The Venerable Matt Talbot (May 2, 1856 – 7 June, 1925) was an Irish ascetic who is revered by many Catholics for his piety, charity and mortification of the flesh.
Talbot was an unskilled labourer. Though he lived alone for most of his life, Talbot did live with his mother for a time.. His life would have gone unnoticed were it not for the cords and chains discovered on his body when he died suddenly on a Dublin street in 1925.
Early life – alcoholism
Talbot was born the second eldest of twelve children of Charles and Elizabeth Talbot, a poor family in the North Strand area of Dublin
. His father was a heavy drinker, as later were most of his brothers. Matt left school at the age of twelve and went to work in a wine merchants' stores. He very soon began "sampling their wares." He then went to the Port & Docks Board where he worked in the whiskey stores. Before long he was a confirmed alcoholic
. He frequented pubs in the city with his brothers and friends, spending most or all of his wages and running up debts. On one occasion, he stole a fiddle
from a street entertainer
and sold it to buy drink.
"Taking the pledge"
One evening in 1884 Talbot, who was penniless and out of credit, waited outside a pub in the hope that somebody would invite him in for a drink. After several friends had passed him without offering to treat him, he went home in disgust and announced to his mother that he was going to "take the pledge" (renounce drink). He went to Holy Cross College
where he took the pledge for three months. At the end of the three months, he took the pledge for six months, then for life.
Having drunk excessively for 16 years, Talbot maintained sobriety for the following forty years of his life. He found strength in prayer, began to attend daily mass, and read religious books and pamphlets. He repaid all his debts scrupulously. Having searched for the fiddler whose instrument he had stolen, and failed to find him, he gave the money to the church to have mass said for him.
Even when his drinking was at its worst, Talbot was a hard worker. When he joined Pembertons, the building contractors, as a hod
-carrier, his work-rate was such that he was put first on the line of hodmen to set the pace. Later, in Martin's timber yard, he took on the meanest and hardest jobs. He was respectful to his bosses but not obsequious, and on occasion stood up for a fellow-worker. On 22 September 1911
Talbot joined the builder's labourers branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union
. When the Dublin Lockout
of 1913 led to sympathy strikes
throughout the city, the men of Martin's, including Talbot, came out. At first Talbot refused his strike pay, saying that he had not earned it. Later he accepted it but asked that it be shared out among the other strikers. After his death a rumour was put about that he was a strike-breaker in 1913, but all the evidence contradicts this.
From being an indifferent Catholic in his drinking days, Talbot became increasingly devout. He was guided for most of his life by Dr. Michael Hickey, Professor of Philosophy in Clonliffe College. Under Dr. Hickey's guidance Talbot's reading became wider. Dr. Hickey also gave him a chain to wear, as a form of penance
. He became Third Order Franciscan
in 1890 and was a member of several other associations and sodalities
. Talbot was a generous man. Although poor himself, he gave unstintingly to neighbours and fellow workers, to charitable institutions and the church. He ate very little. After his mother's death in 1915 he lived in a small flat with very little furniture. He slept on a plank bed with a piece of timber for a pillow. He rose at 5 a.m. every day so as to attend mass before work. At work, whenever he had spare time, he found a quiet place to pray. He spent most of every evening on his knees. On Sundays he attended several masses. He walked quickly, with his head down, so that he appeared to be hurrying from one mass to another. His life was reminiscent of the early Christian monks in Ireland, who believed that a life of sacrifice, prayer and devotion would bring them closer to God.
Talbot was on his way to mass on Sunday, 7 June, 1925, when he collapsed and died of heart failure
. Nobody at the scene was able to identify him. His body was taken to Jervis Street Hospital, where he was undressed, revealing the extent of his austerities. A heavy chain had been wound around his waist, with more chains around an arm and a leg, and cords around the other arm and leg. The wearing of chains and cords was probably less unusual in the 1920s than it is in the 21st century. Nevertheless, Talbot's story quickly filtered through the community and there were many spectators when his funeral took place to Glasnevin Cemetery
on 11 June
As word of Matt Talbot spread he rapidly became an icon for Ireland's temperance movement, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association
. His story soon became known to the large Irish émigré communities. Countless addiction clinics, youth hostels, statues and more have been named after him throughout the world from Nebraska
. One of Dublin's main bridges is also named after him
. Pope John Paul II
, as a young man, wrote a paper on him.
On 6 November 1931, Archbishop Byrne of Dublin opened a sworn inquiry into the alleged claims to holiness of the former dock worker. The Apostolic Process, the official sworn inquiry at the Vatican, began in 1947. On 3 October 1975 Pope Paul VI declared him to be Venerable Matt Talbot, which is a step on the road to his canonisation, a process which needs evidence of a physical miracle in order to be successful.
In the second part of his autobiography, The History of an Irish Rebel, Brendan Behan maintained that Talbot was a figure of ridicule in working class Dublin due to his piety. Behan (as a near-contemporary) believed that Talbot's life story was hijacked and embellished by middle class Catholics as a control mechanism to encourage temperance among the working classes, an image that has been cultivated and is still in use today by Catholic publications.
Talbot's remains were removed from Glasnevin Cemetery to Our Lady of Lourdes church on Seán McDermott Street, Dublin, in 1972. The tomb has a glass panel through which the coffin may be seen.
- Doherty, Eddie. Matt Talbot. Madonna House, 2nd edition 2001. ISBN 0-921440-67-7
- Marynard, Philip. Slake a Thirst: The Matt Talbot Way to Sobriety, Alba House 2000 ISBN 0818908432
- Purcell, Mary. Matt Talbot and His Times. Franciscan Pr; Revised edition, 1977 ISBN 1-85390-185-7
- Wallace, Susan Helen. Matt Talbot: His Struggle, His Victory over AlcoholismPauline Books & Media 1992, ISBN 0819847666