolation, O most Sacred Heart of Jesus, for Thy sake, to give good example, to practice self-denial, to make reparation to Thee for the sins of intemperance and for the conversion of excessive drinkers, I will abstain for life from all intoxicating drinks. Amen.”

Simple yet powerful words to live by, but carrying forth the Pioneer message isn’t nearly as easy today as it was in the Ireland of yesteryear.  Binge drinking among the youth is a persistent problem, and the benefits of devotion to the Sacred Heart can be overwhelmed by peer pressure and easy access to alcohol.

“It’s fading away gradually,” lamented Terry Reynolds, a native of Co. Longford and one of the organizers of Saturday’s dance.  “It’s different for the youth today.  Being a Pioneer isn’t as promoted in schools as it was when we were young.  Young people look at you like you’re crazy.”

Reynolds’ parents were Pioneers, as are four of his surviving siblings.   A retired carpenter who lives in Yonkers with his wife Josephine, he has two grown daughters, one of whom, Martha, was selling tickets for the evening’s raffle which featured many baskets, none of them filled with the usual wine and whiskey prizes.  On offer instead were items like tins of Irish biscuits, scarves and gift certificates.

Martha Reynolds isn’t a Pioneer, nor is her mother Josephine or other sister.  “There was no pressure from Dad. I took after Mom,” she laughs.  “I did think about it though. I really admire him for it.”

There were other non-Pioneers enjoying the evening too.  Philomena McHale from Co. Meath and Maureen Cremin from Co. Roscommon were with their teetotaler friend Jimmy O’Connell from West Limerick, a former publican and lifelong Pioneer.  The ladies enjoy occasional drinks, but Jimmy, a former publican, says he could never be bothered.

The owner of the old Bunratty bar in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx back in the 1970s when it was predominantly Irish, and another pub in Queens, Jimmy says he avoided temptation easily.

“I used to keep lamb juice at either end of the bar,” he remembered.  “I never had a problem.  Owning pubs never made me tempted to drink at all.”

The Traynors – Kathleen from Co. Cork and Tommy from Co. Armagh – are Pioneers who live in Yonkers and raised six children.   “Yes, they do drink, but it’s different times,” said Tommy.

“We never drank and we never thought to.  We took the pledge at Confirmation and that was that.  There was never money around to buy a drink even if you wanted to.”

The problem these days, Kathleen says, is the emergence of the bar scene as a social outlet, as opposed to the old-time dances.

“It’s all bars now. There are no more dance halls so it’s tough for young people,” she said.

“I remember when we used to go out, we’d be dancing non-stop from nine in the evening until two in the morning. We never wanted to drink. All we wanted to do was dance. It was a great way to meet people.”

The Traynors subscribe to Pioneer magazine, a monthly published in Ireland, and admit that though the heyday of the Pioneers may be in the rearview mirror, the group is far from extinction.

“We see a fair few of them.  There are Pioneers in many places,” Kathleen said.

Father Lee agrees.  “The Pioneers are becoming more prominent in many other countries, particularly where Irish missionaries are stationed. It is very encouraging,” he feels.

Mary Connolly Sherry’s parents were Pioneers.  Her two American-born children are too, as are her five American granddaughters.  That pretty much accounts for everyone in her family, bar her late husband Arthur, who passed three years ago.  He was an occasional drinker.

Mary would be well-known around the New York Irish music scene.  She’s a lovely singer, and her son Derrick is a musician too.  She was born in Harlem to parents from Co. Monaghan; they returned there when she was a child, and Mary married when she was 18.  She and Arthur made their way to New York and settled in Riverdale. 

A daily Mass-goer, Mary remembers the priest at her Confirmation, Father Maguire, as “totally against drink. He wanted every kid in the Pioneers.  I said when I turned 16 that I would be a Pioneer for good. I have never had a drink and it’s never appealed to me.”

She and Derrick, who has two daughters with his wife Michelle, would play the Irish bars and never touch a drop.  Derrick is 47, “and I would tell him, have a soda, have some water,” his proud mother says.  “And I’d say the same to my daughter,” an instructor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent.

Mary is an old school Irish lady of the best kind, living a life centered on family and faith.  She’s particularly pleased at how her five granddaughters, aged between 14 to 21, are developing.  The eldest is a student at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. and proudly wears her Pioneer pin, her grandmother reports. 

“Of course there’s a lot of drinking and partying and BS in college, but it doesn’t bother her,” Mary says.

“Another of my granddaughters calls me every night and we say the Pioneer prayer together.  Not one of the girls would miss Sunday Mass.

“Will they stick as Pioneers? They will, they will. I want to tell you I have no doubt, and I have no worry about them.”

Mary attends the monthly meetings of the New York Pioneers at the rectory in St. Margaret’s.  She remembers bringing her two children when they were young to similar meetings, and the games they would enjoy.

“We would play musical chairs. Can you imagine a kid playing musical chairs now?” she asks.  “It was so simple then, simple and better.  Now they have to have top notch cell phones, and they have to be on them when they are talking to you.  I tell my grandchildren that I won’t put up with that nonsense. They know the rules.”

The world has changed for better in many ways, Mary says, but not all the progress has been good.  She rolls her eyes at social media – “the absolute worst,” she says in an Irish accent as thick as the day she left Ireland – and the corrosive effect it can have on young people, particularly in regards to drinking.

“There’s nothing to be gained from that at all. I’m not against drinking if it’s done in moderation. That’s fine. But today’s kids? It’s frightening what some of them get up to,” she says.

“For me, I go to Mass every day, I wear my Pioneer pin, and I believe the Sacred Heart takes care of me.  And I’ve lived a good life.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic, as everyone at Saturday’s dance, Pioneer or not, would absolutely agree.   

(For more on the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart, visit