Venerable Matt Talbot 1856 – 1925
One of the housing estates in Boherlahan village, Talbot Park built in the late 1970s, was named after Matt Talbot, the Dubliner who overcame a crippling alcohol addiction and lived a life of prayer, fasting and mortification for over forty years. He had been declared Venerable by Pope Paul VI a few years earlier in 1975, and the late Canon Morrissey P.P. suggested his name as a suitable title for the official opening of this new estate in the 1980s.
Reflecting on the life of this obscure and holy man, born in a socially deprived area of Dublin during hard economic times not long after the Famine years and raised in an environment of excessive drinking, one is prompted to learn more about his journey of life from conversion to heroic virtue as a Servant of God now hopefully on the road to becoming Ireland’s next Saint.
Matt was the 2nd of twelve children born to Charles and Elizabeth Talbot in 1856. He had no security or stability during his formative years as the family moved from one tenement home to another. The Talbot family, like many of their friends, were heavy drinkers. His mother was a hard working woman coping to rear and support such a large household. Compulsory school attendance was not then in force so Matt had the run of the streets until he was about 11. Then there was a general round-up of boys like him for a Crash Course in Religious Knowledge and the 3R’s (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic). He spent one year at the Christian Brothers’ school in North Richmond Street, and the old Roll Books show that he missed many days there. Opposite his name are written the words “a mitcher”.
At the age of 12 Matt Talbot got his first job in a wine-bottling store, where he began his apprenticeship to drinking and it was not long before he became an alcoholic. After a few years he got a job with the Dublin Port and Docks Board, where his father worked. At that time workers were usually paid on a Saturday night in public houses, where most of their money was spent on their drinking bills. Matt did likewise, and his mother only received a shilling from him on a Saturday night. He would do anything for drink. On one occasion himself and his brothers stole a fiddle from a street player and sold it for the price of a drink. Sometimes he would pawn his boots for more drink and arrive home barefoot. However, he continued going to Mass but had not availed of the Sacraments for some time.
One Saturday night in 1884 the pattern of Matt’s life was changed forever. It was the beginning of his conversion at the age of 28. On that particular week Matt and his two brothers had not worked and they were penniless. However, they decided to stand near the public house where their drinking friends met to draw their wages in the hope that they would be offered a drink. But their hopes were dashed. Matt went home very hurt as he saw that when he had no money he had no friends. His mother expressed surprise at seeing him home early and sober. On the following Saturday he went to Holy Cross College, Clonliffe, where on meeting a priest he took the pledge and went to Confession.
Years before that, Fr. Theobald Mathew (1790 – 1855), the Capuchin Priest born in Thomastown Castle near Golden and known as the Apostle of Temperance, had begun a campaign to promote total abstinence from alcohol as Ireland had reached a crisis point in excessive drinking. This Apostolate was carried on in many areas before the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association was founded by Fr. Cullen S.J. in 1898 in St. Francis Xavier Church, Gardiner Street, Dublin. Now, Pioneers who undertake to abstain from alcoholic drink also promise to keep off illicit drugs for life.
Matt first took the pledge for three months. During that time he had to overcome the terrifying withdrawal symptoms of alcoholism but found serenity and security before the Blessed Sacrament. Then he took it for six months and finally for life. He adopted a new lifestyle. He got employment as a builder’s labourer and, before work every morning, attended 5 a.m. Mass in Gardiner Street. In the evening, after work, he visited a number of churches and joined a number of sodalities including the Men’s Sodality in Gardiner Street where the Director Fr. Walsh was a great support for him. He collected all kinds of religious books, including the lives of the Saints, and studied the Scriptures. Prayer and spiritual reading now took the place of his former drinking companions. Sometimes he joined friends who were drinking but he kept to minerals.
He gave most of his wages to his mother as his father had now retired from work. On the death of his father in 1899, Matt and his mother, after moving from one house to another, finally settled in 18 Upper Rutland Street, where for the next twelve years he cared for his mother. He more than made up to her for the thoughtlessness of his earlier years. She now witnessed the changed Matt with his life of prayer, nightly vigils, fasting and mortification. He “had a thing” about honesty. He went to premises where he formerly drank to pay arrears owed for drink. When a seven year search for the fiddler, whose fiddle the Talbot boys had stolen, proved fruitless, Matt had Masses offered for the repose of his soul. At work he was highly regarded. He was very charitable and helpful to his neighbours.
In 1923 he fell ill and had to go to the Mater Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a heart problem. For the next two years he was out of work and at home. However, in March 1925 he returned to work and attended all his usual Masses. There was a heatwave in June 1925. On Trinity Sunday, the 7th June, the hottest day, after attending early Mass in Gardiner Street, he proceeded to go to Mass in the Dominican Church but collapsed and died in Granby Lane. He was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery. His remains were later removed to the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes on Sean McDermott Street, where his coffin is visible in a tomb of Wicklow granite with a glass panel.