For centuries, the Irish have been famed, and often derided, for their attachment to alcohol. Yet in the 1830s and 1840s, Ireland became a temperance stronghold. The man almost singlehandedly responsible for this surprising transformation was Father Theobald Mathew (1790–1856), a popular Franciscan friar. Over a ten-year period, five million Irish men, women, and children took the pledge at his hands, while hundreds of public houses were forced to shut their doors or switch to selling coffee and tea.
By the end of the 1840s, however, Mathew's "miracle" was already coming undone. The Great Famine was ravaging Ireland and Mathew's years of nonstop campaigning had left him sick, exhausted, and bankrupt. Undeterred, he traveled to the United States in 1849 to generate support and administer the pledge to as many new immigrants as he could find. Failing health forced him to return to Ireland where he died in 1856, leaving behind a weak and fragmented movement.
In the late nineteenth century, several Irish priests revived Mathew's crusade. In the United States, Irish American bishops supported the Catholic Total Abstinence Union (CTAU) and joined hands with the Women's Christian Temperance Union in their war against liquor. In Ireland, Father James Cullen formed the Pioneers, a total abstinence association for devout Catholics. While the CTAU languished after the United States Congress passed the Prohibition Amendment in 1919, the Pioneers continued to thrive in Ireland into the 1960s. Although the group's membership has declined in recent years, there are still today a large number of Irish teetotallers.