Homily for Pioneer Total Abstinence Association Pilgrimage to Knock by Bishop John Fleming, Bishop of Killala

15 Jul 2007


15th July 2007

Homily for Pioneer Total Abstinence Association Pilgrimage to Knock Bishop John Fleming, Bishop of Killala

“We need to be alert to the dangers which surround drinking in the home” – Bishop Fleming

I think it is fair to say that we, the Irish, have been faced with the reality of alcohol abuse for generations, and there are few families in our country who have not been touched by this in one way or another. The Temperance Movement, begun by Fr Mathew almost two hundred years ago, reminds us of the length of time during which our people have confronted this problem and how deep an issue it is and has always been for our society. In the years immediately after Catholic Emancipation, many realised that the new freedom which had just been won would mean little in fact if the attitude of the Irish towards drinking did not change. As a result, between 1838 and 1856, Fr Mathew worked tirelessly for temperance and achieved remarkable results. However, within twenty years of his death, the Irish Bishops were again alerting their people, in very strong terms, to the culture of drinking in society. As a result, once more, temperance movements sprang up around the country and another priest, Fr Cullen, a Jesuit, took up the cause of Fr Mathew and founded the movement of which you are members, the Pioneer Movement. For a second time success was eventually followed by failure. The number of those in our country today who do not take a drink has dropped dramatically, while a culture of drinking has established itself firmly in our time.

This brief history of the temperance movement forces us to ask the question; what must we do in our time to ensure that the freedom and prosperity which we now have can continue to be enjoyed by us and by our children? In their recent Pastoral Letter, Alcohol, the Challenge of Moderation, the Irish Bishops said: “What a great legacy and gift it would be for our children in this new emerging country of ours if we would be the generation brave enough to promote and work for an attitude and culture of moderation rather than excess in our use of alcohol. If we could promote abstinence or moderation and create attitudes towards alcohol use that are conducive to a better and healthier way of life, then indeed we would be leaving a wonderful inheritance to future generations.”

I compliment the Government on the legislation already introduced, the Judiciary and the Gardaí on their efforts to implement and enforce it, and the many individuals and groups who campaign in the media to create a new awareness of the destructive nature of drinking to excess. While much has been done, there is much more to do and I encourage our legislators, in particular, to propose new and imaginative ways of helping to solve this issue.

The Special Eurobarometer Report, published in March 2007, said that “European public opinion is quite divided on who bears responsibility in protecting individuals from alcohol-related harm: 52% stated this was the responsibility of individuals themselves, 44% said public authorities.” However “Three quarters of the European Union population would agree with putting warnings on alcohol bottles and adverts in order to warn pregnant women and drivers of the dangers of drinking alcohol.” In so doing they underlined the effect which advertising has on the consumption of alcohol.

However, despite the best efforts of Government and the law, I believe that ultimately the answer to this problem lies where we may not wish it to lie; it lies with ourselves, with each and every one of us as individuals, and as members of our society. The fundamental question which everyone must ask and, in particular, those who are tempted to drink to excess, is: “what quality of life do I wish to have for myself, create for my family and encourage in society at large?”

Let us begin with ourselves. Given the nature of this pilgrimage, I feel that the majority of people present either abstain from taking a drink or drink in moderation. There may be some people here who have an ambivalent relationship with alcohol, struggling to keep a cap on their consumption, slow to say ‘no’ to the offer of a drink and yet uneasy about their pattern of drinking and fearful for the future. And, perhaps, there are some present for whom moderation is a fervent wish and a rarely attained reality, for whom the use of alcohol is a roller coaster of great expectations and even greater regrets.

In the final analysis, two facts stare each of us in the face; only you and I can decide whether or not we will take a drink. And secondly, if we decide to take a drink then we must decide how we drink; what rules we impose on ourselves with regard to our drinking so that our taking a drink is something which enriches our own lives and those of our families, rather than undermines or destroys either our own lives or those of our families.

Most of us live with others as members of a family. Each one of us has responsibility, therefore, not only for our own actions but also for creating within our families the conditions which lead to a happy, healthy, family life, one which can benefit fully from and enjoy the improved economic circumstances of modern Ireland. In the area of taking a drink each of us has a duty to ensure that no member of our family suffers from our drinking. In this regard I sometimes fear that the availability of cut price drink in ‘off-licences’ and in supermarkets is presenting many people nowadays with the opportunity to drink heavily or secretly at home. Statistics show that during the past ten years the consumption of alcohol in the home in Ireland has increased by 40%. While I am not encouraging people to take a drink in other places, I fear that drinking at home, alone or with friends, means that the sociable aspect associated with having a drink is often either eliminated or limited to a few, and that support for moderation is sometimes undermined. With drinking at home the danger of domestic violence also increases. While hospitality at home with family and friends is a valued aspect of family life, we also need to be alert, therefore, to the dangers which surround drinking in the home.

The first miracle which Christ performed was at a social event when he changed water into wine. There he saved a young couple from embarrassment and made sure that the guests had wine to drink. No one could accuse him of being a killjoy. I think we can take some guidelines from this for taking a drink; have it in the company of family and friends; have it on an occasion which is special and do not cause embarrassment or hurt either to you or to anyone else. In other words, if you take a drink, drink in moderation.

Allow me to end by quoting from what the Irish Bishops said about moderation in their Pastoral Letter: “We must accept that ‘more is not always better.’ Moderation is good news for health, relationships, for personal expenses and, most importantly, it is good for the human spirit. It brings satisfaction and a sense of well-being. We should not be shy to express our concerns about ‘the drink’ and to share our belief in the value of moderation.”


Further information:
Kathy Tynan, Communications Officer (086 817 5674)