Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Matt Talbot: Model of Working Men, Inspiration for the Addicted

Matt Talbot

Matt Talbot, from a painting in St Francis Xavier Church, where he spent many hours in prayer.

The Venerable Matt Talbot can truly be said to be a model for any young worker. He was born on 2 May 1856, the second of a large, working-class family of 12 children in Dublin's inner city, nine of whom survived. Aged 12, he was sent out to work at a bottling store. It was here that he learned to take alcoholic drink to excess.

Despite being thrashed by his father and given a new job, it would be 15 years before he received the grace to take the pledge of total abstinence from alcohol and, even more extraordinarily, to keep it. During these years, a friend of the family later related, "he only wanted one thing - drink!"

In those times of general poverty and hardship, alcohol truly was a scourge of the working-classes in Ireland and elsewhere. Many movements were afoot to alter this sad state, and none was more celebrated or successful than the crusade for temperance preached by Father Mathew, a Capuchin. His labours culminated in a mass rally in the Phoenix Park in 1841, at which 250 000 people took the pledge. At that time, noted Archbishop Murray, the largest prison in Dublin was closed - for want of prisoners!

Religion had its place in the Talbot home, and the Rosary was always said. Unfortunately for all but one of the Talbot men, John , so did alcohol. Saturdays in particular were given over to this vice. According to the same contemporary witness, the Talbots were well known for arguing, and especially on Saturdays. Mrs Talbot had "a hard job of it, keeping the peace, but she could manage them all well enough." One such Saturday, Matt and two of his brothers had been standing outside a public house, penniless, in the hope that one of their other drinking companions would stand them a drink, as was the custom. Providentially, none did, and Matt eventually went home. When Matt returned, his mother said to him "You're home early - and you're sober." Later Matt said to her that he was going out to take the pledge. She replied "Go, in God's Name, but don't take it unless you are going to keep it." Matt went "in God's Name," his mother calling after him, "God give you the strength to keep it!"

Matt takes the Pledge

Matthew Talbot took the pledge in 1884 under the guidance of a Rev. Dr Keane of Clonliffe seminary in Dublin.

Initially made for three months, he renewed it for a further short periody and before the year was out he took the pledge for life. He was one of the first members of the Temperance Association of the Sacred Heart begun by a Jesuit, Fr Cullen, in 1890. This movement considered the greatest damage wrought by the abuse of alcohol to be that which is done to the soul, and sought to combat alcoholism on the spiritual level. Later, Fr Willie Doyle, another great Jesuit, was chaplain to what had become known as the Pioneer Association.

Even before his conversion, Matt was known as the "best hodman in Dublin"1 and he afterwards continued to work in the same vein. The following quotations from his workmates speak volumes of his diligence at work. The first two testimonies are from his employers:

"He was "a good honest workman who never neglected his duty [...] When he had time free he was often reading or praying." "If he heard others abuse the Holy Name he would respectfully raise his hat as a gesture of reparation." "He had the most sloping shoulders of any man I ever saw; and he was a very small man too. You would wonder how he kept the deals on his shoulders with such a slope." He "worked without ostentation" and "was very punctual." "Generally he was quiet and genial, good-humoured and easy to get on with."

"He did unusual penances, but at the same time they were not excessive, and he was able to do his work. He ate very little. He fasted and did penance to make reparation to God for the sins of his drunkenness."
"When the language was very colourful in his vicinity he would take a crucifix from his pocket and say "Look boys, see Who you are insulting."

Sanctifying his labour

Rising early, Matt would attend Mass in the Jesuit church nearby, and then continue on to work at 6 am. For most of his career he worked at T & C Martins, a large goods supplier in Dublin's Docklands. In the timber yard his job was to assemble the wood for outgoing deals.

First and foremost Matt was a Catholic, a man of God, and his interest in social justice was subservient to his zeal for the Kingdom of God. He went on strike in 1900 from the Dublin Port & Docks Board, and was one of four who did not return to work. In the great strike of 1913 (the Dublin Lockout), Matt consulted a priest, who gave him a book to read. When Matt learned that no employer has the right to starve his workers into submission, his mind was made up, and he came out with his colleagues. When the workers were victorious on this occasion, Matt's tempered joy was in being able to give more to charity. Yet he had to be pressed into taking a bonus from time to time when the work was fast and heavy, clearing a boat to catch the next tide. He reasoned that there were slack moments at other times which he was able to use to pray. Reluctantly he accepted the money with the proviso of being able to donate it to the needy.

Indeed, almsgiving -was one of his great virtues. On one occasion he perplexed a collecting priest by donating all of his wages. Another contemporary recalled that when he received an alms from him Matt was gone before he could thank him. It is worth noting that on one occasion he even gave a young man the price of a drink, saying that "a pint of stout never did anyone any harm!" This from the man who would carry no money for fear of being tempted to enter a public house!

After work, Matt would make at least one visit to the Blessed Sacrament on his way home. Later he would attend a meeting of one of the many sodalities to which he belonged.

His life of prayer and action

He missed only two meetings in 20 years as a member of the Third Order of St Francis.

The Bona Mors society2 and the Living Rosary Archconfraternity also numbered him amongst their members. He wore an indul-genced chain to symbolise his slavery to Our Lady. Matt was also a member of the Immaculate Conception Sodality in Gardiner St, of which Fr Tom Murphy, a descendant of the celebrated Fr Murphy of Vinegar Hill, was director.

He frequently spoke of the Ireland's joint struggle to keep its Faith and its national identity, and Matt was able to recruit many a member to the sodality through his own faith and patriotism. He kept obituaries from the days of fighting in Dublin (1916-1923 in particular) and prayed for the repose of the souls of the victims.

Among the churches Matt frequented were those of the Jesuit Fathers in Gardiner St, the Carmelites in Clarendon St, the Franciscans on Merchants Quay, the Dominicans in Dominick St, St Joseph in Berkeley Rd and St Laurence O' Toole (Dublin's Patron Saint). On Sundays Matt attended many Masses, often not taking a meal until 2pm. Later, on medical advice, he would take a little breakfast after an early round.

In the Pro-Cathedral (St Mary's) one could always be sure of hearing many Masses on account of the number of priests passing through Dublin. On 22 August 1904, then the Franciscan feast of the Seven Joys of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Matt assisted at 19 Masses; 11 years later on the same feast he assisted at 21. John Monaghan, clerk of St Francis Xavier's Church at that time, remarked of him: "Matt only wanted one thing -God".

For God alone

He continued living at home for some time but his father and brothers continued their drinking despite his entreaties to the contrary, and so he took himself to a nearby flat. In the early years of his conversion he was offered a very attractive marriage proposal, but commending the matter to the Mother of God he received an answer not to marry. When his father died in 1899 he went again to live with his mother, whose heart he confessed to having broken, and he was very devoted to her until her own death in 1915.

A simple bed with a hard board, a couple of seats and a table were the contents of Matt s poor flat. A nephew visiting one time had to use uncommon effort to give him a jersey on a cold winter's night.

He had noted from the early Fathers that spiritual reading was "Oil for the lamps of prayer," and that "in prayer the soul speaks to God; in reading God speaks to the soul." Thus he built up a sizeable collection of books. His education was incomplete, having attended school for barely two years, and even then he had been described as a "mitcher."3 His teacher, Brother Otteran Ryan, was only a teenager at the time, but was very gifted. He must have sowed some seeds well, for 20 years later Matt was able to plough through books with the aid of the Holy Ghost, Mary His spouse, and, perhaps, of a colleague at work. This was true even of the lofty works of the great spiritual writers. Apart from Holy Scripture he was familiar with Faber, Hedley, Bossuet and St Augustine. Two of Matt's sayings have come down to us:

Three things I cannot escape: the eye of God, the voice of conscience, the stroke of death.
In company guard your tongue, in your family guard your temper, when alone guard your thoughts.

He became great friends with Rev. Dr Hickey, the rector of Clonliffe, Dublin's diocesan seminary, having gone initially to him for spiritual direction.

The two would often get together in Matt's flat for a chat and to sing a few hymns. Matt would unbend his bow a bit by sucking on his favourite pebble, while perhaps his distinguished guest had something a little more seemly! Rev. Dr Hickey would confidently pass on to Matt any of his elusive prayer intentions.

At death

Rev. Dr Hickey passed away unexpectedly in January 1925, and Matt had to tread the last mile alone. Suffering from heart disease of late and not long out of hospital, Matt collapsed in Granby Lane on his way to Dominick St church for the first of his second round of Masses on Trinity Sunday morning, 7 June, 1925. He was dead before help arrived. Later, in hospital, the chains were discovered on his body, and these instruments of penance became the instruments of his sudden celebrity in Ireland and beyond. Besides these penitential items, the attendants also noted his spotlessly clean body and clothing.

His mortal remains now repose in the church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Sean Macdermott St in the Irish capital, where they await the further earthly glorification of the Servant of God at the Divine Pleasure. This year marks both the 150' anniversary of his birth and of the death of Fr Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance, †

1. A labourer who carries supplies to others.

2. This confraternity prepares its members for a good death.

3. One who bunks school!

[After Mary Purcell's Matt Talbot and His Times, 1955

SOURCE: http://www.bcshops.com/thecatholicorg/2006_May/Matt_Talbot.htm