Public Drunkenness in Waterford, 1877-1912, Part II

In my last post, I noted that all of the data provided by the reports in the British Parliamentary Papers on public drunkenness in Ireland would take a long time to unpack. Now that I have arranged most of the summary data for Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Dublin and Belfast and Waterford county, I will make some tentative first steps into providing more context for the figures.

I will give an overview of some of my findings in the statistics for each period – roughly divided between the decades, along with where I have been able to find them, some newspaper material from the Munster Express which helps to add broader context for the view of public drunkenness in Ireland, and Waterford specifically, in each period.


The statistics began in 1877, and that November the Munster Express carried a report in which the Bill that started these statistics being collected was discussed in Waterford. The bill, which by its shortened name was The Sale of Liquors on Sunday (Ireland) Act, came into effect in October of 1877. The Munster Express report was the evidence given in relation to Waterford at the Select Committee hearing on the Bill in April of 1877. Among the interesting things that are mentioned in the course of the evidence given is this from a Mr Marten who notes that, when compared with a similar sized port town like Dover, the figures for drunkenness there were 88.

As to whether this would be a guide to the figures to be expected in Waterford Marten responds that “If I had the charge of the constabulary I could either double these figures or halve them. The inspector general of [sic] constabulary, by giving directions over Ireland, can either double those returns for drunkenness or halve them. If he orders the police to take up every man that shows any sign of drink on him, he would double them. If, on the other hand, he ordered the police only to take up persons incapable of taking care of themselves, or were annoying their neighbours, who, I think, are the only class who should be arrested, he would not [have] half so many returns.” This shows that some at least were alive to the potential subjectivity of these arrest figures.

Not alone that but Marten was also of the view that total closing on Sundays would have a negative impact, with people being forced to bring their drink home, or worse still, having to abstain altogether! Since it was only the public houses which were open, and there were no reading rooms or other places of recreation open on Sunday, people were in the habit of socialising in pubs on a Sunday. This is an interesting and important point when we consider the role that sport would soon come to play (and indeed had already been playing) in terms of drinking in Ireland. While for some sport would be a mode of encouraging greater temperance, sport and drink would prove in Ireland, as they did in Britain, cosy bedfellows. Indeed, Paul Rouse in Sport and Ireland has written that “In the 1880s leading GAA figures repeatedly sought to praise GAA players and specators for the manner in which they abstained from drink. There was more than a hint of wishful thinking to this.” As Rouse goes on to point out, “In reality, the GAA was awash drink.” The proof of this was in the “regularity of the rules passed at local and national level by the GAA calling for drunkenness at matches to be quashed.”

So in those early days of the Act, and its enforcement, how did things fair out? in the first year, 1877, there was some 114 people arrested under the terms of the Act. Nearly all of the arrests, 80, were made between the hours of 7pm and midnight on a Sunday. The two single biggest days were 2nd December 1877 when some 6 people were arrested – one between 2pm and 7pm, and 5 between 7pm and midnight and the 5th of January 1878 when some 7 people were arrested. On this Sunday these arrests took place as follows: one between 8am and 2pm, five between 2pm and 7pm, and one between 7pm and midnight. There is every chance that in both cases where there were five people. this was a group rather than five separate individuals.

Out in County Waterford in the same period, that first year saw some 84 people being arrested for being drunk in public on a Sunday under the provisions of the new Act. This was not a great deal lower than the city. However, one suspects that in its first year enforcement was rather stronger than the two following, as the figures in county Waterford drop to just 22 the following year in 1878-79 and go up marginally to 39 in 1879-1880. There is a similar drop in Waterford 34 in 1878-79 and it rises once more in 1879-1880 to 84, a figure not unlike that quoted for Dover, so perhaps this was something more like the real or accurate figure.


The 1880s proved to be a much drunker decade, if we take this statistics at face value. From the middle of 1880 to the middle of 189o there was a total 1.013 people arrested under the provisions of the Act. From 1883-1886 and from 1888-1890 were the two worst periods. From 1883-1886 there was some 312 arrests, averaging out at just over 100 a year. From 1888-1900 meanwhile there 291 arrests, 150 in 1888-89, and 141 in 1889-90. Some dates in particular stand out from 1888. Take the 24th June, for instance. On that date, some 7 people were arrested between 7pm and midnight alone. During the same five hour period a few weeks later, on the 15th July, 8 people were arrested. Similarly, the 11th November and 23rd December, two days before Christmas, saw 6 and 4 people being arrested, respectively.

Not surprisingly this points to the fact that people were (and still are) more likely to drink excessively around holidays and summertime.  One man, who was one of two arrested on Sunday 8th July, had it noted by his counsel that that particular Sunday was a “Pathron Day”, a pattern or fair day, by way of defence. The judge was unmoved and fined the defendant 10 shillings.

The situation in county Waterford wasn’t a great deal better. In the 1883-1886 period, there were some 282 arrests made, almost matching the figure in the city. And in the final two years of the decade, some 161 arrests were made. While this was well short of the city figure, it was still quite high. The total figure for the county in this decade was 747 arrests for Sunday drunkenness.


If the end of the 1880s seemed bad, then they were apparently merely a precursor to a particularly sozzled decade in Waterford city. For the whole decade, the numbers arrested for being drunk in public on a Sunday under the 1877 Act was 1,457. Taking the county figures into consideration, 958, the total for the period came to 2,415. Only in year was the figure for arrests under one-hundred, for the period 1891-1892. Even then, the arrest total was 98. The worst year in the city was 1892-1893, when some 186 arrests were made. 1895-1896 represented the worst period in the county, when some 237 people were arrested. This figure in fact represents the single biggest figure in the city or the county not just for the 1890s, but the entire period 1877-1912. Figuring out what was going in Waterford in this decade will be vital to understanding public drunkenness.

Looking more closely at the breakdown of figures for 1892-83, what becomes apparent especially about the summer of 1892 is that the arrests were consistent each weekend, rather than any mass occasion. In the most statistically significant timeslot, 7pm to midnight on Sunday, we see figures of 3,4,5,6 or 7 being arrested. The figure of 7 being arrested comes from Sunday 17th July, which as you’ll recall was also a significant date back in 1888. This suggests that there is every chance that the highest figures will emerge consistently across the 3rd weekend of July, something I hope to eventually put to the test. Sunday 27th November saw the biggest single haul in 1892, when some 8 people were arrested in the 7pm-midnight timeslot from a total of 10 that day.

A quick look at just one Dungarvan petty sessions report helps to give some indication of the extent of the drunkenness, in the eyes of the law, in Waterford in the decade. In the sessions reported in the Munster Express on May 24th 1892, some eight men were fined variously for being drunk in the street (not all on a Sunday) while there was also heard at the same session a breach of the Licensing Act in a pub on a Sunday.

There was a big raid on a pub in Knockboy, Co. Waterford on 14th April 1895, where a publican was found to be serving some 63 people, most of whom gave false names, and only 11 of whom could prove they were bona fide travellers who lived more than three miles away. Of those identifiable out of the 63, there was just 29 who stood to be prosecuted. As it was reported in the newspaper, the judge chose to view the case as a test case, as much about the distance from the pub to Waterford, as to whether or not any breach of the law had occurred. For his part, the publican, claimed that the various men that the RIC constables had seen at the premises at different times of the day were different men each time, it was in his words, a shop where was “drink and go”. Thus he claimed that some 121 individuals passed through the doors of the pub during the RIC constables two visits. One especially interesting aspect of the court proceedings was the class element and whether those in the pub were “respectable” or otherwise:

Munster Express, 25 May 1895.

This was not just a test case for the judge, but is a kind of test case for understanding the various strands of drunkenness and its policing in general in late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Ireland. The extent to which the loopholes that existed in the law were being used by publicans, by those in search of a drink, and the clear class bias displayed by the police and the courts towards those drinking on a Sunday are all apparent in this raid.


As the 1890s gave way to the first decade of the new century, there was precious little let up in the drinking in Waterford city, although the county did see a significant drop in arrests for public drunkenness on a Sunday in this period. The statistics for this decade differ greatly from the previous twenty-plus years as they begin to include from 1905 onwards figures from 9pm on a Saturday night, and the old time fram is broken down into further constituent pieces. So it is that the 7pm-midnight time slot is broken down into 7pm to 9pm and 9pm to midnight on a Sunday.

While it is dangerous still at this early stage to speculate overly about what these changes might be related to, it is possible that there was an observable shift in people’s habits of drinking so that the majority was being done on a Saturday rather than a Sunday night. Similarly, the reasoning for breaking down the 7pm-midnight slot into two smaller time slots is not, to me at least, readily apparent. However, there is surely some rationale which lies behind the desire for more detailed statistics.

Not counting the Saturday figures (which are recorded only from 1905 onwards) , the first half of the decade is the worst in terms of Sunday drinking with 181 arrests being made between 1902-03. But from the time Saturday drunkenness begins being recorded, there is a noticeable drop-off in the arrests made on Sunday so that by 1910, there are just 43 arrests made for public drunkenness on Sundays that year. The figure that year is also low for Saturday night arrests, with the combined total just 85. The first year when Saturday arrests were included saw the figure for the whole year shoot from just 136 for Sunday drunkenness to a combined figure of 369 arrests that year running from 9pm on Saturday night to 8am on Monday morning.

In the county, there is a steady decrease from the end of the 1890s that is observable after the high point of 1895-1896, which suggests a strong crack-down on the exploitation of loopholes in the law like the bona fide traveller rule, as we saw in the Knockboy case. Even including Saturday night figures, by 1910, the total number of arrests for being drunk in public in county Waterford came to just 69.


This fall off continues into the last two years of the reports I am looking at, with figures in city and county at similarly low levels. This suggests that there was probably a complete shift away from Sunday drinking, a relaxation of the prosecution of Sunday drinking, or most likely some combination of both forces working together. In the city, for 1911, the total arrests for drunkenness on Saturday and Sunday was 100, 57 of those coming on a Saturday night. In 1912, the total figure was 144, with 102 of those arrests coming on a Saturday night. Likewise the great bulk of the arrests in the county for both years came on Saturday nights, 40 and 68 for 1911 and 1912, respectively. This might perhaps be the most readily discernible pattern over the 35 year span of these reports, the decline of Sunday drinking following its peak in the 1890s, when people attempted to exploit loopholes in the law so that they could drink more easily in the countryside than in the city.

These are just some initial observations on Waterford, but I still am unlikely to have done much more than scratched the surface of what these statistical reports can tell us, or indeed what we can glean from the newspapers or other sources.



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