The name of Matt Talbot is not well known outside of Ireland, but Talbot will likely be canonized in the not-too-distant future and become the patron saint of alcoholics. He was declared Venerable by Pope Paul VI in 1975.
Matt Talbot was born in humble circumstances in Dublin in May 1856. At that time, Ireland was recovering from the devastating famine of the mid-1840s. This was an era of grinding poverty and appalling living conditions, especially in the larger cities.
Heavy drinking and alcoholism were very severe problems in those years, and a deep-seated feature of Dublin life. Talbot’s father and older brothers were heavy drinkers. Alcohol provided one of the few means of escape from the harsh conditions of Dublin life, and it brought with it all the miseries of broken families and unfulfilled hopes.
From his early years up to the age of twenty-four, Matt Talbot was a very heavy drinker, and clearly an alcoholic. This was a source of great distress to his mother. His pay check each week went primarily for alcohol. He frequented pubs every night, and when he ran out of money, he borrowed and scrounged among his fellow drinkers. To sustain his habit, he pawned his clothes and boots to get money for alcohol. On one occasion, he stole a violin from a street musician and sold it to buy drink. Most of his jobs in that early period were deliberately with liquor merchants, where he had easy access to alcohol.
In 1884, however, Talbot stopped drinking and made a three-month pledge to refrain from alcohol. Having been successful in that attempt, he made a year-long and then a life-long pledge. Despite great temptations, he never took a drink again. For the rest of his life, however, abstinence was for him a fierce spiritual and psychological struggle.
The remaining forty-one years were lived heroically with Matt attending daily Mass, praying fervently, helping the poor, and living out a strict spiritual life. He modeled himself on the early Irish monks, whose lives were extremely severe. He constantly read scripture, the lives of the saints, the writings of St. Francis de Sales, and works like the Confessions of St. Augustine. His spiritual director was a priest at the diocesan seminary, who gave him a chain to wear permanently around his waist as a sign of penance.
Talbot dropped dead of a heart attack on a Dublin street on Trinity Sunday, June 7, 1925 on his way to Mass, and he was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
News of Talbot’s death, of his severe penitential life, the discovery of the chains he wore, and, not least, his triumph over alcohol spread rapidly among Dublin Catholics. He was popularly hailed as a saint.
Within a few years of his death, Matt was regarded as a patron and protector of those suffering from alcoholism. In 1972, his remains were exhumed and brought to Our Lady of Lourdes Church, in the area where Matt had spent his life. Every day pilgrims came to pray at his tomb, and organized pilgrimages from all over Ireland became frequent.
Since then, devotion to Talbot has spread among alcoholics and their families beyond Ireland, and many devotees look forward to his canonization.
Not a lot has been published about Matt Talbot. Two of the books I would recommend are: Eddie Doherty, Matt Talbot (Combermere, Ontario: Madonna House Publications, 2001); and Tom Ryan, Comfort My People: Prayers and Reflections Inspired by the Venerable Matt Talbot (Dublin: Veritas, 2001).