Saint of the Day – 7 June Venerable Matt Talbot OFS (1856 – 1925) (born Matthew Talbot) – Layman, Ascetic, Mystic – known as the “Saint in Overalls” and “the Workers’ Saint”, disciple of Eucharistic Adoration and the Blessed Virgin – Patron of Struggling and Recovering Addicts and Alcoholics and many addiction treatment programs, retreats and centres throughout the world bear his name. His grave is at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Seán McDermott Street, Dublin.
Ven Matt Talbot lived at an incredibly difficult time. He and his 13 siblings were born into poverty in Dublin shortly after the Irish Potato Famine. One million people died from this largely human-made disaster that saw, even while starvation was rampant, the British government’s siphoning off profit from Irish crops and livestock. Another million people emigrated and alcoholism was rampant among those who stayed behind.
His father beat him, made him change jobs—but nothing could stop Matt’s habit. After work he and his buddies went straight to the pub. Matt spent every penny on drink and once pawned his boots for a pint. Remarkably, his drinking did not prevent his putting in a good day’s work. And he said that when he was intoxicated he occasionally thought about the Blessed Mother and prayed an off-handed Hail Mary. Matt speculated later that she may have had something to do with his conversion.
One day in 1884, when Matt was 28 years old, an incident occurred that changed his entire life. For a week he had stayed away from work, drinking heavily. Saturday found him sober, thirsty and penniless. But confident that his workmates, for whom he had often bought drink, would come to his assistance, he stood with his brother near O’Meara’s pub on the North Strand to meet his colleagues coming from Pembertons. The men passed in twos and threes but none stopped to ask the brothers to have a drink. Matt said later that he was “cut to the heart” by this treatment and went home. Mary Andrews, his sister, reported what happened when Matt came home that day:
My mother said, “You’re home early, Matt, and you’re sober!” He replied, “Yes, mother, I am.” After dinner he remained in the house which was not usual, and finally he remarked to my mother. “I’m going to take the pledge.” She smiled and said, “Go, in God’s name, but don’t take it unless you are going to keep it.” He said, “I’ll go, in God’s name.”
As he was going out mother said, “God give you strength to keep it.” He went to Clonliffe, made his confession, and took the pledge for three months. He had been a couple of years away from the sacraments then. Next morning—Sunday—he went to Holy Communion. On Monday he went to 5 a.m. Mass in Gardiner Street and was at his work as usual at 6 a.m. This he made a regular practice from that time on.
But after his work, to keep away from his companions, he used to walk to a distant church, either St. Joseph’s, Berkeley Road, or St. Peter’s, Phibsboro and remain there until bedtime.
Once or twice—possibly on a Saturday—he went with the men to the public house but he drank only minerals and he usually spent Saturday afternoons away from where he might meet his old companions and generally in a church. He had a bad time of it at first and sometimes said to my mother, that, when the three months were up, he would drink again.
But Matt extended the three months into forty-one years. His new behaviour flabbergasted everyone. Matt supported his sobriety with traditional Catholic disciplines such as prayer, frequent communion, weekly confession, spiritual reading, fasting and charitable works. He also seems to have taken guidance from a wise spiritual director but the person’s name is not known. In 1891, Matt found community support by joining the Franciscan Third Order.
Matt often read the Bible and the lives of saints and he also began reading papal encyclicals on social justice and books on the labour movement. His faith and his concern for the poor led him to action and in 1900 he joined a strike from the Dublin Port & Docks Board to demand a modest raise of sixpence to their daily pay of four and sixpence. When management refused, he was one of four workers who held out from returning to work while the rest slowly gave in to the financial pressure.
He became a loyal member of Ireland’s Transport and General Workers Union. When the Dublin Lockout of 1913 led to sympathy strikes throughout the city, Matt consulted a trusted priest as he discerned joining the strike. The priest encouraged him and Matt joined the strike also came to quote a phrase from a book the priest gave him: “No man has the right to starve a worker into submission.” During this strike, he refused the strike pay given by the union to ease financial hardship, saying that he had not earned it. Later he accepted the pay but shared it among the other strikers. Matt was a vocal supporter of James Larkin, a famous union organizer and major figure in Ireland’s labor movement. One union leader, Stephen McGonagle, described Matt as “a beacon of light to Irish workers.”
Prayer and mortification
Matt Talbot mortified himself rigorously. He slept on a plank bed with a piece of timber for a pillow. This left his face numb in later years. He slept in chains which he wore for 14 years before his death, round his leg and on his body.
He prayed each night from 2 to 4 a.m., then dressed and prayed again until it was time to leave for Mass in St. Francis Xavier’s Church. He would arrive at 5am, if not earlier,and would kneel in prayer at the church’s iron railings, waiting for it to open. On entering he would kneel and kiss the ground, then make the Stations of the Cross.
In 1892 Matt took up employment as a bricklayer’s labourer with the firm of T & C Martin, on the North Wall, where he remained until his death. He fasted constantly. His breakfast consisted of cocoa prepared the previous evening by his sister, which he often drank cold. With this he ate some dry bread. For his midday meal he had cocoa to which he would add a pinch of tea and again drank cold. With this he took a slice of bread. His sister would bring him a small evening meal. If she brought fish he would insist that she take it home with her and would make do with bread soaked in the fish juice.
On Sundays he remained in the church for every Mass. Only on returning to his room at about 2 p.m. would he break his fast for the first time since 6.30 p.m. the previous day. The remainder of the day was spent in prayer, reading the Scriptures and the lives of the saints. He gave all his money to neighbours in need and to the missions.
Collapsed and died
Matt was on his way to Mass in St. Saviour’s on Trinity Sunday, June 7, 1925, when he collapsed and died on Granby Lane. A paragraph in The Irish Independent of the following day stated, “An elderly man collapsed in Granby Lane yesterday and, on being taken to Jervis Street Hospital, was found to be dead. He was wearing a tweed suit, but there was nothing to indicate who he was.”
He was buried the following Thursday, the feast of Corpus Christi, in Glasnevin Cemetery.
In 1952 Matt Talbot’s remains were exhumed and transferred to a double coffin bearing the inscription, ‘The Servant of God, Matthew Talbot.’ The coffin was placed in a vault in the central circle of the cemetery to which pilgrims began to flock from all over the world.
In 1972 Matt Talbot’s remains were removed to the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Sean McDermott Street. The tomb has a glass panel through which the coffin may be seen.
He was declared Venerable by Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1975.
PRAYER for the CANONISATION OF VENERABLE MATT TALBOT
Lord, in your servant, Matt Talbot
you have given us a wonderful example of triumph over addiction,
of devotion to duty and of lifelong reverence of the Holy Sacrament.
May his life of prayer and penance give us courage
to take up our crosses and follow in the footsteps of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Father, if it be Your will that Your beloved servant
should be glorified by your Church,
make known by Your heavenly favours
the power he enjoys in your sight.
We ask this through Jesus Christ Our Lord,
in union with the Holy Spirit,
one God forever and ever, Amen.
Anyone who receives a favour through the intercession of Matt Talbot is requested to write to Fr John Flaherty, Vice-Postulator of the Cause, Our Lady 83 Marlborough Street, Dublin 1.