I’m a pioneer... it’s no big deal, but our role is still important

In his weekly column John Arnold reflects on life as a pioneer
I’m a pioneer... it’s no big deal, but our role is still important

John Arnold doesn't drink but says he loves public houses for the banter and craic. Picture: Stock

I MUST admit that I don’t say the Pioneer ‘Heroic Offering’ every day. As a fully-fledged member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, it is a duty to daily recite the little prayer composed by Fr Cullen our founding Father back in 1898 but it sometimes gets forgotten in the hectic, frenetic craziness of everyday life.

When I got my Confirmation back in the 1960s part and parcel of the ceremony was the practise of ‘taking the pledge’. This was a promise given publicly in church to abstain from alcohol until ones 18th birthday. 

After that it was up to everyone’s personal choice as to whether they wanted to drink or not. My earliest and only memory of drinking whiskey is a bittersweet one or maybe ‘painfull’ would be a more apt phrase. I think I was about 11 or 12 when I got a woeful toothache one evening. Mam gave me a few Disprin and sent me off to bed. The tablets worked for a while but not for long. I was crying when I came downstairs, in an awful state. Mam tried Plan B. Below in the room was a piece of furniture called a dumbwaiter (‘tis still there) and in a drawer at the base of it was the alcohol ‘store’. Mam was a lifelong Pioneer as was my father - until he had to take stout ‘for the TB’ but that’s another story. There were always three or four bottles whiskey, brandy, port wine and of course poteen - for sick or ailing lambs or calves! On this occasion the bottle of whiskey was half empty. Mam sat me down on a nearby chair and gave the order ‘Open wide’ which I did. She then poured a big spoonful of whiskey on my sore tooth and then another - the thinking of the era, apparently, was that the alcohol would deaden or numb the nerve in the painful molar and give some relief. After about four spoonfuls it worked- not alone was the tooth, nerve and all, gone numb so was the whole side of my face! I wasn’t paralytic - more half paralysed but I went back to bed and slept like a log for a few hours.

Alas the effect wore off during the wee small hours of the morning. I got up and made my way downstairs to the room again. This time I administered the ‘drug’ myself. I spooned the amber liquid on the offending tooth, spoon after spoon - about ten in total. I’m not sure if I swallowed much of the whiskey but lads over half a century later I can still ‘taste’ the rotten odour from it! Well it worked and I never again had a problem with that particular tooth. It’s still in situ and intact but every nerve therein is long gone. I cant say that my dental encounter with whiskey put me off alcohol for life but it certainly didn’t give me any mind for it!

The October, 1961, edition of ‘The Pioneer’ magazine. The magazine is no longer being printed.
The October, 1961, edition of ‘The Pioneer’ magazine. The magazine is no longer being printed.

So I’m a Pioneer but it’s no big deal. I don’t drink alcohol and that’s it. 

People say ‘Aren’t you great’ and other things like that but that’s not how I feel. There are millions of people in this world who don’t drink alcohol and I just happen to be one of them. 

Becoming and staying a Pioneer has never been a big issue for me.

Back in 1998 when we as Pioneers were celebrating the Centenary of the PTAA foundation by Fr Cullen back in 1898 Cardinal Sean Brady wrote about what it means to be a Pioneer; “The witness of the Pioneer is silent and humble, gentle and kind and should be devoid of all superiority and arrogance”.

That’s it in a nutshell. I don’t hate drink or those who drink. 

I love public houses, especially in rural Ireland. I’m mad for the banter and craic. People who drink alcohol or no better or worse than those who choose not to imbibe. 

I remember years back I was in company and a slightly inebriated person on seeing my Pioneer Pin started a bit of a rant about ‘Pioneers being too men to buy a drink’. God knows it’s hard enough to have a logical conversation with a person ‘under the influence’ but at the time my favourite tipple was Ginger Ale so I pointed out that a pint of that beverage cost way more than a pint of plain - that finished the ‘meanness’ argument fairly lively all right!

I mentioned the daily recitation of the Heroic Offering - ‘ For Thy greater glory and consolation, O Sacred Heart of Jesus, for Thy sake, to give good example, to practise 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’.

That’s it so you see there’s religious ethos involved. Since the Pioneer movement began the Jesuit Order have been to the fore in the organisation. Some people question the need or relevance of the Pioneers in today’s world. There’s a simple answer to that. Once temperance, moderation and sobriety become the norm, well when that happens the Pioneer movement will be redundant. Unfortunately that Utopian situation is not here yet. No, excessive drinking and abuse of alcohol still cause major social problems, especially in Ireland.

Us Pioneers are not holding ourselves up in a ‘better than thou’ fashion but if we can show by example, even one person, that an alcohol-free life is perfectly normal and acceptable, then our role is still important.

I’ve often heard the joke being made that ‘Jesus wasn’t a Pioneer -sure he turned the water into wine -not orange juice’! but then I suppose in his time and place wine was more available than water. Anyway I must stress that as a Pioneer I’m not anti-drink - no I’ve no issue or problem with people enjoying alcohol at all. It’s the excesses and abuse that seems ingrained in the social DNA of this country that bothers me a lot.

I’m still proud to wear the Pin and apologise to no one for my stance. The Pioneer Association like everything else has seen major changes over the years.

Since Christmas we have had another cultural revolution. For decades the PTAA produced the monthly ‘Pioneer Magazine’ but like all other branches of the ‘print media’ circulation figures have declined. With ever increasing printing costs a decision was made recently to discontinue the production of the magazine. Instead from now on a Newsletter will be produced five or six times a year to ensure the message of the Pioneer movement is still publicised.

Moderation in everything is good and in relation to alcohol consumption it’s vital. Do I miss the fact that I don’t ‘drink’? That’s the million dollar question! 

What one never had I suppose one never misses and I reckon that’s the way I approach alcohol. Then again I’ve never ate Chinese food, never skied, never climbed Carrantuohill nor never learned to swim and all these absences haven’t caused me to lose any sleep.

The message of moderation and sobriety is a hard one to sell in face of the massive spending on drink advertising with its subliminal message that ‘if you don’t drink you can’t enjoy life’. For us who cherish the Pioneer values we can only try and show by example that alcohol isn’t everything and often creates more problems than solutions. Cheers, slainte - enjoy life and don’t drink too much.

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