A Thirst For Christ
By Fr. James Medica S.D.B.
ISBN 85826 213 4
A.C.T.S. No 1751 (1951)
It was a Saturday in 1884. In Dublin, a small figure of a man was
leaning on the rails of Necomer Bridge. He was shaking all over and was
gazing into the dark waters of the Liffey River as it slowly
wended its way to the sea. Thoughts of suicide? ... Who knows? When he
walked away from the railing it was not to leap over it but to face up
to the tempestuous storms that had brought him to this point: a human
derelict at 28 years of age, finished and brutalized by the abuse of
drink. He turned to face the storm, to prove to himself and to others
that he was capable of taking himself in hand.
Who was this man? Three Trade Union leaders, a Pope, as well as the
Yugoslav government, were all interested in him; two Presidents of
Ireland paid homage to him.
The morning of the 17th June, 1925, found him slumped on a footpath in
Dublin; his corpse was only recognized the following day.
In 1960 the Yugoslav police accused of subversive action a person who
spoke about Matt Talbot - he who had taken part in a strike in 1913 -
and the Procurator-General forbad the distribution of his biography
because he considered it dangerous to the social and political
foundations of the State.
The Irish Trade Union leaders declared that they were proud to place a
commemorative plaque where Matt lived, since they considered him as one
of the pioneers of their movement and looked on him as a beacon-light
guiding workers to port as they battled the tempests.
And a group of pilgrims belonging to the Dublin Marian Association were
surprised and delighted to hear Paul VI say: "I have read the life of
Matthew Talbot and was moved by it. This man should be canonized. I
will do my best to see this happens." That was the 11th August, 1971.
Matt was declared Venerable in Rome in 1975. Who, then, was this Matt
Brief family history
Matthew Talbot was born in Dublin on the 3rd May, 1856. That day, also,
was a Saturday. There were to be many "Saturdays" in his life, before
and after that day in 1884. He was to have a fire burning within him
and a terrible thirst, but how those Saturday events differed one from
Charles Talbot, his father, was a man in his thirties; small of stature
like Zaccheus but with a very strong voice which could be heard miles
away when he flew into a temper. Somewhat aggressive, he was at heart a
good man and a good worker with a fairly regular job as a casual with a
preferential call. But he became quite a hard man to get on with when
he drank too much, which he did once a week at least, sometimes more
His mother, Elizabeth Bagnall, was not much more than twenty years old.
Although not beautiful she was, however, a wonderful woman, a Christian
to the very marrow of her bones, a martyr in her spirit of dedication -
she really needed all these attributes to cope with her situation.
Prayer gave her strength and courage and it never failed her.
They were married in the September of 1853 and, in the twenty years of
marriage, there were born twelve children. They had to change dwellings
at least eleven times, due in part to precarious economic conditions
and partly because the family, somewhat rowdy as it was, needed plenty
of living space.
John, the eldest son and the only one to grow up tall, was born in 1854
and inherited his mother's nature - calm, prudent, a non-drinker, an
overall good man.
After Matthew, Robert was born in 1858. He died at the age of 28 in
1886. The first daughter, Mary, was born in 1860 and, together with
Susanna, who was born in 1872, left some precious details concerning
their brother's life. Of the other sons, he was only to remember
Joseph, Charles, (known as 'Joe and Charlie'), and
Philip, born in 1864. This wild lad, Philip, loved to do deeds of
called himself "THE MAN" Talbot, by which name he was known to all.
This brief family sketch shows how this child of Charles and Elizabeth
inherited not only the good qualities of both father and mother but in
him we see the tares of alcoholism which his father carried within
himself and which he left, as a sad inheritance, to his children. Two
twins, born in 1862, died early. All the boys, except John, were heavy
drinkers whilst being, at the same time, conscientious workers.
How Charles and Elizabeth succeeded in rearing such a large family is a
bit of a mystery. It is certain that, as so often happens, the poor
were their best friends. Elizabeth worked even harder than her husband
and often did work outside the house. She had a hard time keeping peace
in the family but she knew how to do it, so often suffering out of love.
It was Philip who gave her the most headaches. He was terribly
pig-headed, especially when he was drinking heavily. As has been said,
all the members of the family, except for the mother and John, drank
heavily so it is easy to imagine how disturbed the home was at times.
All the father did was to upbraid his sons for a defect learnt from
him. Certain inconsistencies leave one undecided whether to laugh or to
After Matthew's death an old man who was a sacristan at St. Agatha's
stated: "He was always ready for an argument. On a Saturday when he had
had too much to drink, he was a bundle of contrasts." This is the
family into which Matthew was to grow to manhood. It is easy to imagine
Playing the truant
There were few schools and attendance was not compulsory. To add to
this, to make sure that their children did not attend the National
Schools, which were anti-Irish and anti-Catholic, parents did not send
them at all. Only occasionally the Christian Brothers succeeded in
organizing "special schools" for these poor youngsters. So Matthew or,
as he was called by all, Matt, wandered the streets until he was eleven
years old, free to do as he chose. Finally he was admitted, together
with John, to a school that the Brothers conducted for a small number
of boys on the 6th May, 1867. Here he learnt to read and write, a bit
of grammar and arithmetic. He also got some religious instruction and
was prepared for the sacraments. The pupils were given some subsidiary
instruction: a bit of sacred history, a few lives of the saints, some
fundamental notions of science and hygiene, some stories and
educational tit-bits, a few ideas on geography and a few curiosities.
At the beginning of his schooling, because it was the month of May,
Matt learnt his first bit of poetry. It was a poem addressed to Our
Lady. At school the boys were assembled at midday - following a very
old custom - to sing hymns to Mary during her month. Matt, his friends
recall, had a beautiful, strong voice, even though he was so small and
was barely nine years old. He sang willingly and put everything into it
because his mother had taught him to love Mary, the Mother of God.
But he could not be called a dedicated student. The young teacher wrote
alongside his name in the register this sad note: "a Mitcher" (i.e. a
loafer) because he played truant quite frequently. He was influenced by
his previous free way of life and, so early in the piece, he began to
walk the wrong path.
Subject to the tyrant, drink
At that time boys went to work at the age of 12 or even earlier. The
Talbots, in succession, became messenger boys on a very small wage. So
Matt, growing up in a very poor district, in the disturbed atmosphere
of an army camp, in troubled times both socially and politically, went
to work. He was still under-developed but in 1868 he had to join the
Incredible as it may seem he was found a job by his father in a
warehouse stocking beer and wines where, as custom had it, the workers
sampled the wares from time to time. In a very short time Matt had
developed a real longing for drink. His father, in an effort to keep
him from this vice, could find no arguments beyond the use of his
hands. Matt took his punishment and went on drinking. A former employer
"I could say nothing at all favourable about Matt Talbot in this, his
His father then took him to work with him in a big custom warehouse.
Matt discovered here that he had an even better opportunity to drink
and he made good use of it. A sixteen-year-old he was already a
confirmed alcoholic and nothing could divorce him from this passion. He
was not interested in feasts, parties, dancing, playing cards; he lived
At eighteen years of age he became a labourer. He gained a reputation
for being a hard worker - he had the reputation of doing more in
half-an-hour than all the others in an hour. The boss often put him In
front to set the pace.
With the passing of the years, his drink problem became worse. He spent
nearly all his wages on drink, giving his mother a miserable pittance
for board. He got heavily into debt, even pawning his shoes and shirt,
to get money to drink. He even went so far as to rob a beggar of his
violin to barter it for drink.
Yet his sisters agree that, even then, he had so many good points. His
morality could never be questioned; he had a sense of dignity and
honesty; he never used foul language. He was always gentle and
affectionate towards his mother and sisters and caused no disturbance
in the house, but drinking, especially in company, got the better of
him. He did contract the bad habit of cursing and blaspheming, he no
longer frequented the sacraments yet he went to Mass on Sundays and
feastdays even if he had gone drunk to bed the night before. He later
confided to his sister Susanna, that, in his own way, he always
remained devoted to the Madonna and never gave up saying an occasional
His friends recall: "Matt lived for one thing only: to drink. He would
have done any work at all to get money to drink." So from his
adolescence until he was twenty-eight years old he lived the life of a
drunkard, a slave of the tyrant, drink.
One thought really caused him concern, as he sadly confessed some years
later: "I broke my mother's heart." However, her heart was stronger
than the vice that had trapped her son. With deep faith in the efficacy
of prayer, like a modern Monica, she prayed for her prodigal son with a
faith that moves mountains. She refused to admit the inevitable, the
verdict that her neighbours, in their own way, pronounced: "Poor Matt,
he's gone to the devil." She barred the way with a hedge of rosaries
that she never tired of saying.
Swimming against the tide
On that Saturday morning of 1884, with which we opened our story, he
was penniless because he had found no work that week, he was about to
wring from his friends, who were returning home from work, an
invitation to have a drink. His favourite pub - O'Meara's, now
Cussack's - was in front of him, inviting. No-one stopped. Crushed and
terrified he met refusal after refusal. They even laughed at him and
"rubbished" him. That derision hurt far more than the refusal. He
staggered to the railing on the bridge and stared into the dark waters.
A small figure of a man, with stooping shoulders, his body racked by
He felt shattered completely, shaken by the unexpected . . . And the
future? Before his befogged mind there passed those sixteen years of
degradation, of slavery . . . But what was happening? He began to feel
ashamed of what previously he had considered something to boast about.
He began to loathe himself, the drunkard, and almost instinctively
turned his face away from what he now saw and now did not see in the
troubled waters . . . He walked away from the railing and headed for
His face grew stern and a plan began to form in his mind. He would take
hold of himself. He would snatch himself away from his black past. He
would show his mates that Matt Talbot was not spineless, a bound slave,
incapable of controlling his destinies. He felt he still had some steel
in his backbone. Should he bind himself by a solemn promise? By a vow?
The person surprised beyond measure and shaken by trembling hope was
his mother when she saw him come home sober.
His 24 year-old sister, Mary, testified: "When my brother came in my
'You're home already, Matt, and you're not drunk.'
He replied: 'Yes, mum.'
After supper he stayed home, which was unusual, then said to his
mother: 'I'm going to take a vow that I will never drink again.'
She smiled and said: 'Go, in the name of God.' And whilst he was
leaving the house, she wished him well:
'May God give you the strength to keep it, my son'."
A covenant with God
He went to see Fr. Keane, a teacher at Clonliff College, the Dublin
seminary. He went to confession and asked permission to take the vow.
Fr. Keane suggested he take it for three months only, as a trial, and
this advice he accepted. The next day was Sunday and Matt went to Mass
and, after many year's absence, went to Holy Communion. During his
thanksgiving he expressed a most ardent desire to offend God no more
and, with His grace, to begin again. Words! . . . This is what many
thought; he realized that his decision could lead to a lot of
"rubbishing". And his palate, his stomach . . . what did they think
about it all? How would they react?
Meanwhile, on the following Monday morning, he went to Mass at 5 a.m.
to be at his job at the usual time of 6. He did this for all the rest
of his life. After work, so as to avoid his mates, he went to a distant
church and stayed there praying until it was time to go home.
His sister, Susanna, who was then 12 years old, recalls her surprise:
"Matt was a new man after his vow. We no longer heard him swearing and
blaspheming. His workmates were amazed when they heard he had taken a
vow, and still further amazed when they saw that he intended to keep
Mary knew that Matt "went to the pub with his friends two or three
times of a Sunday but drank only non-alcoholic beverages. At the
beginning this cost him dearly, so much so that he told my mother that,
when the three months were up, he would start drinking again." But he
did not bargain with her Rosaries!
Fr. Faber has written: "Every conversion - and there are thousands
every day - is a unique work of art, a real masterpiece. Whenever it
occurs the veil that covers sin is lifted and man turns away with
shame, detestation and humility from that odious sight. His gaze rests
on the crucified Redeemer. Fear gives way to hope, and the heart gains
courage to make a change. Faith tells him that his resolutions have
been accepted and he is free to love. How could he not love Him who has
received his poor resolution? An invisible, all powerful and all holy
hand is placed on him for an instant. Man has made a few, stumbling
steps and the work of art is complete; he is a convert. All the angels
of heaven rejoice. God looks upon him with love and unutterable desire
. . ."
This page, written many years beforehand, seems to mirror Matt's
conversion on that marvellous Saturday of 1884. He always treasured a
most vivid reminder that it was due to his mother's rosaries and that
it took place on a Saturday. His mother and Mary joined forces to bring
him back to life, that is true. And it is probable that it was also a
Saturday in May because, in June, Fr. Keane was elsewhere.
A desperate struggle
The "rubbishing" by his mates did not hurt him and soon their attitude
was one of admiration. The enemy was within: the inveterate habit of
alcohol. It was a bitter struggle. He felt the sharp pangs of an almost
irresistible longing, the sight of his mates drinking obsessed him. He
suffered intolerable agony. Desperate, he fled to the other side of
Dublin, entered a quiet church, threw himself at the foot of the
Crucified One, and prayed and wept: "Mary, loving Mother . . ."
The battle was certainly an interior one: a cruel craving produced by
sixteen years of the uncontrolled mastery of wine and beer. Yet, night
after night, he returned to that tabernacle in which the Saviour seemed
to be a mute spectator of that real agony of thirst. At times it seemed
that the Crucifix whispered to him: "I thirst."
This is not a product of his imagination - these are facts he himself
hinted at or confided to his closest friends, especially his mother.
Matt wanted to "infect" others. He tried his brothers but without much
success. He then tried his friends. Here is one example.
Pat Doyle, one of his drinking mates, returned to Dublin after an
absence of some two or three years. He straightaway looked up Matt. But
let him tell the story.
"Not finding him in the pub, I began asking his whereabouts from
others. They all said:
'Oh, Matt is no longer what he was, he's a changed man!'
"The evening prior to my meeting with him I had had an argument with a
road-worker and, although he was twice my size, I had knocked him flat.
And then I met Matt who said to me out of the blue:
'So you've fallen again?'
'Into what again?'
'And why not?'
'Forget it, Pat, forget it!'
"In the meantime we had come to a pub and I invited him to enter.
'No, Pat. You can go in if you want to, have a drink, and then come
'Go on, have a drink, and then come.'
"I thought he did not want to enter the pub because he owed some money
there. He waited for me. I did not ask him where we were going. He
began telling me what had happened at Mayo where he had been living.
Suddenly I found we had stopped in front of a church. A priest was
reading a book in the entrance.
"Matt said to him: 'He's for you, Father. I brought him along to make
"Before I could say a word I was already on my knees, made my
confession and then left in a hurry, even leaving my hat on the grass .
. . "
There was one, however, who was not going to tolerate the insults of
this "pig-headed teetotaller" and Matt had to undergo a severe testing.
One Sunday morning, whilst he participated in the first Mass at St.
Francis Xavier's in Gardiner Street, he felt a voice within him mocking
him and deriding his useless efforts. He got up to go to Communion but
a mysterious force stopped him. Dismayed, he left the church and went
outside. He went to a second and a third church but the same icy
experience was repeated each time.
Matt did not give in. He returned for the 9.45 Mass at St. Francis
Xavier's. He threw himself down on his knees at the entrance and cried:
"I am certain, Lord, I do not want to return to my old ways." He
entered and prayed to Mary. He assisted at Mass and the invisible
barrier dissipated like a mist. Matt received Holy Communion and
experienced a sense of deep joy. He was to love Mary from the bottom of
his heart for this grace.
At full steam down the narrow path
"A new man", yes, by will-power but the old Matt still remained, a
highly-strung wisp of man, of a somewhat irascible temperament, prone
to shouting and blustering like his father, a hard worker like his
He had only a rough-and-ready elementary education; he was only a poor
bricklayer's labourer, employed in putting up brick buildings. But he
had begun on his own accord on a new "building" which he tried to keep
as hidden as possible. The height he was seeking to reach was a lofty
one and steep yet he was an experienced labourer. He climbed up it like
an acrobat with a heavy load, aided only by the advice of excellent
Matt did not know how high his building would eventually be and how
beautiful it would become or how he would surprise a Paul VI and
attract the admiration of the whole world. He was not looking for this.
He was seeking only to please Jesus and Mary, and because of this he
was a good labourer, a workman dedicated to his trade. He needed time
to do this interior work beyond the time for the exterior work. He was
jealous of his time, always at work without wasting a minute, making
every one productive of great good.
The source of all his strength, his resistance and his constancy would
be a mystery to anyone who could not follow every step he took, who
could not observe him in church or alone in his room.
That he was "another man" was plain to everybody and we will try to
follow him along the narrow, steep road and his work of construction.
He had forty years ahead of him to tread this road and complete this
building and his pace never slackened until he dropped dead and then
the work was completed.
Let us keep pace with him . . . if we can.
A bold planner
There are few witnesses of the first years of his conversion because
Matt did not display in public his 'plans' for an interior
construction. But those plans can be read by inspecting his building
materials that he kept on putting together and which allowed him to
build on the deep foundation of his spiritual sanctuary dedicated
co-jointly with Jesus and Mary.
Far more solid and precious materials than marble and plaster were for
Matt hard constant work, almost uninterrupted work, mortification and
daily penance, intense and solid spiritual reading, operative charity
enlivened by gentleness and affability, an exquisite and joyful sense
of brotherhood: all this with the passionate love and the zeal of a
consecrated person helped to put together this interior sanctuary of
All his friends believed this change of life was but a nine-days
wonder! a sober Matt could not be imagined. A Matt so different from
the past bewildered them and their astonishment grew with the passing
of the months. They realized that he was deadly earnest about his vow.
But what they did not realize was that an internal change was taking
place in him and that he had set himself to work with a furious zeal.
He was indeed serious! He was undergoing a real martyrdom, was being
burnt by a fire from within and without.
The grace of conversion had not changed his nature as it never does. He
had changed his will; and it was this, set on fire by a most ardent
love for Jesus and Mary that worked on his nature to transform it, to
conform it to Christ.
He was always the first to work, so much so that he was called "the
best labourer in Dublin". If the boss put him out in the front so the
others could pace themselves, surely the Lord will put him before the
world as an example to shake it out of its lethargy.
What went on inside this humble and somewhat taciturn Matt we do not
know directly, but the progress made and the transformation enacted
bears witness in itself. Saints are only born of a great idea and of a
greater love. The true Matt Talbot is all here.
The morning of a new life
Because the new life led by Matt had no great highlights - we could
even say adventures - that many of the saints have, but was
distinguished by a rather monotonous mediocrity, if you like, of a
simple labourer, we will look at his apostolic life in sectors rather
than follow it in a chronological order. We will make an exception for
two periods: one at the dawn and one at the sunset of his life as a
Looking at Matt at the dawn of his new life has the advantage of
putting before us almost a synthesis of the 'project' that he kept
working on with a growing ardour. To look back from the closing of his
life helps us to appreciate its unity, the true meaning and prospective
of the beautiful sanctuary he had built over those forty years of
It will be perceived that the opening and closing dates of his
'converted' life have a religious significance. The Saturday-Sunday of
his conversion, that were to become, as it were, a rhythmatic passage
over the forty years. Then it was Trinity Sunday that he died and it
was the Thursday of Corpus Christi on which his body was returned to
the earth as a fertile seed.
In 1884 Matt had already a steady job and this became the stable basis
of his spiritual construction, more solid than the bricks that he
carried hour after hour. Matt has every right to be called a 'labourer'
in the broadest possible sense of the word. And that same tenacity,
those muscles he built up and the energy he expended as a bricklayer's
labourer became the driving force of his spiritual life.
His were days of work and prayer: work that was prayer, and prayer that
was an interior building force. Pat Doyle justly remarks: "Matt took
nothing lightly." The unfathomable source of physical energy that
amazes us, the indomitable will-power with which he was gifted whilst
he was previously caught up in the one thing that then mattered:
drink, now was changed into another totally different 'only thing': his
intimate secret, the goal of his vow: to give himself to God - a thirst
Mass at five in the morning began his life outside of the house but he
was already at prayer at least two hours before that. His family knew
this quite well. His sister Mary attests that, in the house, he spent
nearly all his time on his knees praying or reading, even when he was
taking his Frugal meals. He fasted often and slept on the top of a
Every Saturday, after finishing his work at midday, and all day Sunday
saw him kneeling in front of the tabernacle, motionless, upright. He
was there to carry on a bitter struggle against drinking, with ruthless
violence. One evening he felt this drive to drink almost unbearable. He
was to tell Bob Laird himself why he never carried money with him since
"Shortly after my conversion, I was passing in front of a pub and was
sorely tempted to break my vow. I walked back and forth in front of it
three times, feeling the money in my pocket and feeling a desperate
need to have a drink. I could not stand it any longer and went in.
No-one knew me there. I waited for some time but no-one came to serve
me. Suddenly I made for the door and went to a church nearby and stayed
there until closing time. From that day on I resolved never to carry
money in my pocket."
His mother became his confidant, his support, with a faith and firm
hope that could not be measured. She urged him to have faith in Jesus
and Mary. The three months of his first vow passed, the struggle became
more and more desperate but his trust in the help of Jesus and Mary
gave him hope of a final victory and he renewed his vow for another six
months, then for a year and finally for life.
A joyful penitent
In 1884 Matt went to live in a room on his own, near his married sister
Mary, who did some sewing for him and looked after his room. She
noticed a big plank against the wall and a log of wood on the floor
and, curious, asked him what they were for. He replied with a smile:
"They're there for a purpose." But one day she found the plank on the
bed, covered with a sheet, and the log of wood in the place of a
pillow. This is how he slept!
His room was very poor - an iron bed, a table, a seat, a crucifix and a
couple of holy pictures. He dressed very poorly and never used an
overcoat but was, all the same, ever neat and tidy.
Wanting to imitate Christ, he got rid of everything that impeded him
from following Him closely. He not only gave up alcohol, thus keeping
in check the intense longing that tormented him, but also gave up
smoking. He confided to a friend that the first months after his
conversion were the worst he had ever experienced. He said that giving
up smoking cost him even more than giving up drinking.
In Matt there were to be no compromises. He did everything with all his
strength. As he was once a victim of drink and subjected everything to
that mad desire, now he concentrated on prayer, spiritual reading,
charity and gave it every atom of his attention - all for the love of
Jesus and Mary. His friends summed up thus: "Matt was not accustomed to
doing things just for the sake of doing them."
Certainly, his was a special vocation, a distinct calling from the
Lord, controlled by excellent spiritual directors and no-one has the
right to deride it, still less to consider him a maniac. Matt was a
very stable person and God sustained him with His exceptional grace.
One may feel it would be absolutely impossible to imitate him but this
is never demanded of us as we study the lives of the saints. It is not
demanded in the sense that we must ape their gestures, their actions
because no two men are the same, neither do any two share the same
vocation, conditions of life and of ambient, a particular mission.
Matt takes his place in the lineage of the great Irish saints whose
spirituality has been, on the one hand, emotional and bodily punishing
whilst, on the other hand, has been lived out in a spirit of exuberant
and intensely Christian joy.
What is a stimulus and an invitation to imitation is the integrally
sustained commitment of the will relying on God's help, a life of deep
love and prayer. Often we stop, looking at a repelling spiny hedge
without looking beyond to see the beautiful garden it is protecting.
Beyond these impressionable and terrible penances we must see the love
of God and his neighbour which was so much a part of Matt's life.
He did not love mortification for its own sake but what it stood for.
He imitated Christ, this is true; Christ who loved His Father and His
brothers so much as to die for them. He did not love the bitter chalice
from which He turned in dread. Only love, stronger than any other
feeling, gave Him the strength to drink it. That was what Matt wanted
Had he not been an impenitent 'drunk"? Then he decided to drink in
large draughts to make himself God's 'drunk'. Had not his body made a
slave of the spirit'? Then he would put his body in chains. For the
rest, his harsh penances could not have been excessive since he was
able to work with undiminished energy right up until his last years.
Rich in good humour and affable with
I have mentioned his interior 'garden'. The beautiful perfume which
came from it was perceived by those who even did not see it directly.
One of Matt's nephews states that Matt was always in a good humour and
often heard singing in his room of an evening. He stresses that he was
on good terms with everyone, in particular with the other tenants of
the flat, whom he greeted with pleasant words and a 'God be with you'
or a 'God bless you'.
He was an open and straightforward man who seemed incapable of telling
a lie. Even the hardest of renunciations he made joyfully since he was
always happy and contented. Although he ate very little he was always
healthy-looking and was a most pleasant man to meet. The same nephew
states that, before he got married, he used to visit him often and
always found him very kind, ready for a joke, and that he never saw him
angry although he knew how to be severe if the occasion merited it.
He recounts: "I had asked him for a small loan and, not having repaid
it on my first pay-day as I had promised, I did so on the second
pay-day. He took the money and gave it back to me saying: 'This is what
you promised to pay back. Now take it', he added with a smile, 'it's
yours. Remember that you should always stand by your promises . . . and
make sure you do not get into debt.' This was in keeping with his own
code of conduct."
At all times humble and cordial, he knew how to laugh and joke; open
and sincere, he always said what he thought to people and, if by chance
a harsh word escaped his lips, he always politely begged pardon because
he had no intention of hurting anybody.
Probably in 1909 he changed jobs and went to work with Martin's, timber
merchants. He did this because he could start work at 8 instead of 6,
so he would have more time for Mass and his devotions in church. Daniel
Manning, who lived with his family within the grounds of the merchant,
near the carriage entrance, and who knew Matt from 1904 to 1925, states
that he was very popular with the workers, who esteemed him very much
for his industry, his good humour, his gentleness and for his . . .
holiness. And that's saying a lot from rough workmen!
Manning adds that Matt was most punctual and opened the shop himself
and was always very genial and ready to do a favour. And with pleasure
adds that he had a special liking for his small daughter, Teresa, and
loved to show her around the shop holding her hand, teaching her
prayers and asking her to be as good as St. Teresa.
Paddy Laird, his co-worker, recalls that Matt loved to return home from
work with the other workers and even accompanied them to their homes
and along the way often invited them to make a brief visit to a church.
He conversed pleasantly and loved sharing a joke. He took an interest
in their problems and their favourite sports. He was pleasant company.
He was a bit of a wag and far from being a 'sour-puss'.
From his lips there never came an improper word but he loved using the
pleasant slang phrases common at the time. One such phrase: "Go and get
your hair cut" became one of his favourites and he used it quite often,
with a smile, whenever anyone bothered him at work. Foul talk really
upset him and he intervened tactfully and firmly, so much so that his
mates learnt to respect his candour and his openness and listened to
him when he spoke.
He wanted to consider himself a
A niece, Mary's daughter, tells us that he turned down a proposal of
marriage in the first years of his conversion. A young girl, impressed
by his good qualities, his reserve and goodness, thought of proposing
to him, seeing that he had means and could set up a house. She felt she
would be very happy with him. Matt kindly asked her to await an answer
until he had made a novena to the Blessed Virgin for enlightenment. At
the end of the novena he said he had been convinced he should not
marry. To a confidant he said that it was the Blessed Virgin herself
who had told him not to get married. Did he not already have his great
At that time he was a little more than thirty years old and had
acquired a maturity far superior to his years, especially if you
consider the erratic years of his life as an alcoholic. He refused
other offers of matrimony because he felt it would be impossible to
live the life of a married man and the life he had decided to follow.
That novena does indicate, however, that he was not averse to marrying
but he preferred to follow God's will and had recourse to prayer to
resolve his problems and before he took any important decision. His
conversion was deep-rooted.
He also decided to join the Third Order of St. Francis. On the 18th
October, 1891, he took the name of 'Brother Joseph Francis'. At the
same time he joined the Association of Mary Immaculate and worked hard
to get others to join, especially certain 'hard cases'.
A Jesuit priest at Gardiner Street was giving some talks to the Marian
Association that electrified his hearers. His topics were centred on
the problem of faith, the old religious traditions of Ireland and
patriotism. Matt was enthusiastic about him and often said to his
workmates: "Were you at Gardiner Street last night? Fr. Tom Murphy was
terrific! I'm sure you would have enjoyed him." At the right moment he
would approach a mate and suggest: "You should come along to Gardiner
Street this evening; you will hear things that are well worth listening
He was also enrolled in other religious associations, such as that of a
Good Death, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Apostolate of Prayer. He was
most faithful to all the meetings right up until his death. This is not
surprising as his whole life was so methodical and varied: that is,
methodical in the exterior forms yet marvellously varied in the lights
he received to form his interior life which opened up new horizons all
A formidable yet careful reader
I can well imagine someone saying: this is too ambitious a statement.
Yet this is the truth and I cannot gainsay it. Not only did he leave
behind a shelf full of hundreds of books, big and small, some
comprising several volumes but he had read many others lent to him by
his spiritual director or friends.
The most popular of these books were biographies. It is good to note
that he studied hard to read with profit and that, as he himself
confessed, he often asked the help of Mary and the Holy Spirit so as to
understand the difficult passages and this grace seems to have been
abundantly given. This is attested to by many different people who
He set himself to study the Bible with superhuman tenacity and
concentration, absorbing its contents carefully. He prayed that he
might understand and be nourished by the Word of God. He had several
editions of the complete Bible, several copies of the New Testament and
a pocket edition which he always had in his possession.
His favourite books were Deuteronomy, some of the Psalms and the Gospel
of St. Matthew whose name he bore. In the margins he noted the texts
that particularly struck him and opened his soul most effectively to
He read many spiritual books written by the best authors, books of
theology, and so well did he digest the contents that he became an
expert in questions of religion and the spiritual life.
He widened his range of reading to cover social and industrial
questions. His workmates consulted him on current matters under debate
and Matt spared no time or work to make sure that he gave the correct
and exhaustive answer. Once he spent a whole week's wages to get a book
from New York so as to be in a position to give an answer to a
And it should be noted that his family used to see him always reading
and studying on his knees, in the attitude of a penitent sinner. With
the light that came from above, because reading is also prayer, almost
a school of the Lord, with his efforts to enlarge his mastery of words
and concepts, he succeeded in gaining mastery of an ever-growing range
He always loved the lives of the saints and he read many great
collections of them. He felt at home with the saints and, like a bee,
gathered from each one of them something and transformed it into
gentleness of character, fervour of spirit, apostolic generosity. By
this means he became kind and affable with everybody. And it must be
said that his impulsive nature was held in check with a rigour that
cost him dearly.
A tremendous worker yet he went on
Matt was always an untiring worker and, after his conversion, his work
had for him not only a human and social aspect but a religious one. He
united his work, especially when he started working with timber, with
that of Christ "the carpenter, the son of a carpenter" (Mark 6:3;
Matthew 13:55). He reminded himself of this every morning at Communion.
He worked with a spirit of loyal collaboration, with true love, with
After his death it was said: "But Matt never stood up for his
workmates." Absurd as this accusation is, it circulated and, as so
often happens, repetition made it undeniable, without people taking the
trouble to verify it.
However the fact is altogether different. He would not have been so
much esteemed and loved by his mates if he was not accepted as one of
them. They consulted him on social questions, as we have seen, showing
that they felt he was interested in their affairs. Many, in the Process
of Beatification, affirmed that his interest in his fellow-workers was
outstanding, an interest full of understanding and solidarity.
Once one of the directors of the firm for whom he worked asked him if
he had seen one of the workers arriving late. Matt replied: "I'd prefer
you did not ask me questions like that." But as soon as the director
had gone away, Matt said to the workman who was hiding nearby: "Did you
hear that? I did not want to lie to cover up for you."
Another time, a lady saw in Matt's pocket a "Social Catechism of Work"
and indignantly attacked him as a socialist. Matt replied with some
scorching words and this was the only time he lost his self-control.
But the lady discovered his complete loyalty to the workers and to the
Church and that he was prepared to defend it vigorously.
Another two significant episodes: One of the firm's guards was talking
with Matt and, seeing one of the bosses coming along, wanted to walk
away lest he be accused of wasting time talking with a workman. "Stay
where you are", Matt said to him, "There's only one Boss you have to
take notice of", and he pointed his finger to the sky. A colleague
speaking of one of the owners called him "Master". Matt quickly
retorted: "He is not my master, he is only the man who gives me work. I
have only one Master . . . in heaven."
Most loyal in everything and to everyone, he still went on strike in
1900 for a cause he considered just. Whilst the others gradually
drifted back to work, Matt stuck it until the workers' requests were
A co-worker comments that Matt's shoulders were quite stooped and he
had to make quite an effort to carry the timber yet he did not spare
himself. And this is the man with a clear conscience who took part,
with his mates, in a strike in 1913. He did it for them, for all the
workers, without considering his own interests, so much so that he did
not want to accept the strikers' allowance; but his colleagues - this
is surely an indication of esteem - forced him to take it but he passed
it on to poorer workmen, those with families.
Certainly his companions did not expect him to man the picket lines,
both because of his age and because he abhorred every form of violence.
Matt spent the time in front of the tabernacle and the crucifix, to
intercede for the workers' rights, for true justice for all.
A great heart open to all
He had a great admiration for his parents and loved them intensely, as
he also loved his brothers and sisters. He who, before his conversion,
only handed in a few pence to his home, now was most generous with them
all, with his relatives and all the others. And when his two brothers
Joe and Charlie, both incorrigible heavy drinkers who had gone through
all their assets, died, Matt paid all their expenses.
From the very beginning of his conversion Matt had paid all the debts
he had contracted in his drinking days at various pubs and with his
mates. He recalled the 'crime' of robbing the old beggar of his violin
to 'turn it' into alcohol and went to no end of trouble to trace him
and when he was convinced that he was dead he had several Masses said
for the repose of his soul. He attended these Masses himself.
When his father died, at 75 years of age, in 1899, Matt went to live
with his mother, who moved into new lodgings. She became the spectator
and witness of the thorough conversion of her dear son, for whom she
had prayed so much as Monica had prayed for her Augustine. When she
died, at the age of 80, he cried tenderly as he had done for his
father. He continued to weep for and pray for his dear departed ones,
having abundant suffrages offered for them.
At home he was always very kind to visitors, welcoming them with a
pleasant manner, talking and laughing readily, making sure not to make
public his penances, his fastings, his unceasing prayers. In no way
could he be said to be strange.
He spent little on himself and was most generous with others. He often
paid for a good pair of shoes for a workmate and, although he never
carried money with him, was quick to subscribe to any appeal.
He paid for a beer for a young man, saying: "A bottle of beer did no
harm to any man" but would not shout for anyone addicted to drink. He
was ready to make a loan of several pounds (a large enough sum in those
days!) but would refuse the 'restitution', politely saying: "Keep it,
if you need it." This was a wonderful way of helping one's neighbour.
Once a priest went to the firm where Matt was working to ask for
donations. It happened to be pay-day and Matt handed over the whole lot
even though the priest did not want to accept it.
He was most generous to the Missions and paid for the studies of
several aspirants to the missionary apostolate. He gave up buying
flowers for Our Lady's altar, saying: "I'll give the money to the
Missions instead." He kept up this work of charity until his death.
With children he was most kindly. Sean Thomas O'Kelly, twice President
of Eire, spoke of the times when he was an altar boy, between 1890 and
1897, from the age of 8 to 15: "I knew Matt Talbot personally and spoke
to him often over the years. He knew the altar boys by name. He often
asked us a catechism question and gave us good advice. Sometimes the
boys teased him but he did not resent it. He was kindly and gentle. We
were not scared of him because he was so kind. I was ten and one day he
took me by the hand and led me around the church: he was a pleasant
man, approachable, courteous. I never saw him upset; he was calm and
serene. Over the years he often stopped to talk to me if he met me on
He had a great love for Ireland and for prayer for its freedom. He did
nothing just to be noticed but, sometimes, the interior exuberance
broke out in exterior manifestations.
In his heart, prayer raised its tone, became an intimate song and
passed through the wall of silence, flowing forth in an audible voice.
Again President O'Kelly attests: "I have seen him make the Stations of
the Cross. He prayed a great deal and sometimes he prayed aloud. More
than once I saw him praying with outstretched hands, aloud, his eyes
fixed on the crucifix. I would say that he was as close as possible to
a person in ecstasy as I imagined that state. His fervour, his
recollection, was extraordinary."
If there was a lull in his work Matt was seen by his mates to retire to
a quiet corner among the stacks of wood to recite his rosary on his
To satisfy the growing love he had for Jesus and Mary he asked for the
great gift of prayer and received it in great abundance. He succeeded
in praying for many hours a day, always on his knees, with joyful
fervour. His mother attests that Matt often got up at two in the
morning and prayed until it was time to go to Mass. Often he was
waiting for the church to be opened, again on his knees, no matter how
long he had to wait. This can be said of very few saints.
Every Sunday saw him hurrying along the streets of Dublin to go to as
many Masses as possible. These he offered for many different
intentions. He only broke his fast in the early afternoon. Daily the
emaciated figure of Matt, for forty years or so, could be seen at St.
Francis Xavier's, participating at Mass with never flagging devotion.
Matt at prayer, in immediate contact with the Father, with Jesus and
Mary, could be defined as 'the man of prayer', whilst at work he was -
and this was the opinion of all -'the man of integrity'.
After Fr. Keane had become a Dominican, Matt went to confession every
week to Fr. Michael Hickey for many years and became his very close
friend. Of this priest who guided Matt along the path of God, Fr. Hyles
Renan was to write: "He was a man as close as you could get to St. Pius
X as I have known in my fifty-four years of priesthood and I knew both
men well. His kindness, courtesy, comprehension and his counsel were
beyond anything you could imagine."
This statement is important for us to understand that Matt in all that
he did never followed his own whims, he did not consider penance as a
goal in itself but only as a means amongst so many, and his aim was the
love of God alone to whom he wished to conform himself, keeping in mind
the invitation: "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny
himself daily, take up his cross and follow me" (Mt 16:24). At the
school of Hickey, from whom he had learnt how to read the Bible and
spiritual books, Matt learnt how to transform everything into prayer.
Asked one day if he had ever had extraordinary experiences, he replied
with all simplicity: "Only once. I was awakened from my sleep by a
voice which told me to pray for a workmate whom I had tried in vain to
bring to God. I prayed. That man died suddenly that very night."
"My good queen"
In the last twelve years of her life, Elizabeth, Matt's mother, went to
live with her son. It was to be the last of the moves in her nomadic
life. And it is to her that we owe some of the most beautiful secrets
from her son's life.
The vigilant mother, now so happy to see her son so transformed by all
her rosaries, sometimes got up at night to observe him. She found him
in prayer, his arms outstretched, and many times in lengthy
conversations with the Madonna. She thought he saw Mary but he would
never admit this to anyone. However, his great love for the Virgin Mary
made him say to his mother, whilst he held in his hand a little statue
of Mary with the Child which he greatly admired:
"No-one knows what a good Queen Mary is to me."
He never forgot that his conversion took place on a Saturday and for
his Mother he cultivated an intimate and deep devotion. All that he did
for Mary - prayers, fasting, novenas, feast days and all kinds of acts
of charity - were an expression of a perpetual thanksgiving for that
conversion, for that Saturday that saw him break away so abruptly from
alcohol, from a life of sin. He always said he could never do enough
for that marvellous intervention of Mary in his life.
Every Saturday he fasted in her honour even though he already observed
an habitual fast. If this seems extraordinary it is because we do not
realize how much supernatural sustenance was gained by his filial love.
It can be said that Matt, as few saints, is in our day a concrete
verification, one can almost say physically so, of that affirmation of
Christ: "Not by bread alone does man live but by every word that comes
from the mouth of God."
The entire rosary was his daily homage to Mary. The unending rosary
that Matt recited had its birth in that of his mother and the two of
them vied in rendering Mary tribute.
Again in a testimony from President O'Kelly: "When, as an altar boy, I
opened the church doors in the morning, Matt was there already on the
steps, rosary in hand. Entering the church he went to pray at Our
Lady's altar. You could always find him in front of that altar.
Speaking to us boys he asked us if we said the rosary and urged us to
Edward Fuller, one of his workmates, says: "Matt often spoke to us
about Mary whom he called 'the beautiful Mother of God'. But what
outsiders did not realize was his deep love and his intimate life with
her. The rosary was not the only prayer he used. There were many
others, starting with the Angelus which he never omitted and he said
many aspirations such as these which were written on his hand:
'O Virgin I ask three things from you: the grace of God, the presence
of God, the blessing of God' and 'O blessed Mother, obtain for me from
Jesus that I may participate in His folly'."
His mother found that of an evening, as he went to bed, he held the
statue of Mary and Child tight to his breast. Jesus and Mary were his
Irresistible thirst for Christ
Once converted another thirst devoured and completely dominated him:
the thirst for Christ. To this he sacrificed all he had and was. How
this thirst refined him, how much dignity it gave to a very simple
workman, how it transformed him interiorly and exteriorly! God alone
knew his soul but others saw the change in his life, in his bearing, in
the brilliance that surrounded his whole person, even to make people
note he did not smell of tar which is usual for those who handle
treated timber as he did. He left the yard neat and tidy as if he
continually preserved within himself an uninterrupted dialogue with
Christ. For Him he longed, for Him he kept himself spotless.
His daily desire for the Eucharist anticipated by twenty years the call
of Pius X. Their lives ran parallel for almost sixty years. Although so
different, they were so much alike in their love for Jesus in the
sacrament of His love.
Innumerable were Matt's rosaries, the Masses in which he participated
every Sunday - not to count weekdays - and on Mary's feast days. Jesus
and Mary were joined together in his faith, in his spirituality, in his
filial expressions of devotion.
Even during his drinking days - in everyone's opinion - Matt always
maintained his purity. When he found his true love, Jesus, the Son of
Mary, he gave Him everything, making Him his spouse with absolute and
joyous dedication. He spent as much time as he could before the Blessed
Sacrament, motionless as if he were undergoing a sun-cure that Christ
may penetrate him, purify him and nourish him with its light of love.
When he was in hospital in 1923, as soon as he could get out of bed, he
spent up to seven hours in the chapel. To a lady who said how sad and
desolate she felt after her only brother had gone to America, Matt
replied with a surprising expression of love:
"Alone? How can you feel alone when Jesus is in the tabernacle?" Every
evening, before the church was closed, he had a long talk with his
Eucharistic Lord who was the very centre of his life.
Flames of light, the harbinger of
In 1920 Matt's health began to decline. He was 64. His strict ascetical
life and his hard work had undermined his robust constitution. It is
not to be forgotten, as well, that his drinking habits for over sixteen
years had taken their toll.
In the ward at Mater Hospital visitors were accustomed to see the
rosary held in the worker's hands. Dr. Henry Moore had this to say
after Matt's death: "Matt was patient to a remarkable degree. He was an
extraordinarily religious man, a saint, the most gentle person I have
ever met. I was proud to call him a friend." Matt recovered and once
more took up his ascetical practices.
In 1923 he was twice in hospital, but again recovered but did not cut
back on his commitment. In 1925, the first week of June, Dublin had to
suffer waves of searing heat. Matt needed to go to hospital once more
for further care but he took up his work again, saying that he felt
On the 7th June, Trinity Sunday, he participated at the 8 a.m. Mass and
went to Communion. He returned home pale and unwell. A fellow tenant
advised him to have a rest. But an hour later he raced off so as not to
miss the 10 a.m. Mass at the Dominican chapel. Halfway along Granby
Lane, a few yards from the church, he fell, struck down by a heart
attack. No-one in the district knew him. An ambulance took him off to
Jervis Street Hospital.
Thunder after sundown
Examining his body, the doctors discovered that he had a chain tightly
twisted around his body. Only the morning after, his sister, Susanna,
not finding him at home, was informed of this accident and went and
recognized his body.
The funeral was held the following Thursday, the Solemnity of Corpus
Christi. He was buried in the habit of the Third Order of St. Francis.
His marvellous inner sanctuary was complete. Now the angels and saints
admired this loving sanctuary of Jesus and Mary. Matt gives us an
example of total witness.
A headstrong boy who skipped school, who had liberated himself from the
chains of alcohol, faithful to his word given to God, willing to work
hard at a very lowly job, a passion for religious and social reading,
joyous and affable, an interested friend to all, an undeniable
solidarity with the worker, a layman committed to a life truly
christian, a tender yet strong love for Jesus and Mary, constancy in
his new way of life, a man who reached the highest peaks.
In 1931 the diocesan process to examine his holiness was begun. On the
25th February, 1947, the Apostolic Process began at Rome, the same day
as Bartolo Longo: another outstanding layman. In 1975 he was declared
Many have obtained favours and graces of conversion through his
intercession, prayers to this 'great workman' have come from hearts
drawn by his great human qualities.