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.
While not demanding teetotalism, the ATL was designed to protect moderate drinkers from the Irish tradition of hospitality. It was like the political wing of the Pioneer Movement. And it was a great success for a while. Founded just in time to be mentioned in Ulysses (where the Jewish Bloom’s failure to stand a round is one of the reasons he’s considered less than Irish by the bar-flies in Barney Kiernan’s), it was soon being copied in other countries.
Mind you, it had been preceded, in the US at least – by anti-treating laws, that attempted to make standing drinks an actual offence. Indeed, in 1914, when the habit of treating trench-bound soldiers became a threat to military discipline, a similar law was tried (with little effect) in Britain.
But in the meantime, Ireland’s ATL appears to have been a triumph, if a short-lived one. Maybe its highpoint was 1916. This newspaper’s archive carries a report from that year’s Spring Assizes, where a judge noted that drink-related cases had fallen annually from about 82,000 to 55,000 in a decade, and credited the ATL with the “great wave of sobriety” sweeping Ireland.
After that, the archive falls ominously silent on the league, for half a century. And when next mentioned, in the 1960s, the phenomenon was a failed relic of the past.
In a 1962 Seanad debate on licensing, a speaker mentioned it in ironic vein, suggesting he’d never known anyone who had his pledge taken seriously. Similarly, during a 1974 temperance appeal, an archbishop lamented that the old ATL had been defeated (he didn’t say when) by scorn: “It was called the mean man’s league, and that was enough”.
Maybe, post 1916, it became a victim of the Troubles. Perhaps by 1921, Ireland had divided into pro-and-anti-Treating factions, pitting brother against brother, etc, with the pro-Treating forces again crushing the irregulars.
Either way, 90 years later, the round system continues. But I suggest that, as part of the decade of centenaries, we should consider a revival of the ATL, if only for strategic purposes. This time, the badge could be kept in a coat pocket, and produced only on special occasions, such as the approach of known round-shirkers. These would be sure to ask what the letters stand for, and the rest of the conversation would take care of itself.