ANTÓIN O’CALLAGHAN addressed a gathering at the Matt Talbot Novena held in Togher earlier this year. We appreciate his permission to publish what he had to say about the Venerable Matt Talbot.
We live in a time when addiction is far more prevalent that many people realise. Some years ago my wife, Sandra, and I did some work for the Aisling Addiction Treatment Centre which is located at Ballyraggett in County Kilkenny. Basically, we were documenting in film for the Sisters of Mercy how the centre had come about. I remember during our work that, on one occasion, we travelled to Wexford to meet someone connected with the story. In the kitchen of her home, hanging on the wall, was the famous picture of Matt Talbot kneeling at prayer, his prayer book on a simpler chair in front of him, the Bible on the floor beside him. The lady in Wexford said that it was important for her to have that picture on her wall - that it was a daily reminder of Matt Talbot’s inspirational story. We visited a man in Waterford, again, connected with the Aisling story, and once more, when we entered his home, there on the wall was the same picture of Matt Talbot. It was, he told us, his most import -ant possession. Every single day, he was inspired by that picture to get through the day. Without it, he said, he didn’t know what would become of him. What prompts such devotion – such attachment - to Matt Talbot, the working class Dubliner? Or to put it another way, with my historian’s hat on, what is his place in history?
Matt Talbot was born on 2 May 1856 at Aldborough Court in Dublin. His story, I’m sure, is well known to many of you. Briefly, he was born into the misery, poverty and social deprivation of tenement Dublin. To escape such misery he took to alcohol and, by his early teens, was a confirmed alcoholic. All that mattered to him was the next drink. He could scarcely read or write. A low point was reached when he robbed a travelling blind musician of his fiddle and sold it for drink. These were his dark years.
In 1884, at the age of twenty-eight, he had been an alcoholic for more than twelve years. One day, when he was refused money for drink by some acquaintances, he had no choice but to make his way homeward. As he crossed Newcomen Bridge, however, he had a conversion experience like that of St Paul on the road to Damascus and realised that he had to change his ways. There is no way of knowing precisely what happened. What we do know is that he crossed over, not just the physical bridge, but from one life to another.
At Clonliffe College, he took the pledge to ab-stain from alcohol – first for three months, then a further eight, then for life. He became member number 133 of the Total Abstinence League, a forerunner of the Pioneer movement. With the support of his spiritual advisers, he became interested in Celtic spirituality, and embraced the life lived by the monks of old, rising at 2am to pray, attending mass at 5am, living frugally with much fasting, dedicating his life to prayer, to holiness and to God. He spent the rest of his life trying to make up for actions that he regretted earlier in his life – seeking to repay his debts, praying for those he had hurt. He failed, however, to find the blind musician, but prayed for him constantly.
Matt Talbot died on 7 June 1925, having collapsed at Granby Lane en route to Mass. Only then was the full extent of his spirituality realised. As passers-by opened his shirt while trying to help him, he was found to be wearing chains about him, an emblem of membership of a group known as the Slaves of Mary, committed to a life of dedication to Jesus through the offices of His mother Mary.
I want to note to you at this point some of the contexts of the time in which Matt lived. The latter decades of the nineteenth century were the years in which Cardinal Paul Cullen revitalised the Catholic Church through-out Ireland and one means by which he did this was the instigation of confraternities and sodalities in many parishes. Matt Talbot, after his conversion, became a dedicated member of his local sodality.
1884, the year of Matt’s conversion, was also the year of the founding of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), one of the leading organisations in the pursuit of the Irish Ireland paradigm of this period in history. Many nationalist movements of the time appealed to a great and glorious Celtic past, in sport, in literature, in religion and in warrior-hood. Matt modelled his daily life on the Celtic monks’ asceticism of olden times.
From the 1830s and the 1840s, the battle against excessive consumption of alcohol was fought by people such as the Capuchin Fr Mathew. In the 1890s, a revitalised temperance ideal was once again growing through-out Ireland. With no other support organisations to help him in his personal battles, Matt Talbot became a dedicated member of the temperance movement.
I want to stress here that I am not making parallels. I am simply outlining some contexts within which Matt lived and that his dedication and commitment to his spirituality and his life of prayer and asceticism occurred in just such a time. Different people – heroes - are remembered for different reasons from this period in Irish history. Matt Talbot is one of those remembered, not because he participated in any of the great events of the period, but because he was a hero that fought a personal battle, and he won it. There is, of course, another reason why he is remembered. The historian, Diarmaid Ferriter, explained it succinctly when he wrote that ‘the Pioneer Association needed heroes and role models ...’ Matt Talbot was a perfect example of just one such hero and role model. Remember my two friends in Wexford and Waterford!
The reason why any society or association needs martyrs or saints or heroes is to show that we are not alone; others too, live lives that are like ours, with the same trials and tribulations. Our heroes inspire us to continue on – to struggle on – to overcome any obstacle. Matt Talbot was not the first alcoholic and he certainly was not the last. Matt Talbot’s method for overcoming his addiction was total dedication and commitment to a spiritual and ascetic existence, putting faith in God to bring him through.
What then is his place in history? His is not the stuff of the heroic history of the decade of revolution - and yet his is a heroic story. His is not the stuff of irredentism and anti-imperialist valorous action - and yet his is a story of valour. His place in history is that he fought a life-long battle – a war against an invisible foe – addiction. His place in history, and what we can take from his story, is that with God’s help, he won that war.