Irishman's diary: Not standing on principle
An Irishman’s Diary about the Anti-Treating League
‘It struck me that Irish people could do with some defence mechanism to protect against this national compulsion to stand rounds, and against the related but equally ingrained tendency to say no – whether meaning it or not – to offers of hospitality from others.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Some years ago, I was entertaining a visitor from overseas – I won’t say from where, exactly, so I can retain deniability if he reads this. And every time we entered a pub together, as happened often, I would say something like: “Let me get this one.” Whereupon, invariably, he did.
There came a point when I was trying to bite my lip before offering, or failing that, trying to make the offer sound unconvincing. But it never worked. Worse, on one occasion, he made a half-hearted attempt to pay for a round. And I was appalled to hear myself say: “No, no, I’ll get it”. As patently insincere as this was meant to be, it still trumped his pathetic effort. The tab was mine, again.
It struck me then that Irish people could do with some defence mechanism to protect against this national compulsion to stand rounds, and against the related but equally ingrained tendency to say no – whether meaning it or not – to offers of hospitality from others.
After all, the habit doesn’t just leave us at the mercy of tourists who don’t understand the culture. We all know natives who have also somehow acquired immunity, and can take advantage of the afflicted.
But as I discovered recently, Ireland used to have exactly such a defence mechanism. It was a thing called the Anti-Treating League, which flourished for a time during the last century. Membership came with a lapel badge signifying that the wearer was sworn, for moral reasons, never to a offer drink to others, nor to accept it. He remained free, meanwhile, to buy alcohol for himself.
The league’s founders were not primarily concerned with tourists, or even with local cadgers. Their only concern was intemperance. But they reasoned that treating had become the main cause of unplanned inebriation in Ireland, since it tended to increase the number of drinks that every member of a group would otherwise have.
A clergyman of the time explained the evil in mathematical terms. He argued that, left to himself, a farmer celebrating the sale of livestock might have “one measure” in the pub, and then go home.
If joined by a neighbour, however, they would together buy “four measures”; if by another neighbour, nine; by a fourth, 16; and so on. In another words, it was a square-number sequence. And as the clergyman complained, publicans could hardly have devised a more ingenious scheme to increase sales.