The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart was founded by Fr. James Cullen S.J. in the Church of Saint Francis Xavier, Gardiner Street, Dublin, on 28 December 1898. Fr Cullen was born in New Ross, Co Wexford, in 1841 and entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1881.
Fr. Cullen was always concerned with social issues, and his motivation in setting up the Pioneers was to address the enormous damage that he saw excess alcohol was doing in the Ireland of his times. Many workers were heavy drinkers, and alcohol was the greatest drain on the weekly earnings of the family.
He had four co-founders: Mrs. A Egan, Mrs. ML Bury, Mrs. AM Sullivan, and Miss L Power. All of them were women, as Fr Cullen's early vision was of an all-female organization which, through its prayers and sacrifice in pledging to abstain from alcohol for life, would provide spiritual support for people to abstain from alcohol. A very short time into the organization, after much pressure from men to join, Fr Cullen extended the membership to all.
From the beginning, members – who joined in their thousands – pledged three things: to abstain from alcohol for life (which Fr 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.
Fr Cullen was a tireless and good organizer. He put his considerable energies into building up the association which he founded. In 1905, after five years, there were 43,000 members. In 1906 there were 70,000, and by 1910 there were 100,000. In 1917, even though a considerable number had been expelled for failure to live up to the pledge, membership came to 250,000. In the 1950s, as many as one in three Irish adults were members. And even though membership has declined considerably since then, there are still more than 100,000 Pioneers in Ireland today.
The Pioneers have played a very important role in Irish society in the 20th century. The historian Ulick O’Connor claims that the two organizations that contributed most to the building of modern Ireland were the Pioneers and the GAA. Some influential members include:
Venerable Matt Talbot: Dubliner Matt Talbot (1856 - 1925) was born and grew up in poverty and quickly became addicted to drink. At the age of 28 he became a pioneer and remained off alcohol for the remaining 40 years of his life. His life story of sacrifice and prayer has been an inspiration for alcoholics and addicts throughout the world. He is a candidate for canonization in the Catholic Church.
Venerable Edel Quinn (1907 – 1943): This courageous and religious Cork woman played a key role in spreading the role of the Legion of Mary in Africa. She became a pioneer as a young woman and remained true to her pledge for life.
Servant of God Fr. John Sullivan SJ (1861-1933)
Servant of God Frank Duff (1889 – 1980). Frank Duff founded the Legion on Mary in Dublin in 1921. Many Pioneers were subsequently to become members of the legion of Mary as well as the PTAA.
For further information see:
- ‘A Nation of Extremes: the Pioneers in 20th Century Ireland’ by Dr. Diarmuid Ferriter.
- Pledged for Life by Fr. Bernard McGuckian SJ [Click here to buy]
- ‘A Century of the Pioneers’ by Fr. Bernard McGuckian SJ [Click here to buy]