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.”

Theobold Wolfe Tone

The closest that the Irish ever came to complete independence happened when Irish Catholics and Protestants united in a brotherhood of purpose for the benefit of all. It started at the time of the American Revolution.

The 1777 surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga in the American Revolution was followed by the alliance of France to America’s cause. The British Parliament began to fear an invasion of either England or Ireland. In April 1778, John Paul Jones crossed the Atlantic, captured two British ships, then boldly sailed into Belfast Bay in broad daylight, and sank a British Man-0-War. England was painfully aware that their power in Ireland to repel such attacks was non-existent, so they gave in to a suggestion made by Henry Grattan’s Patriot Party in the Irish Parliament: the creation of a corps of volunteers to defend England’s Irish colony.

The Patriot Party had evolved in the Irish Parliament as a result of the Crown’s policies against dissenters. Church of Ireland members held all the privileged positions, and the predominantly Catholic native Irish were forced to the low end of the economic scale, but all other Protestants, including Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers who made up the growing middle class of professionals and tradesmen, were called Dissenters, and were likewise disenfranchised. As Turlough Faolain further revealed in his book, Blood on the Harp, Although the Penal Laws had been specifically targeted at the Papists, much of the legislation had been drafted in such a way to make the Dissenters subject to the same restrictions.

Throughout the 18th century, selfish exploitation incited violence in all corners of England’s colonial empire. In Ireland, angry Irish tenants formed secret agrarian societies like the Whiteboys and Defenders to punish the abuses of the Landlords.

Dissenters followed with secret Protestant societies of their own like the Steel Boys in reaction to Ascendancy outrages. In 1759, Henry Flood, a leader of Irish Protestants in opposition to England’s economic exploitation, was elected to the Irish Parliament, and he formed a faction called the Patriot Party. The Patriot Party attracted Dissenters seeking change, and England bought off Flood with the position of Vice Treasurer. Henry Grattan stepped in to assume that vacated leadership, and the Patriot Party became the opposition party in the Irish Parliament.

Within two years after approval to form a Corps of Volunteers, 100,000 men were armed by the loyal aristocracy. Catholics were initially excluded from the volunteers, but when Spain entered the American alliance in 1779, Catholics were not only invited in, but armed. The volunteers did not turn out to be the loyal army that the Crown had hoped for. Not only had the Catholics no love of the Crown, but the Presbyterians had grievance with England over unfair trade laws that favored British products and crippled the Irish woolen and linen trades. Thus when the volunteers came to strength, the first invasion they repelled was the invasion of British-manufactured goods. In 1779 Henry Gratten moved in Parliament for Free Trade for Ireland. Knowing that his supporters were in the minority, on the day of the vote the indomitable Napper Tandy could be seen from the windows of Parliament with his volunteer artillery corps in their emerald and scarlet uniforms. They were mustered on College Green with their cannon trained on the assembly! The Free Trade Bill passed and the embargo was lifted on Irish exports. England became more nervous as Ireland became bolder.

In 1780, Gratten moved a Declaration of Right to grant the Irish Parliament independent status under the Crown, but the measure was opposed. In October 1781, Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown! Afraid that Ireland would erupt next, King George gave Gratten his Irish Parliament, although it was a shallow victory. Only 64 of the 300 seats were filled by elections; the remainder were peers, lords, and landlords, and was hopelessly corrupt. There was one however, who entered and challenged that corrupt body; his name was Theobold Wolfe Tone.

Inspired by the American and French revolutions, Tone worked to unite the Irish people. In September, 1791, he published a pamphlet An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland by a Northern Whig explaining that both Dissenters and Catholics had common cause and a common enemy – England! The pamphlet was so well received that he was invited by Henry Joy McCracken to meet with the Northern Whig Club in Belfast. On Oct 12 Tone met with Thomas Russell and William Sinclair and on the 14th he met with a Secret Committee to discuss his plan for organized political and economic opposition to England. From it sprang an organization known as The United Irishmen which held its first meeting on October 26. They began to lobby for Catholic rights. England, on the verge of war with France, acquiesced, and the Franchise of 1793 was passed granting limited rights to Catholics.

Though legally established, England was determined to break this new union called The United Irishmen and began to sew seeds of division. Religious propaganda was aimed at both sides – each denouncing the other, and in 1795, as a final solution, The Orange Order was formed among loyal Church of Ireland protestants to exterminate Catholic `troublemakers’. Homes were raided, murders committed, and farms burned to the ground. Tone and the other leaders of The United Irishmen remodeled their organization from a political to a military one. As Tone travelled to America and France for aid, Insurrection and Indemnity Acts were passed by Parliament and England’s war against The United Irishmen accelerated. Atrocities were commonplace and leaders of the organization were arrested. Tone secured French aid and led a fleet of 43 French ships to Ireland. A fierce storm prevented their landing and they returned to France with the broken-hearted Wolfe Tone who immediately began lobbying for the French to mount yet another expedition.

On March 30, 1798, England declared Martial Law in Ireland to break The United Irishmen or force them into premature action. By May 27, the tactic succeeded. The people were finally goaded into action in a disjointed rather than coordinated insurrection – the rising of 1798 had begun. The leaderless and unarmed people of Wexford followed, initially led by a simple parish priest named Father John Murphy. News of the rising reached Tone in France, and he frantically pressed the French to aid his people who were already in the field against overwhelming odds. A small force of 1,000 men was dispatched, to be followed by a larger force. They landed on August 22, but at the wrong place – Killala Bay in Mayo. England dispatched General Cornwallis (recently disgraced by his surrender in America to an army made up of many Irish immigrants) to redeem his honor in Ireland. He landed at the head of a massive army and overpowered the French and Irish forces. French prisoners were expatriated back to France while the Irish were put to the sword.

Tone arrived with the final French force off Lough Swilly and ran directly into a waiting British fleet. After a desperate 6-hour battle, during which Tone himself commanded a battery of ships guns, the French fleet was routed and Tone was captured. As he was placed in chains he declared, For the cause which I have embraced, I am prouder to wear these chains than if I were decorated with the Star and Garter of England.. After his court-martial on November 10, he said, I have sacrificed all in life; I have courted poverty; I left a beloved wife unprotected and children whom I adore fatherless. After such sacrifice in the cause of justice and freedom – it is no great effort to add the sacrifice of my life. Wolfe Tone made that sacrifice on November 19, 1798. He was buried in Bodenstown, in the grave which Ireland cherishes today as her most precious possession. Thus ended a glorious dream that had all started in October, 1791.