Wednesday, December 5, 2007

One Man's Story

On Wednesday last, Fr Tom Ryan a former colleague of mine was in Veritas signing copies of his recently published book entitled "Comfort my People – prayers and reflections inspired by the Venerable Matt Talbot". The book is a spiritual response to help people cope with addiction and give them hope.

The story of Matt Talbot's struggle with addiction is similar to the many stories of people who are trapped by addictions in our modern day society. His life story as a young man who was 'broke' every Monday is also the story of many people, young and not so young, in our communities.

Matt Talbot had a life changing experience at the age of twenty-eight in 1884 the same year as the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded. He is recorded saying "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.

On September 19th 1853, Charlie Talbot, aged thirty, married Elizabeth Bagnall in her late teens, in Clontarf Church, Dublin. Both came from a working class background where poverty and excessive use of alcohol were every-day living. These were the years after the Great Famine and many people were struggling just to survive. Charles and Elizabeth were parents to twelve children, nine of whom survived beyond infancy. Matthew was their second child. He was born on 2nd May 1856.

Matt's parents were noted for their honesty and practice of the faith. Charlie Talbot was a good worker, when he was able to get work. His only weakness was that he drank too much with inevitable consequences for his wife and family. They lived at eighteen different addresses over a forty-one year period.

Matt like many of his generation, and indeed today's, did not avail of the opportunity for education offered by the new emerging religious orders. His school attendance was poor. The roll book at his North Richmond Street School noted that he 'mitched' during much of his time there.

Matt began working at the age of twelve. His first job was with a wine merchant where he began sampling the drink he was bottling. Coming home drunk one evening caused his father to be so annoyed that he got him a different job hoping that it would get him out of the habit of taking alcohol. He moved to the Dublin Port and Docks Board, where he acted as a messenger, but the whiskey that was available to him in the bonded stores there further fuelled his addiction to alcohol.

By the age of seventeen Matt was a chronic alcoholic. His whole life completely centred on alcohol. When drunk his personality changed. He became very hot-tempered, got into fights, stole and his general behaviour was not as it was when he was sober.

Matt and most of his fellow workers, in those days, were usually paid in the pub on a Saturday where most of their hard earned money was foolishly spent if it hadn't already been chalked up on credit or 'tick'. Matt and many others were penniless on the Monday after payday. This meant that they were constantly on the slate for their alcohol supply. Matt Talbot often walked home in the bare feet where he sold his boots to get money for drink.

From his early teens until the age of twenty-eight, Matt Talbot's only achievement was that he became a heavy drinker. In 1884 he found himself out of work for a week and, with no money, he was unable to get any alcohol. In desperation he stood outside O'Meara's pub, his local, in the hope that his drinking friends, with whom he often shared his money in the past, would return the favour. To his shock and horror they left him standing at the corner. Dejected and hurt, Matt made his way home and it was that week, having reached rock bottom, that he made the biggest and most significant decision of his life. He told his mother that he was going to take the 'pledge' and asked her to pray that he would have the strength to keep it. He took 'the pledge' initially for three months. It was by no means easy for him. He was still a builder's labourer and was often ridiculed by his fellow workers and so called friends. While his mother prayed that he would keep the pledge his former drinking pals were encouraging him back to the pub.

Matt resisted the pressures of his fellow workers and turned to God. He subjected himself to severe penance in the form of fasting for long periods and sleeping with a board for a pillow. As time passed he was eventually conquering old bad habits. He learned to read and write which opened many opportunities for him. He also sought out people from whom he had stolen so as to give them something back. In his life story he tells of during his drinking years, he had stolen a fiddle from a poor musician, sold the fiddle and used the money for drink. In later life, he searched unsuccessfully for the man to try to make restitution for the theft.

Matt's decision to abstain for life from all alcoholic drink was the beginning of a long and challenging journey. The change was not miraculous; it took time, effort and a lot of soul searching.

Matt's story is not time bound. Those who today suffer from addictions or compulsions should avail of the professional help available. There is no reason why the story of Matt Talbot cannot be repeated many times in our communities today. The two ingredients of free will and God's help are still available to all.

Last Updated: 14 August 2007 12:59 PM
Sunday Journal, Belfast