Father Theobold Mathew

October 10 is the birth date of Father Theobold Mathew, yet sadly there will be very little, if anything, about this remarkable Irishman in the media.  In his day, however, he was internationally known as the Apostle of Temperance. This is his story.   Born in 1790 at Thomastown, Co Tipperary, young Toby Mathew grew up with 11 brothers & sisters on the estate of the Earl of Llandaff, who employed his father.  Educated at St Canice’s Academy and Maynooth, he joined the Capuchin Order in 1810 and was ordained in 1813.  His first assignment was a small church in Kilkenny which was no easy task in early 19th century Ireland where Catholics were second-class citizens and clergy were severely restricted.

From Kilkenny, he went to a chapel in Cork where his remarkable generosity and love for the poor soon became legend. He served them heroically during a Cholera epidemic; secured cemetery space so they would not end up in pauper’s graves; he even rented vacant rooms and lofts to set up schools for their children.  He soon had over 500 students.  During his ministry, Father Mathew came to understand that drink was a common ailment among the Irish poor.  Unable to achieve any measure of success in their native land, depressed Irish workers and farmers lived in terrible poverty, barely able to provide for their wives and children. The only solace from the unfair lot they had been born into was found when their minds were dulled by intoxicating spirits. As the line from one Irish song said “when Paddy has Powers, all the weeds look like flowers.

Landlord’s and factory owners were no help either.  They often paid their wages in Pubs in which they held an interest, so that their money – what little was paid – was not out of their pockets for very long.  Father Mathew saw the results of relying on drink as a remedy for despair: families destroyed, homes forfeited, and often a life of crime.  With the aid of a Quaker merchant named William Martin, Father Mathew began a crusade for total abstinence.  He held 3 meetings a week administering a pledge which stated, “I promise with Divine assistance to abstain from all intoxicating liquors and to prevent as much as possible, by advice and example, intemperance in others.”  Instead of asking to give up drink forever, he asked that the pledge be kept for just a day.  If that was successful, then a week, then another, until constant renewal led to a life of sobriety for many.

Within 3 months, 25,000 had taken the pledge. The number grew to 131,000 in 5 months, and 200,000 in 9 months. Father Mathew’s story spread, and he was invited to preach in other dioceses. 80,000 signed up in Waterford, thousands more in Galway; in Dublin a rain-soaked audience gave 46,000 signatures in a single evening and 700,000 before his mission there was concluded.  He traveled the length and breadth of Ireland administering the pledge.  Crime decreased, rioting at fairs & festivals declined, and government officials gave Father Mathew full credit!  That is not to say he had no enemies, for his steadfast refusal to throw his support to political goals – like those of Daniel O’Connell or the Young Irelanders – earned him a few.  There were some who said he was too liberal with Protestants, and of course there were the tavern owners, distillers, and the moderate drinkers who felt that they were being scandalized by the priest’s attacks on alcohol.  But these were the exceptions.

As most of Ireland flocked to him for inspiration, he was invited to Scotland; then to England where 70,000 Londoners joined his total abstinence society.  He was succeeding in every way but two: his travels, medals, staff salaries, free bibles, postage, rental, and countless personal donations to the poor left him deeply in debt; and his demanding schedule began to affect his health.   Another blow came when the Irish potato crop failed in 1845, and the Irish were denied any of the other bumper crops grown by the landlord.  An artificial famine was produced which killed millions by starvation and disease. The despair created by this tragedy was absolute, and many gave in to temptation and turned their backs on the Pledge. Then Father Mathew had a stroke which left him partially paralyzed; his abstinence society began to deteriorate.

After his recovery, he threw himself wholeheartedly into reorganizing the society and decided to visit America. The journey was long and difficult, and the ailing priest spent hours in steerage hearing the confessions of Irish immigrants.  He visited New York and Boston in 1849 and was struck with paralysis again.  After a 2-week rest he toured Philadelphia and Washington where he was honored by the House and Senate, and President Zachary Taylor held a formal dinner in his honor.

He continued his strenuous journey covering 300 cities in 23 states by back road, wagon and stagecoach.  By the time he took ill again in Little Rock, over 600,000 had taken the Pledge across America.  On Dec 6, 1855 he arrived back in Cork after a difficult 4 week sea voyage.  Despite his successes in America, the situation in Ireland had demoralized and his society was failing. He continued to work against his doctor’s advice and had several more bouts with ill health until November 1856, when he suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed and speechless.  On Dec 15, 1856 the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the 67-year old Apostle of Temperance mercifully died.

After the loss of its leader, his abstinence society declined rapidly, but it did not fail.  It had brought the message of the dangers of drink to millions, and banished forever the image of the drunkard as a jolly companion.  It also gave impetus to the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart, which exists to this day.  It was founded by Fr. James Cullen in 1898, who gave full credit to the inspiration of Father Theobold Mathew.  Perhaps the best epitaph to this remarkable man is the statement of one of his contemporaries who said, “He has wiped more tears from the faces of women than any other being on the globe except the Lord Jesus, and thousands of lisping children will bless the providence that gave them an existence in the same age as he.”