Friday, July 15, 2016

Matt Talbot: the Chains of Gargle

by Rob Buchanan
5th Dec 2014
It is the summer of 1925. A crowd surrounds the body man lying motionless on the cobbles of Granby Lane in the grim backstreets of Dublin. He had apparently been running to mass in a nearby church when he dropped dead. A guard arrives on the scene and pushes through the curious onlookers. He rolls the body over to see a gaunt old man’s face. No one present could identify him. As they moved his body to Jervis Street hospital they noted he felt far heavier he looked. When morticians unbuttons his large well-worn coat to look for some form of identification they were shocked at what they found. The frail torso was wrapped in heavy chains and metal cords. He was bound like Marley’s ghost from A Christmas Carol. The largest wound around his waist, others on his arms and legs. The body was later identified as that of Matt Talbot, an unknown Dubliner whose name would soon be on the lips of popes and politicians,and eventually street signs,statues and buildings all over the world.
Dublin in 1856 was a dark time. The day Matt was born a parade celebrating the end of the Crimean War was on in Dublin and it was the first small bit of celebration the city had seen. The Famine had ended and Dublin was bearing the scars both of mass emigration and also the influx of uprooted and desperately poor families from the country. Alcohol was one of the few affordable escapes from the bitter reality of day to day life. The general feeling was that life in Ireland for the working class was the bleakest it had ever been.  The city may have still been in the afterglow of Catholic emancipation but for most average people the new religious freedom meant very little. The industrial revolution never really took hold in Dublin and as a result it was mainly unskilled,casual labourers who swarmed the streets. Guinness and Jameson’s where king when it came to stable employment as well as having a cultural hold on the people via cheap drink and public intoxication. Booze was at the heart of the city and it was being shipped out from the docks and the canals almost as fast as the brewery’s and distilleries could produce it, or Dubliners could drink it. Trams and open top coaches ambled noisily across the city loaded to overflowing with Dubliners. The massive red light zone known as Monto, off O Connell Street (then Sackville Street) was booming with British soldiers and any local with a few shillings in his pocket. This was the hay day for the notorious district which would eventually be brought down by the Legion of Mary and the end of British occupation within a few decades. It was an unlikely breeding ground for religious aesthetic but it was in to this dreary lamp lit port city that Talbot was born to a large poor family of 13 children in Dublin’s North Strand.

When Talbot was still a young boy in 1867 the failed Irish Republican Brotherhood “Fenian” insurrection came to nothing ultimately, despite galvanizing thousands in the city to protest and perhaps consider future possibilities for freedom. But there is no indication that any of this nationalism took root in the Talbot household. They were desperately poor and like most of their class were living in hellishly overcrowded conditions.They were too concerned with their daily bread and their daily pint to look further afield. Alcoholism plagued the men of the family, and when Talbot left school at twelve (which was not uncommon then) his choice of work in a wine merchants proved disastrous. Within a year he was a full blown alcoholic, completely lost in drink. The child was delivering Guinness and getting drunk on the dregs of the returned bottles.The boy then went to work on the Docks near his home and again was drawn to booze by working in the whiskey stores.
The drinking culture in Dublin at the time was an endless cycle of poverty and hunger, long miserable working days resulting in wage packets being handed behind the bar. In late 19th century and early 20th century Dublin an appalling procedure of pay for manual labour existed which say workers be required to collect their packet in pubs on Saturday. If it was in cheque form it could only be cashed by the publican himself. Its easy to see how disastrous this was for the families of men waiting at home for food when the father had been all but coerced in to blowing the whole wages in the pub. Like many working class men it was not unusual to pawn the very shirt on his back to fulfill his addiction. He drank regularly in O'Meara’s on the North Strand with his father and brothers. Without a wife or children to provide any framework or motivation to break the cycle, he was still living at home and sinking deeper in to depression. He would literally beg borrow and steal and very quickly became the lowest of the low in a city which was no strangers to mass alcoholism, occasional unemployment and hopelessness. One anecdote, perhaps apocryphal, is that he stole the fiddle of a blind street entertainer to pawn for drink money. At the age of 28 something finally snapped.He had what many addicts call “a moment of clarity” on Newcomen Bridge and decided to take “the pledge.” 
Father Mathew was a famous campaigner in the anti-alcohol abstinence movement in Ireland. A familiar  statue of him stands on O'Connell Street. He popularised the idea of “The Pledge” which was a holy vow taken by lay people to completely stay away from alcohol. Despite of (or perhaps because of)the massive cultural pervasiveness of drunkenness in Irish society at the time, The Pledge became a social phenomenon in the 1840s and 50s. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country began to officially take the pledge. And the results on levels of crime and accidents where dramatic. Everything from robberies to murder rates fell and accidental deaths on roads and workplaces likewise. It was 1884 after the first peak of The Pledge that Matt Talbot decided to commit himself to a teetotal life. He went to Holy Cross College and made the solemn oath and surprisingly to everyone, perhaps himself the most, he stuck to it for the remaining 40 years of his life. To bolster his resolve he began what would today be seen as a fanatic level of commitment to prayer and church attendance. In a project which is still encouraged in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement today, he made a list of all his debtors, people he stole from or hurt and spent his life tracking them down and making amends for what he had done. He fasted and charity work among the homeless and hungry of the city as well as alcoholics like himself. He began to siphon all his earnings beyond his meager diet and rent to pay for food and clothing for an ever increasing circle of dependent families. One description of him from a fellow member of the Third Order of Saint Francis, a secular wing of the Franciscans which he joined “happy little man…who smiled at everything except a dirty joke”. It’s quite telling that this is one of the very few records that we get of the man’s demeanor beyond his austere diet and religious habits. Likewise we only have one confirmed blurred photograph of the man. Many of the interactions he had with others around this tumultuous time in Irish history are unclear. For example his level of involvement in the 1913 lockouts is unconfirmed. Whilst some sources claim he had only a passing though positive role others, mainly church orientated, have him resisting financial pressure and not breaking the strike. He was certainly a member of ITGWU. He became studious reading religious texts about the lives of the saints and Irish monastic traditions which may have informed his severe habits. In addition to his new addiction to Catholicism he continued doing hard labour to make a living. But even his choice of jobs and his new alarming enthusiasm for seeking out difficult and backbreaking  work seemed part of his religious epiphany.
Perhaps the single biggest influence on Talbot was Dr. Michael Hickey, who was Professor of Philosophy in Clonliffe College where he had first taken the pledge and turned his life around. It was Hickey who first gave Talbot a penitential chain to wear. This original chain was not like the industrial sized ones he would later adopt, it was more a thin symbolic chain like an item of jewellery which would remind him of his promise to abstain. Arguably Talbot’s biggest personal tragedy was the death of his beloved mother in 1915, who he had lived with all his life. He moved in to a tiny Spartan flat. Like monastic aesthetics he slept on a bare plank without a pillow and woke at 5am very day for hours of mass before work. As his fame grew many of the details of Talbots life have been embellished like some religious urban legend. One of the many disputed facts is the size and weight of the chains he carried daily and whether they were a form of self-mortification or simple a symbol of his “slavery to the virgin Mary.” Although its certain some of the details were exaggerated its highly unlikely that the wearing of a few normal devotional cords and medals would have created the frenzy of interest that those discovered on his body did. By the time of his funeral a few days later huge crowds gathered in Glasnevin cemetery. But this would not be his final resting place as almost 50 years later in 1972 his remains were moved to Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Sean McDermott Street. A glass panel allows visitors to see his coffin. This move was the latest step in a process of veneration which had begun in the 1930s which resulted in the lowly alcoholic dock worker being granted the title Venerable Matt Talbot in 1975.
In the hierarchy of the Catholic Church “Venerable” is basically halfway to saint hood.The steps toward canonization are 1) Servant of God 2) Venerable 3) Blessed 4) Saint.To some it might seem as if Talbot did relatively little beyond small scale charity work and self denial to warrant such a title as Venerable. Its really down to the context and to the sponsorship of sympathetic bishops first declaring you a servant of God. Then a Papal proclamation is required to upgrade that to Venerable.This requires you to be declared as having had a life “heroic in virtue"  and certainly many of these virtues such as charity, fortitude and temperance were clearly displayed in Talbot’s later life.The fact that a mini cult of devotees which quickly spread among the Irish poor and across the water to the US must certainly have made the move seem apt to Rome. But was it really as simple as a man finding God and losing drink? I suppose Talbot is the only one who knows what was going on in his mind and soul.
A life of self-denial and guilt may have not been all that uncommon during the time period, but the addition of such extremes of self-punishment points to larger neurosis or person demons or even fetishes at play. That the man remained celibate his whole life in a city and community where pressures towards marriage and family were huge may perhaps give some insight in to the battles Talbot was fighting in his heart and mind. The idea of self-mortification and sin were two pillars of Catholicism. Psychologically they created a potent cycle of guilt due to inescapable human urges and contemporary realities, resulting in the necessity to purge or atone for these affronts against god. Not only did this keep many uneducated people in a constant state of fear and misery about their immortal souls but it secured the churches position and authority as the gatekeepers to heaven. An obedient and unquestioning mass of working class provided the backbone and a very narrow and austere interpretation of the bible, with the passion and poverty of Christ paramount, offered an example of piety. As did the lurid and grotesque representations of martyrdom by the cavalcade of saints in their wound bleeding, lion dismembered or stake burning forms. Was there any sadomasochistic element to this? It seems unlikely that he derived any erotic pleasure from it, as none of the other indicators of fetishism or masochism are apparent in his relationships with others. Talbot was no hermit nor was he initially a seeker of wisdom. An important thing to remember is that unlike many of his contemporaries , and he had divorced himself entirely from any recognition of his suffering or any fame.

Whatever the intentions of the high ranking clergy who saw a great potential in him as a rallying point for the working class and for the drunk or destitute, it’s clear that Talbot himself never sought any adoration and never communicated any particular need to be recognised. But his example and his legend spread far beyond the backstreets of Dublin. He became an icon for the temperance movement and gained a cult following among the Irish diaspora in the United States. Whether you view him as a pious pawn of the catholic church or an inspirational example of how faith and hard work can turn around a hopeless man , its undeniable that Matt Talbot is a unique individual in the history of Dublin city.
Note: Photographs are included in the link above.