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Alcohol in the DIB: Matt Talbot

12 October 2020

Our series continues with Matt Talbot, Ireland’s most celebrated reformed alcoholic. Talbot achieved posthumous fame by embracing a life of pious austerity with the same lack of moderation that had formerly characterised his drinking.

Matt Talbot

by Lawrence William White

Talbot, Matt (1856–1925), pietist, was born 2 May 1856 at 13 Aldborough Court, North Strand Rd, Dublin, second among twelve children (of whom nine survived infancy) of Charles Talbot, labourer with Dublin port and docks board, and Elizabeth Talbot (née Bagnall), a domestic servant before marriage who thereafter worked as a charwoman. The family moved frequently, residing at numerous addresses in the north inner city. His father, remembered as ‘a shocking man when he had the drop in’ (Purcell (1990), 24), set the tone of a turbulent household, in which all the men were afflicted with alcoholism, save the eldest brother John, a teetotaller who became a clerk in the port and docks board. Receiving scanty formal education, Matt sporadically attended both St Laurence O'Toole's and O'Connell's CBS; described on reports at the latter as ‘a mitcher’, he was placed in a special class for poor children unlikely to attend regularly or at length. Beginning work at age 12, he was a messenger with E. & J. Burke, wine merchants, in the North Lotts (1868–72) and with the Port and Docks Board on Custom House quay (1872–82), where his father had charge of the bonded stores. Pilfering the liquor to which he had ready access in both these employments, he swiftly became a heavy and obsessive drinker. Talbot's alcoholism consumed all his leisure and nearly all his wages; uninterested in any pursuit but drink, when money ran out he thieved, pawned clothing, or held horses for hours for a few pence; he shared a family propensity towards obstreperous pugnacity when intoxicated. Leaving his regular employment on his father's retirement in 1882, he worked some twenty years at casual labour, usually as a hod carrier with building contractors, or as a docker.

Talbot's reformation was sudden, lasting, and absolute. On a Saturday evening in 1884, penniless and with credit exhausted, after loitering for hours outside a pub in vain expectation of being treated to drink, he walked to Holy Cross College, Clonliffe Rd, where he consulted a priest, and took a three-month pledge of total abstinence, later renewed for six months, then for life. Wrenching free of his old habits and routines, combating desperate cravings for alcohol especially during the first several months, he hurled himself into a feverish regime of religious observance, attending early mass daily before reporting to work, passing his evenings praying in churches until they closed for the night. Approaching religious devotion with the same intemperance with which he formerly approached the use of alcohol, he cultivated an ever more rigorous practice of public and private prayer, and physical mortification. Having left school functionally illiterate, he taught himself, probably assisted by his brother John, to read and write, and amassed a small library of second-hand volumes of devotional literature. Influenced by the Introduction to the devout life of St Francis de Sales, he sought spiritual direction from several priests; from 1895 he was counselled regularly by Dr Michael Hickey, professor of philosophy at Holy Cross College, the archdiocesan seminary. Inspired by his extensive readings in the lives of the saints, and presumably under Hickey's guidance, he lived as a lay Christian urban ascetic, modelling his austerities on the penitential severity of early Irish monasticism and the desert fathers of the eastern church. After several hours' sleep on a plank bed with his head resting on a wooden block, he rose in the night to pray, prostrate on the floor or kneeling with arms outstretched in the ancient crois-fhighill. Arriving early for morning mass, he stood or knelt in all weathers on the stone steps of Gardiner St. church until its opening, then knelt through the service bolt upright without support. Confessing weekly and communicating daily, on Sundays he attended masses continually until early afternoon, then continued the day in spiritual reading and prayer. Subsisting largely on dry bread and tea, or a cold mixture of tea and cocoa, he limited meat, fish, or eggs to small portions once or twice a week. On the Friday and Saturday of every week, the vigils of feasts, and during Lent and the entire month of June (in honour of the Sacred Heart) he undertook a ‘black fast’, consisting of two light meals per day without meat, butter, or milk. A member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, he joined the third order of St Francis in 1890, and belonged to numerous sodalities and confraternities based in Ireland and abroad, occupying most evenings attending their meetings or sermons throughout Dublin city and suburbs. He spent years repaying from his labourer's wages the money he had borrowed or the credit he had accumulated to fund his drinking, and gave alms prodigally to charities of all sorts, taking a special interest after 1918 in the Maynooth mission to China. Striving every moment to be mindful of the presence of God, asserting that ‘it is constancy God wants’, he held to his regime with unwavering regularity.

During the 1890s Talbot lived alternately in the family home or in rooms on his own. After his father's death in 1899 he moved with his mother to 18 Upper Rutland St., where he remained the rest of his life, renting the basement until his mother's death in winter 1914–15, when he moved into the tiny, sparely furnished attic room. He was working as a ganger with the port and docks board when a strike occurred in July 1900, after which he seems never to have returned. By 1902 he was working as an unskilled labourer in T. & C. Martin's timber yard, North Wall, where he remained some twenty years employed. In 1911 he joined the builder's labourers' branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union; while never attending union meetings, he was a fully paid-up member for the remainder of his working life. During the labour unrest of 1913–14, he adhered to the decision of his workmates and went out on sympathetic strike with the locked-out workers, without joining in picketing or other demonstrations; reluctant to accept strike pay, he handed his portion to colleagues with families.

A small, wiry man of less than average stature, Talbot kept exceptionally neat and clean in his person (out of reverence for daily reception and visitation of the Blessed Sacrament). Dressed always in swallowtail coat and bowler hat, and changing into work clothes on site, he walked hurriedly through city streets with eyes fixed to the ground, shunning the distractions surrounding his progress. A hard, tenacious worker, even in his drinking days, he was usually put first by foremen to set the pace. Devoid of bonhomie, but not uncheerful, he retained an impatient temper and blunt forthrightness of speech. In 1923 he was twice hospitalised for month-long periods with kidney and heart conditions. Unable to work during his convalescence, he lived for a time on disability benefit, while chafing under the enforced idleness. Refused his request for a pension but offered his old job back, in spring 1925 he returned to Martin's timber yard. On Trinity Sunday, 7 June 1925, while hurrying to attend mid morning mass at St Saviour's church, Dominick St., he collapsed and died of a heart attack in Granby Lane, near Parnell Square. His body, as yet unidentified, was taken to Jervis St. hospital, where attendants discovered a metal link chain wound about the torso, and lighter chains and knotted cords on the arms and below the knees, likely to cause pain when kneeling. After funeral mass in Gardiner St. church, Talbot, who was unmarried, was buried in Glasnevin cemetery on 11 June, the chains being placed with the body in the coffin.

Unknown in life to the larger public, noticed if at all as an excessively zealous crank, Talbot in death became the object of a large devotional cult, promoted by clergy and prominent lay activists, and a candidate for canonisation as a catholic saint. Prompted by Ralph O'Callaghan, a wine merchant who had befriended Talbot through common membership in a sodality, a short pamphlet, Life of Matt Talbot, a Dublin labourer, was written by Joseph Glynn, solicitor and president of the St Vincent de Paul society. Published by the Catholic Truth Society in March 1926, the pamphlet sold 120,000 copies within three months and was utilised widely as a preaching tool in Lenten missions and retreats; it was translated within two years into some twelve languages. Glynn followed it with the book-length Life of Matt Talbot (1928), for which he interviewed Talbot's relatives, neighbours, and co-workers. A diocesan inquiry, the ordinary or informative process, initiated by Archbishop Edward Byrne in 1931, resulted in a papal decree of 1937 formally introducing the cause of Talbot's beatification and canonisation. After a more extensive apostolic process (1948–53), in 1975 Talbot was elevated by the Holy See to the second stage in the canonisation process, the title of ‘venerable’. His remains were reinterred in 1952 in a vault in the central circle of Glasnevin cemetery, and in 1972 were removed to a glass-fronted tomb in the church of Our Lady of Lourdes, Sean MacDermott St.; both locations became sites of pilgrimage and devotion. A statue of Talbot stands by a bridge named in his memory over the River Liffey near the Dublin docks, and a bronze plaque marks the site of his death.

The Talbot cult has generated a substantial body of literature dealing with his life and its purported meaning. The most reliable treatments, despite their hagiographic tone, are those of Mary Purcell, Matt Talbot and his times (1954) and its abridgement, Remembering Matt Talbot (1954; last updated, 1990), which rely on transcripts of the sworn evidence taken at the two investigative processes; later editions incorporated further interviews conducted by the author, and other documentary and primary sources.

The history of the cult with its fluctuating characterisation of Talbot reflects concurrent changes in Irish society, in the perceived pastoral mission of the catholic church in Ireland, and in the ideology informing that mission. Early treatments emphasise, often luridly, as evidence of his zeal and sanctity, the self-lacerating mortifications that he assumed: the willing ‘crucifixion of the flesh’ culminating in ‘those chains . . . [to which] he had become so wedded in spirit as well as in body’ (Cassidy, 4–5). Later, post-conciliar treatments place much less stress on the mortifications, concentrating rather on his life of prayer, devotion to the sacraments, and charitable works. Purcell in her later revised editions argues that the famous chains, always the most sensational of Talbot's austerities to the public mind, were a penance assumed very late in life, probably intended to replace the dietary austerities relaxed during his illness, and even then not worn constantly. She identifies them with a devotion of French origin in which a light chain is worn as a mark of servitude to the Blessed Virgin, which Talbot – with characteristic intemperance, and lacking the moderating guidance of Hickey, his spiritual adviser, who had died suddenly in January 1925 – carried to an extreme. A 1977 reissue of Glynn's book omits entirely the last chapter of the original, dealing with favours, cures, and conversions attributed to Talbot's intercession (including the conversion of two sons of a mixed marriage reared as protestants).

While allegations, long current in popular mythology, that Talbot blacklegged during the great lockout are untrue, in the early years of the cult commentators emphasised his passivity during the lockout. Glynn asserted that the primary object of his work was the edification of Dublin workers, and pioneered the trend of early commentary to extol Talbot as a model Christian worker, epitomising virtues of industry, reliability, punctuality, honesty, and obedience, and submission on complicated socio-economic questions to the judgment of ‘wiser heads than his own’ (Cassidy, 15). Later treatments, in contrast, have emphasised his consistent trade-union membership and solidarity, and the cause of his beatification has been endorsed by trade-union leaders. Consistently claimed as a patron and model for recovering alcoholics, more recently he has been adopted as a patron for sufferers from all varieties of substance abuse, the official prayer for his canonisation referring to his ‘triumph over addiction’. A Matt Talbot retreat movement in association with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was initiated in the USA in 1943, and there have been tenuous assertions that his regimen of recovery and devotion anticipated the twelve-step programme of AA.

Sources: Joseph E. Canavan, ‘Matt Talbot 1856–1925: a symbol of the Irish nation’, Studies, xxi (1932); Joseph A. Glynn, Life of Matt Talbot (1932 ed.); James F. Cassidy, Matt Talbot: the Irish worker's glory (1934); Malachy Gerard Carroll, The story of Matt Talbot (1948); Eddie Doherty, Matt Talbot (1953); Mary Purcell, Matt Talbot and his times: a new authentic life of the servant of God (1954); E[dward] O'Connor, Spotlight on Matt Talbot (c.1973 ed.); Catherine Rynne, introduction to Joseph A. Glynn, Matt Talbot (1977 rev. ed.), vii–xv; Mary Purcell, Remembering Matt Talbot (1990 ed.); Paula Murray, Matt the mitcher (1998); ‘The Matt Talbot story: hope for addicts’, Matt Talbot website, (2 May 2003)

Image: Statue of Matt Talbot, City Quay, Dublin

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