Staggering to Heaven

PATRICIA TREECE

There are saints who sweep across the sky of their generation like blazing comets signaling the reality and glory of God. Others silently earn grace for a world blind to their presence. Matt Talbot, the friend of God whose life ended on a Dublin sidewalk on June 7, 1925, was one of those hidden holy. Matt Talbot may well become the Church’s first known alcoholic saint.

The friend of God whose life ended on a Dublin sidewalk on June 7, 1925, was one of those hidden holy. Like the majority of this quiet legion, the neatly but shabbily dressed, old workingman who collapsed and died on his way to hear a second Sunday morning Mass should still be known only to God. Yet, having let him live his sixty-nine years in obscurity, God called attention to Matthew Talbot immediately after his death. Since 1975, in fact, Talbot is one of the Church’s official Venerables (literally, one worthy of veneration on the basis of exhaustively verified heroic virtue) — thus only a miracle away from being beatified and another from being canonized. If either happens, he becomes the Church’s first known alcoholic saint.

ALCOHOLISM

Born on May 2, 1856, in a Dublin tenement, Matthew Talbot was the second son of Charles Talbot, a tiny bantam rooster of a man who did day labor on Dublin’s docks in spite of his seemingly inadequate size. Unusually loud, aggressive, and downright quarrelsome when drinking — which he usually was — Charles was married to a devout woman who bore him twelve children. Nine survived to crowd with their parents into quarters that were always rented and always woefully cramped. That Charles and all of his sons but the eldest — a mother’s boy who remained a bachelor teetotaler — spent most of their meager wages on drink seems less a wonder than that Elizabeth Bagnall Talbot did not seek some opiate herself.

Matt Talbot’s mother dragged her underfed, miserable brood through eighteen moves in twenty years, always living in tenements without indoor plumbing or even running water, always struggling to get the landlord paid and food on the table. Like countless Irish women, she made this Way of the Cross under the scourge of political and social inhumanities deepened by her menfolk’s alcoholism.

The second son, Matt, was repeatedly truant from the special classes the Christian Brothers ran to give slum boys a smattering of literacy and religious understanding before they went to work. By age twelve, Talbot was already working as a messenger boy in that pre-telephone or fax era. And he was already drinking.

Alcoholism, it’s been said, is just a matter of poor luck in the biochemical draw. But biochemistry is not the only factor. One need claim no great insight to see the appeal of the pub in Dublin, a city of bone-chilling damp, penetrating rains, and saucy breezes that even in summer can quickly reverse one’s umbrella. Pubs beckon one out of weather’s miseries to a comfortable seat in a dry, cheerfully lit place where laughter and stories drown out the whipping of the rain and a long swig of porter or whisky races into one’s chilled body as a quickening arrow of life and warmth.

LIFE IN THE PUB

In the 1875-85 Ireland of Talbot’s young manhood there was a second impetus to build a life around pub and alcohol: the sheer overcrowding of home life. Even a quarter century after Talbot’s death, an American priest researcher would still find many Dublin working class families, including relatives of Talbot’s, crammed into one rented room. One working-class couple with sixteen children rejoiced in 1947 to have moved from one and then two rooms to the ultimate to be hoped for: rented quarters of four rooms (rooms, not bedrooms) for the fourteen members of the household.

So Matt Talbot was a drunk among thousands. There were so many like him in his day that it was not uncommon for employers to pay their laborers in the pub or to deliver some men’s pay directly to the pubkeeper, who would keep a running account and urge his clients not to drink so much they had to go dry before the next payday.

By 1884 Talbot — scrawny and undersized like his dad — had gone from messenger boy to dock worker to hod carrier. As a hod carrier — the unskilled laborer who trots donkeylike with a heavy load of mortar or bricks alongside the bricklayer — Talbot was known for hard, fast work. With many Dublin buildings made of brick, the employer had a whole squad of bricklayers and hod carriers and would put little Talbot out front to set the pace.

After a ten-hour day of fast-paced toil, the slope-shouldered young worker would head for the pub, where he was known as an opinionated, hot-tempered man who argued and even fought like his father, but also as a generous sort who would stand drinks all around on payday. If the money ran short, Talbot was not averse, a companion remembered, to joining a brother or friend in stealing a pig’s cheek from a bar owner or even a violin from a poor wandering fiddler, rushing out to sell it and drinking up the proceeds.

He just had a scruple — a bit of cowardice, an accomplice later termed it — about being the one actually to pinch the item. Maybe he used foul language when drunk — recollections vary — but there seems agreement that Talbot had no use for dancing, playing cards, joining in sports, or chasing women. “He was interested in only one thing — drinking,” a friend from those years later recalled. As for religion, by age 28 Talbot continued to show up at Sunday Mass and mumble a daily Hail Mary, but he had neither taken Communion nor been to confession for three years.

With all his unmarried siblings, he lived at home. He never had a girlfriend and, like his older brother, told his mother “Tou are the only wife I want.” Still the champion hod carrier rarely had a coin to pass that hard-pressed woman for his keep. With husband and several sons employed, Elizabeth Talbot still had to do outside domestic labor at times. Once when Matt gave her a pittance for his board, she looked at the coin and cried “God forgive you, Matt!”

NO MORE DRINK

He felt guilty, no doubt, but drink came before all. Occasionally he even sold the work boots right off his feet to keep drinking. Then came a day of great luck. He backed a horse one weekend and it won enough that the day laborer did no work all week — just drank. His winnings ran out just as payday arrived for his mates at the brickyard. Knowing that he had often stood rounds for them, he stationed himself with one of his brothers between the brickyard and the nearby pub. His companions passed, some with a quick greeting and some with ruses to avoid seeing him. Then they dived into the pub, not one having invited him for a drink.

Something died in Talbot.

He stomped home.

“You’re early. And sober!” his mother exclaimed.

“Yes, I’m going to take the pledge.”

“Well don’t take it unless you can keep it.”

Not put off, Talbot rushed out, found a priest and pledged sobriety for three months. He dared no more, he said later.

Talbot’s whole life beyond backbreaking labor had revolved around the fellowship of the pub. Drink and its comradeship had been his sacraments, his joy, his comfort, his very reason for living. To give all this up, he had no AA, no aversion therapy, no clinic, no psychological counseling. And he faced the same grinding, poorly paid work and miserable living conditions, the same dank climate and drinking companions, and the same family heritage of alcoholism.

To this horrendous challenge, Talbot instinctively turned to the spiritual genius of those early Irish monks who “subdued the body’s urges” by “chastising the flesh” through the most arduous penances and rigorous modes of life.

No day passed that Talbot did not attend 5 a.m. Mass before work. After work he passed the evening in some church far from his local pub until time for bed. When a 6 a.m. Mass replaced the 5 a.m., since bricklaying began at 6 a.m., he found a lumberyard job that opened at 8 a.m., laboring there the rest of his life. He went frequently to confession, took spiritual direction, became a third-order Franciscan and joined every local confraternity, thereby linking himself to most of the other major religious orders while assuring that those he associated with outside of work were engaged in something either in or for the Church.

After a disastrous evening when — overcome with lust for a drink — Talbot rushed into a pub and was saved only because, mysteriously, no server seemed to see him, he imposed upon himself the hardship of never carrying cash. To avoid being tempted by his brothers, he moved out until they died or married.

After the deaths of his father and eldest brother, Talbot returned home and continued to share a tenement room with his mother. His sister, who cooked for him when he lived alone, and the woman who heated his noon meal where he worked, both report dietary habits worthy of some desert father: At home he ate on his knees and lived primarily on dry bread with meat a couple times a week, except during Lent, June (in honor of the Sacred Heart), Advent, or any big feast when he abstained totally. And he often fasted completely. Lunch for decades — while doing hard manual labor all day — was a revolting mixture of cocoa and tea steeped in boiling water but drunk cold as one more penance. As has been reported of saints time and again, on this totally inadequate diet he remained healthy and a notable worker.

WOODEN PILLOW

As sobriety became long-term, instead of easing up a bit, Talbot went deeper into the asceticism of Ireland’s early monks. For years he slept only about three hours a day — and that on a board plank with a wooden block for a pillow — clutching a statue of the Virgin to him so firmly that a relative claimed one side of his face became permanently without feeling. Tenement women up with sick children heard Talbot singing hymns in the middle of the night when he rose at 2 a.m. to pray.

His mother confided to her daughters that she often awoke in the night to see Talbot praying with his arms extended penitentially in the form of a cross. Occasionally he went back to bed briefly before heading for the church where, whatever the weather, he knelt on the stones outside until the sacristan unlocked the doors for the earliest Mass. He prayed during his lunch break and, whenever work paused, while others chatted, he prayed hidden behind the lumber piles. After work, he rushed to the nearest church to pray some more. Sundays he attended Mass after Mass and was proud that on a couple feasts of the Virgin, by dint of being in churches where several were being said at various altars, he could claim to have honored her by hearing twenty-one Masses.

Any addiction is by nature terribly self-centered. At first Matt Talbot can be said to have simply changed his addiction from drink to asceticism. Not a style that even most saints find appealing, the pitiless attack on the body of certain desert fathers and other ascetics nonetheless sometimes proves a successful route into the heart of God. There is ample proof that it succeeded in Talbot’s case.

From struggling against the craving for alcohol and his focus on acts of repentance (in his era, the drinker was seen by most as a willful sinner rather than one worthy of compassion), he moved on to identification with the universal mission of the Church. The same ardor that had put him out front carrying hod and made him single-minded in pursuit of drink now focused on a new thirst — for souls and for God.

“Matt cares nothing for money,” his fellow workers said. And in fact, all Talbot’s money, beyond the rent of the tenement room and the barest of necessities, either became quiet charity to other workmen struggling to support families or went off to works of the Church, particularly the missions.

BLUSTERING SANCTITY

To know God and his Church better, this barely literate man added to a prayer life worthy of those early Irish monks, exhaustive reading from theology, papal encyclicals, the lives of the saints, and the Church’s teaching on such social issues as the rights of workers to a just wage. The lists of the books he read — buying them or borrowing from a fellow devout soul among Dublin’s educated class — show a Catholic of the widest interests and knowledge.

But did he understand papal encyclicals and books on theology? Talbot told a fellow workman, who chided that men like them could not understand the sort of book Talbot held, that, before reading anything, he begged the help of the Holy Spirit to grasp the material — and he felt that he did. His well-educated book lender, who enjoyed talking over their mutual reading, confirmed Talbot was not lying. Gradually he was sought out by other workmen as a spokesman for the Church.

When Talbot suddenly dropped dead on the street, it was the heavy, sharp penitential chains wound round his limbs and body — chains he had removed whenever seen by a doctor — that resonated with Irish spirituality to arouse public interest. Although his spiritual director had preceded him in death, taking many details of Talbot’s soul with him, a biography came out almost at once based on interviews with others who knew Talbot. While it contained a few blatant untruths (his sisters “protected” the family by declaring Talbot’s father never drank, for instance), it still raised a swell of regard for Talbot that has never ebbed.

There is no holy personality mold. About the time he stopped drinking, Talbot’s best biographer, Mary Purcell, pictures him with “the same rather irascible temperament, the same inherited tendency to shout and bluster like his father.” In relentless pursuit of God through prayer, study, sacraments, vigils, fasts and abstinence, almsgiving, and other deeds of charity — because these acts were driven by a genuine thirst for God — the accretions to Talbot’s personality from alcoholism and modeling on poor parental example gradually sloughed away.

The true self that emerged was still a hard worker determined to earn every penny of his pay (when he thought he hadn’t he tried to refuse it) and still a strong-minded individual “afraid of no one,” as he put it, “but God himself.” But in confrontations with a boss, Matt now was civil and apologized if he became a bit heated. Serious-minded, he was nevertheless seen as a friendly man not averse to a laugh. Even if they made fun of his pious ways, his coworkers liked him — as did the lumberyard watchman’s little girls whom he always remembered with a coin and a visit at Christmas.

Generous in the pub in his drinking years, Talbot had turned from drink at the lack of reciprocal generosity. Now purified of self-seeking, many of his donations and good deeds were done in secret.

But the final word on Matt Talbot should go to his saintly spiritual director. This priest — who loved to go to Talbot’s tenement room to pray with him — told various people about the simple workman whom he said was a saint. By citing Matt Talbot’s heroic virtue, the Church agrees.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Treece, Patricia. “Staggering to Heaven.” Crisis 14 no. 11 (December 1996).

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit educational organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

THE AUTHOR

Patricia Treece is author of such books on saints as A Man for Others. Her column, Saints Alive, originates in the Los Angeles Archdiocese newspaper The Tidings.

Copyright © 1996 Crisis


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