K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent. He writes from London.
On June 7, 1925, an elderly poorly dressed man collapsed in Granby Lane, Dublin.
Subsequently, he was taken to Jervis Street Hospital where he was found to be dead. Although his identity was as yet unknown, a curious discovery was made: He was wearing heavy chains, some wrapped around his legs, others around his body. Mortuary staff puzzled over not just who he was but also the meaning of the chains.
The man was eventually identified as Matt Talbot.
Born in 1856 into a large Catholic family living in semi-poverty in Dublin, Talbot left school, barely literate, aged just 11 years old, going to work full-time as an unskilled laborer. By his teenage years he was hopelessly addicted to alcohol. Although he had the reputation of being a hard worker, his work ethic was simply the means by which to finance his ‘hard drinking.’
It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that the next phase of his life began outside a pub. That summer’s day in 1884, he had no money. He hoped that one of his fellow drinkers would stand him a drink. As each acquaintance filed past him into the pub, no one offered to buy him anything. Something then occurred that was to change Matt Talbot forever. Humiliated by the indifference of his erstwhile friends, he turned and walked straight home. His mother was surprised to see him at that early hour, and even more surprised to see him sober. He proceeded to clean himself up before announcing he was going to a nearby seminary to ‘take the pledge’ – a promise to abstain from all alcohol. His mother was mystified by this – and fearful. She knew that pledges made to God were not something to be taken lightly. She counseled him against doing any such thing unless he was intent on persevering. He listened and left.
Talbot did take the pledge that day. He also went to Confession. These actions were to prove the hallmarks of a genuine conversion, one as sincere as it was needed. Nevertheless, the first step of a conversion takes but a moment, the work of sanctification a lifetime: after years of drunkenness, still besetting him was a weakness of character and a working world centered on alcohol.
After his conversion, not much changed, outwardly at least: Talbot continued with his employment in the Dublin docks. He continued to work hard, now respected more than ever by his fellow workers and employers who noticed that he had started to give his wages to his mother rather than straight to a publican. Previously, when not working, he had spent his time in public houses, but now he turned his back on all that. He had been ‘born anew’, but like a newborn was vulnerable to the world he inhabited. With little to cling to, he turned inward, to the Spirit that seeks to dwell within each baptized soul. And, as he did so, he commenced upon an interior journey that few could have imagined possible.
From then on, along the Dublin streets there began to move a mystic soul. Each morning, at 5 a.m., Talbot knelt upon the stone pavement outside a city church waiting for the doors to open and for the first Mass to begin. After the Holy Sacrifice, he would pray for a time before going to one of the timber yards near the docks. There he labored all day just like the rest of his fellow workers; but there were periods in the day when lulls and breaks would occur. Whilst the other workers gossiped or smoked, Talbot chose to be alone, kneeling in prayer in a hidden part of a workshop until the call came to return to his labors.
Each evening, when work was finished, Talbot walked home with his fellow workers. They all knew their companion’s free time was spent praying in a city church before the Blessed Sacrament. Often he asked them to join him in making a visit to Our Blessed Lord. Some did. After a short while, however, they would leave, while Matt still knelt in the gathering twilight. Eventually, when at night he did return home, it was to yet more prayer – and mortification. His bed was a plank of wood, as was his pillow. Although respected by those among whom he lived and worked, and although he was not unfriendly, he had few visitors. Those who did encounter him felt he was not quite of this world. They were right; he was traveling ever inwards on a journey to a freedom he could never have envisaged when trapped in a never-ending alcoholic stupor.
When his belongings were found after his death, what surprised many was the number of books he owned. Inquires soon revealed that he had slowly, but determinedly, taught himself to read and, as he did so, effectively begun a course of study that included the spiritual classics, the lives of saints, doctrinal books, and works of mystical and ascetical theology. When asked by a friend how he, a poor workman, could read the works of St. Augustine, John Henry Newman and others, his reply was as straightforward as it was telling. He said he asked the Holy Spirit to enlighten him. And so he grew in an intellectual understanding of his faith that, in turn, deepened the prayer and penance he undertook.
His life ran alongside momentous events in Irish history. It was a time of cultural renaissance and nationalist fervor, of a Great Strike in 1913 and of open revolution in 1916, of the Great War and a war for independence, yet throughout it all Talbot’s life remained largely unchanged. He knew all too well that kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, but that he had set his face to serve a different Kingdom, one shown him in 1884 when he confessed all and cast himself into the hands of the Living God.
Talbot never married; held no position of note, was unknown outside his small circle of family and friends — only one blurred photograph has survived him — and, yet, this was a rare man: one who had taken the Gospel at its word and lived it.
By 1925, Talbot was 69. He had been in poor health for some time. Out of necessity, he tried to continue working as there was only limited relief for the poor and elderly, but his strength was failing. However, even then, he persisted in his prayer and penance. On June 7, 1925, whilst struggling down a Dublin alleyway on his way to Mass, he fell. A small crowd gathered around him. A Dominican priest was called from the nearby church, the one to which Talbot had been hurrying. The priest came and knelt over the fallen man. Realizing what had happened, the priest raised his hand in a last blessing for a final journey.
Talbot died on Trinity Sunday; he was buried on the feast of Corpus Christi.
In 1975, Pope Paul VI bestowed a new title upon this humble workman: Venerable. Now Talbot is a heavenly patron for all those with addictions, alcohol or otherwise.
Still to this day there is a large trunk in the safe keeping of the Archdiocese of Dublin. It contains the books owned by the now Venerable Matt Talbot. A veritable treasury of spiritual theology, one of the books contained therein is True Devotion to Mary by St. Louis de Montfort. In its pages, de Montfort reflects on the choice of being a slave to this world or of the Blessed Virgin. For those that choose the latter path, it recommends, after due recourse to a spiritual director and suitable enrolment, that a chain be worn to symbolize that that soul no longer belongs to the powers of darkness but is instead now a child of the light.
On that June day in 1925 when Matt Talbot fell upon a Dublin street, his chains were those denoting nothing less than a slave to Mary and an ambassador for Christ.