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The Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart was founded in St Francis Xavier Church, Gardiner St, Dublin on 28th December 1898 by Fr James A Cullen. Fr Cullen was born in New Ross, Co Wexford, in 1841 and entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1901.
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.
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.
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 (1856 – 1925), Venerable Edel Quinn (1907 – 1943), Servant of God Fr. John Sullivan SJ (1861-1933), and Servant of God Frank Duff (1889 – 1980).