Monday, April 30, 2012

Dublin Jesuits remember the worker in chains

[This article was published a few months before Matt Talbot was declared "Venerable" by Pope Paul VI on October 3, 1975 and St. Oliver Plunkett was canonized by Pope Paul VI on October 10, 1975.]

by Terence J. Sheehy

On a hot, drowsy Sunday in June, 1925, a shabbily dressed old man fell dead in a Dublin street. In the mortuary of Jervis Street Hospital the attendant uncovered the frail body of a one-time hopeless alcoholic — a body deeply embedded with penitential chains. It was the corpse of Matt Talbot.

The Irish worker in chains has been beaten by many, many lengths in the race for the first saint to be canonised in Ireland in 700 years. The winner is Oliver Plunkett, 17th century Archbishop of Armagh.

The body of Oliver lies in state in the Benedictine Abbey of Downside. His head is enshrined for veneration in Saint Peter's Church in Drogheda, County Louth, Ireland.

Both Matt and Oliver were under stances orders, for the canonisation stakes of 1975, and the almost silent Dublin workman has been beaten by the almost equally silent archbishop.

The spot al which Matt fell in Granby Lane, Dublin, near the Dominican Churchis, in my opinion, one of Ireland's holy places and well worth visiting in this Holy Year of 1975. So is his simple grave in the cemetery of Glasnevin a holy place, and the room in which he lived at 18 Upper Rutland Street.

Call into the Jesuit Fathers in St Francis Xavier's Church in Upper Gardiner Street, Dublin, and they will tell you all about their most illustrious parishioner. He attended daily Mass there at 5 o'clock every morning, after rising from his rough wooden bed of planks, with its wooden pillow, and its covers of half a blanket and an old sack.

Like many Dublin workmen of the twenties he lived mostly on hot cocoa and dry bread. His wages at his death were three pounds a week.

Matt left the Christian Brothers' school at 12 years of age. They have difficulty in remembering his presence at all, as he so frequently played truant. He went to work at 12 years of age.

He was then almost illiterate, but he graduated from reading the Jesuits' "Messenger of the Sacred Heart" to being .deeply read and conversant with the works of Aquinas, of Newman, of Augustine, of St John of the Cross, and with the devotion to the Blessed Virgin of de Montfort.

Occasionally he wrote down favourite quotations from his readings on scraps of paper in an elementary and child-like handwriting. On one of these scraps of paper we read: "The Kingdom of Heaven was promised not to the sensible and the educated but to such as have the spirit of little children."

Matt was a good listener. He seldom spoke, but when he did he really had something to say in the way of spiritual guidance for a friend, or advice on prayer. He was the antithesis of the many loquacious stout drinking Irishmen of today who all too often regard themselves as God's gift to the visiting English tourist.

It is well worth while visiting the Church of St Francis Xavier in Upper Gardiner Street to savour the silence which Matt Talbot found there. Matt also frequented "Adam and Eve's," the Franciscan church on the Liffey Quays opposite the Four Courts, and made "visits" to the Blessed Sacrament in the Carmelite church in Clarendon Street, off Grafton Street, and told his beads in the Pro-Cathedral, and in the Church of Saint Laurence O'Toole.

Those were the days of "visits" and the rosary before we all became sophisticated after Vatican II. These Dublin churches are some of Ireland's holy places and the congregations at morning or evening Mass present one with what Mathew Arnold once described as being made up of "All the pell-mell of all the men and women of Shakespeare's plays."

Matt had a thing about the wrong use of the Holy Name, and blasphemy. from which we could still learn a lesson in the Ireland of today.

He was a man of great silence in prayer, and in this respect he had much in common with Our Lady of Knock. She appeared at the little church of Knock in County Mayo in 1879. She appeared in the drizzling rain in a year of famine and utter misery to a hungry people. She said nothing. She was Our lady of Silence.

And yet, one senses that she was moved to appear on the evening of August 21, 1879, to some 20 sane and simple people in a mute message of sympathy and understanding. There was no spoken message as she appeared on the gable wall of the parish church of Knock.

There were three figures — herself, Saint Joseph and Saint John the Evangelist, and on the altar stood the Lamb of God with a cross. The total vision recalled the scene of the Apocalypse in the Gospel according to Saint John.

The late Archbishop of Tuam, like Matt, was a good listener and a man of very few words. As Archbishop of Tuam he was certainly more Tuam than Meum in his conversation, and I can vividly recall how he expressed his sincere belief in Our Lady of Silence of Knock.

Knock should be visited this Holy Year and a leaflet entitled "Pilgrimage to Knock," tells us that it is 138 miles by train from Dublin, 126 miles by bus from Dublin, and 134 miles from Dublin by road. So you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Blessed Oliver Plunkett, now to be the first formally recognised saint in Ireland for over 700 years, will be past the post in the canonisation stakes in October this year. We know that Pope Paul, when he was Mgr Montini, visited Drogheda In 1951 and beheld the head of Oliver in its shrine in Saint Peter's Church.

One wonders if the footsteps of Mgr Montini were directed to Granby Lane, and when the Dublin labourer will have his name added alongside that of Oliver Plunkett in the roll of Ireland's saints.

Oliver, like Matt, had a great devotion to the rosary, and on his way to his martyrdom at Tyburn he gave his rosary beads, his only possession, to his faithful servant James MacKenna who had been in his service for 11 years. These rosary beads are still preserved today by the descendants of James, who ministered to his master in prison.

At the hour of his death on the scaffold at Tyburn, the Archbishop of Armagh made a public declaration of his devotion to Our Lady which deeply moved all those present.

We are told; "He supplicated the Divine Majesty to be propitious to him, through the merits of Christ, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and of all holy Angels and Saints in Paradise, which form of prayer, so simple yet so pious, was remarked by the spectators who never remember to have heard from any other such an express mention of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints."

That was on July 11, 1681, on the charge of fomenting revolt to re-establish "the religion of Rome."

He was born in the parish of Loughcrew, near Oldcastle, Co Meath, in 1625, ordained priest in Rome in 1654, and made Archbishop of Armagh in 1669.

These were years of an Irish Church in chaos and fear after the Cromwellian massacres and persecution. The charge against him was a pure fabrication for political ends to nail a Catholic bishop as a victim. He was killed simply because he was just that — a Catholic bishop.

As a Catholic bishop whose work was to endeavour to restore peace in his time through non-violence he is a splendid example for all of us today.

Because the Dundalk jury of 12 honest Irish Protestants were bound to acquit him, the politicians of Charles II had him tried in London — a trial which was as illegal as it was unjust.

But the elevation to the ranks of the saints of the 17th century Archbishop of Armagh who was always on such good terms with his Protestant fellow countrymen must surely have a lesson for 1975, as have the life of Matt Talbot, and the Apparition of Our Lady of Knock.

The chains that bound a free man

by Patrick Montague

THE CULT of Matt Talbot began in the mortuary of Jervis Street Hospital in Dublin, when the chains on his body were discovered.

He had been picked up unconscious in a Dublin street. and died without regaining consciousness. The interest in him spread like a forest fire all over the country and throughout the world.

Not the least of the reasons for this was his very obscurity and the difficulty in piecing -together any relevant facts even about his identity.

Sir Joseph Glynn succeeded in putting together a biography of this obscure Dubliner. and within less than two years it was circulating in more than a dozen languages.

The enormous interest in Matt Talbot has never been fully explained. While his extraordinary personal sanctity seems beyond question. it is also a fact that from the moment of his death he was headline news. Few Irishmen have caught the imagination of his people to the same extent nor indeed the attention of the world at large.

All this is at least partly due to the circumstances of his death. It happens also that his much publicised escape from alcoholism coincided with growing modern concern about this social problem.

His lowly social status made him something of a symbol of the ordinary people in the poor areas of Dublin.

His life was dreary. his education was almost nil. his material prospects negligible. He seemed destined to die in the same obscurity had the accident of his death. in hospital not revealed the chains round his body.

Inevitably curiosity was aroused and his very obscurity increased the widespread interest. His cult was immediate and has grown to proportions seldom equaled, considering that there are people still alive who can recall the excitement caused by his death.

His intercession is frequently invoked and his devoted followers have long considered devotion to him as the surest route to divine favour.

At the age of 28 he suddenly altered his entire lifestyle. Instead of spending all the time he could in public houses, he made God the centre of all his thoughts.

He introduced extraordinary austerities into his Ilk to keep his mind constantly on the spiritual lite. The chains on his body were one thing.. The wooden planks and wooden pillow on his bed were others.

He prayed from 2 am till 4 am and was waiting daily outside church for the Mass at 6 am.

One of those who was able to recall this strange ascetic figure at this early Mass was an altar boy who later testified to his sanctity. This was Sean T. O'Kelly, President of Ireland.

Matt Talbot's sanctity was intensely personal. He did not attempt to influence others directly. He did not in any way exhibit his devotion.

Indeed he kept it to himself so successfully that even now no one knows just when he began his privations. He shared his life entirely with Almighty God.

Even those with whom he worked knew nothing of his intense spirituality beyond the fact that he remonstrated with them at any sign of irreverence in their talk or behaviour.

Intense asceticism was a well-known feature of Irish life in the early centuries of Christianity. Most Irishmen would say it was a passing phase consistent with the times.

Matt Talbot showed that this was not the case. He was the modern example of the ancient monks of Ireland. He showed that this kind of example is as relevant today as it was fourteen and fifteen centuries ago.

The intense interest he has aroused has shown that many people in the world can be deeply impressed and affected by such personal example.

The canonisation of Matt Talbot is confidently expected at all levels of society. If and when it comes about, he is already elected by devoted followers to be the hope and inspiration of all problem drinkers whose desperate need for such hope and inspiration exceeds that of most other sections of mankind.

Note:  Additional articles about Matt Talbot from this archive can be found at

Matt Talbot: An Answer to Alcoholism

[Mary Purcell, referred to in this 1977 newspaper column, is a renown biographer of saints, including Matt Talbot. (See Mary Purcell]

Answer to Alcoholism
By Gine Vianncy

In the lives of saints, the gruesome is so often all that is noted. Hagiography becomes a shudder, and a "Thank God it is not me." A life close to our own times, by a sympathetic, perceptive and intelligent biographer, is a challenge to be taken up, and an obligation to those pursuing their own sanctification.

To the cursory reader of outlines, Matt Talbot was a reformed alcoholic who wore chains. An oddity. Something of an embarrassment among non-Catholics and one of those second-class characters hardly worthy of the portals of St Peter's.

All saints are of their times: selected by God to speak His mind on a particular generation, with a lesson for all generations to come. Matt Talbot is so often remembered as a drunk, rather than as one who succumbed, then surmounted, and left the glorious recipe for others to follow.

Alcohol, in its abuse and its forced social infliction in this generation, needs an answer. He gives it. Prayer, especially prayer to Our Lady, gave him strength, determination and the will to persevere.

The astonishing achievements outside that publicised fail are the mark of this man: the almost illiterate poring early, touched by Holy Spirit, through the Bible. It reminds one of Margaret Clitherow, also unable to read or write, with her knowledge of theology, and firm grasp on mystery. 

Mary Purcell is a tireless researcher, with a love of true spirituality. She received the gold cross Pro Ecciesia et Pontifice from Pope John XXIII "for services to Catholic literature and education."

She loves Matt Talbot, seeing in him the traits and marks of those other heroes of whom she has written; St Ignatius, St Vincent de Paul, and others, So here a man lives — rugged, austere, gentle, devoted, with all the extravagance of such a nature,

The destines of such men vary. but the formation and training do not. This is a homely and moving story of the Dublin workman convert, who never really made up the time lost before that change, but spent his life applied to it.

His courtesy and delicacy with neighbours arc the acts of the thoroughly reformed and spiritualised. His love of, and devotion to, the Sacrament of Penance, are for our times. Fidelity to the Mass, and Communion, drag hack the addicts of innovation, to the skeleton God gave.

Matt was different from the hard-drinking labourers, yet they did not resent hint. His charter for sanctity led and changed and saved them. Strict with himself; he had ineffable kindness toward others. Too many are alive still for his story to be discredited. To know it is to know God in action.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Vlog about Matt Talbot in ASL

Fr. Michael Depcik has posted a 7 minute vlog (video log) about Matt Talbot in American Sign Language (ASL) at

Please note that the voice interpretation for non-signing viewers is a summary, not a translation. Also note that Matt Talbot’s birth year is incorrectly stated as 1858 rather than 1856.