The Battle Between Carnival and Lent: Temperance and Repeal in Ireland, 1829-1845


  • George Bretherton


Over a period of about six years in the late 1830s and early 1840s the Cork Total Abstinence Society under Father Theobald Mathew enrolled over six million members, a figure that seems not to have been a gross exaggeration. Most of the membership came from the poorest classes in lreland, in particular migrant agricultural workers or spalpeens, and the society was viewed with suspicion by the upper classes and the Protestant elite. The "Carnival" aspects of the old folk religion were sustained within the temperance movement by itinerant pledge-takers who sought out Father Mathew in the course of their annual trek in pursuit of work. What began on a note of fleeting carnivalesque revelry took on a millenarian character, however, as the agrarian crisis worsened and as temperance societies lost ground to the Repeal movement. With the defeat of the Repeal cause and the beginning of the Great Famine, the Irish underclasses were in for a lengthy season of Lent.