Friday, March 16, 2012

Venerable Matt Talbot: A Link in the Chain of Hope


Few of us have the opportunity to hear Fr. Brian Lawless, Vice-Postulator of the Cause for Canonization
of the Venerable Matt Talbot, speak about Matt. Now we do.
During the first half-hour of this informative hour-long program aired January 26, 2012 by HMWN Radio Maria at, Sharon DiCecco interviews Fr. Brian
about Matt’s life, his progress toward canonization, and his relevance for people today.
After a brief musical interlude,
Mrs. DiCecco interviews Michael and Noeleen Murphy, who frequently accompany Fr.
Brian in speaking about Matt Talbot. Michael speaks about his interest in Matt and his work with recovering addicts. Later,
Noeleen shares her very moving experience in coming to know Matt as well as writing and performing her song in its entirety,
In Your Presence Lord “Matt Talbot.” (More information about her song can be found at

Note: We appreciate such interviews being available free online at

Thursday, March 1, 2012

"A Martyr to the Drink"

“THERE should be more to Christmas than television, especially now that the difficulties of the times we live in are being reflected as never before in the paucity of this season’s Christmas fare across all channels. That said, some television is necessary for the enjoyment of the modern Christmas and, when television is indulged in with discernment and discretion, it can add to the festive spirit.

The departing year will not be remembered for vintage television and, behind the festive hype, what’s on offer for Christmas is more of the same. That’s why my plan for this coming weekend is to record a half-hour from here, another from there, and so on in the hope of building a refuge of sorts from the festive television fizz. Finding worthwhile half-hours is the catch, but I’m hopeful. Because I gave the plan a trial run last week and here’s a taste of what I caught.

The best was the documentary on Matt Talbot from the excellent TG4 series Scéalta Átha Cliath on Thursday evening and it was so worthwhile that if I come up short this week I might include it again. In life, the Venerable Matt Talbot was a quintessential Dub who seemed destined never to be known outside the mean streets he worked and lived in. Following his death in 1925, however, his fame spread not only around this country but across the Catholic world. As yet no miracle can be attributed directly to him, which is why he has not yet been canonised, but I’ve always thought it close enough to miraculous that Matt has ever been heard of at all.

The documentary was made on the streets around the North Strand area of Dublin where Matt had lived all of his 69 years and the makers talked to people who knew people who knew him. As a definitive profile of Matt Talbot, it was especially effective when it included old footage of interviews with some of his contemporaries and I’ve never seen him so well portrayed. All who know of him know of his spiritual heroism but what was new here was his portrayal as the most ordinary of men. He could neither read nor write, was hopelessly alcoholic before he was 20, and yet …

In my schooldays in the 40s and 50s I heard the story of Matt Talbot over and over again. In the 60s as a young teacher in a posh Dublin school only a few miles from the North Strand, I told my students about Matt Talbot and always found a positive and welcoming attitude towards him. Now I wonder if there’s an Irish student who knows anything about him because so much about Irish life has changed since the old days, and not all for the better.

Matt Talbot was born into a very different Ireland but down the years there has been an unchanging feature, the high levels of alcohol, and now drug, addiction amongst all age groups, just as when Matt was growing up.

He was born into the grinding poverty of the years following the Famine, only in his case his plight was aggravated by his alcoholic, good-for-nothing father and by being one of a family of 12. As illustrated on the documentary, his school record contains only his name and the peculiarly Irish word “mitcher” written after it. He had dropped out of school by the age of 13 and embarked with his brothers on what seemed would be a life of drinking.

It didn’t help that he got work in a wine merchant’s store and was known to be adept at procuring some of the merchandise for his own use. From there he got work with the Dublin Port & Docks Board in the whiskey stores and his descent into alcoholism was the consequence. To matters worse, his brothers were alcoholics and they are remembered as being particularly difficult when they were drunk, roaring around the streets and obnoxious to all.

One way they acquired alcohol was in a shebeen (an unlicensed drinking establishment) run by a Maggie Kavanagh on what is now Parnell Street. Apart from the sale of drink, Maggie’s stock-in-trade was pig’s cheek by the barrel and the Talbot brothers might buy a drink, if they had the money, and depart with a pig’s cheek or two stolen from the barrels. These they’d sell elsewhere and return to drink the money in Maggie’s. Seemingly, that went on for years.

I had never heard of Maggie or her pig’s cheek but the famous story of how Matt gave up the drink was recalled. It happened on an evening in the early 1880s when Matt and his brothers were hanging around outside their local, flat broke. The hope was that some of their drinking pals might invite them in for a drink but there was nothing doing. What really annoyed Matt was that he had often bought drink for others when they were broke and he went home that evening and announced to his mother that he was going up to the Clonliffe College to tell a priest that he was taking the pledge. And so he did, for three months and, eventually, for life.

For the following 40 years he lived a quiet life of work and prayer, becoming known for his generosity to those less well off than himself. He was on his way to Mass one Sunday morning in 1925 when he collapsed and died. A paragraph in The Irish Independent of the following day stated, “An elderly man collapsed in Granby Lane yesterday and, on being taken to Jervis Street Hospital, was found to be dead. He was wearing a tweed suit, but there was nothing to indicate who he was."

It wasn’t mentioned that at the hospital it was discovered that he had heavy chains wrapped around his body as his way of doing penance for the sins of his early life. His story spread, first around his own place, and then across Ireland and the world.

He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery but in later years when pilgrims from around the world began to visit his grave his remains were removed to the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Sean McDermott Street and placed in a tomb with a glass panel through which his coffin can now be seen.

On a disappointing note, the locals around Sean McDermott Street had become convinced that Pope John Paul II would visit the tomb during his visit to this country in 1979 and the pubs were empty for weeks with all who had volunteered to paint the church and get the whole place ready. But on the day “no joyrider ever came down Sean McDermott Street as fast” was how one local put it and the Pope passed by without giving the church as much as a look, to the bitter disappointment of all.”