Father Theobald Mathew

Mathew, Theobald, D.D., temperance reformer, was born at Thomastown, in the County of Kilkenny, 10th October 1790. His family were connexions of the Baron of Landaff, and at Thomastown House, the seat of that nobleman, much of the lad’s early life was passed.

He was of a sweet and engaging disposition, incapable of anger or resentment, free from selfishness, always anxious to share with others whatever he possessed, and jealous of the affections of those to whom he was particularly attached.

Having passed through the usual preliminary course of studies for Maynooth College, he was sent thither in September 1807; but left it within a short time to avoid expulsion for some trifling breach of discipline, and placed himself under the spiritual care of Rev. Celestine Corcoran, Dublin.

In 1814 he was ordained by Archbishop Murray, and admitted a member of the Capuchin Order. For more than twenty years he devoted himself untiringly to the duties of his order, principally in Cork, without any thought of the more comprehensive mission that lay before him.

Mr. Maguire, his biographer, thus speaks of his ministrations between 1820 and 1830, at a little priory in Cork, of which he and a colleague, Father Donovan, were the principal occupants:

“Father Mathew was not a man of shining abilities, nor was he a profound or severely-trained scholar. Neither had he fashioned his style upon the best models, or improved his taste by a thorough acquaintance with those authors whose works are the classics of English literature. He certainly was not then an accomplished pulpit orator, if at any period of his life he could lay claim to that distinction; and in the earlier years of his ministry he was frequently guilty of errors of taste and violations of those rules laid down by rhetoricians of ancient and modern schools. … What was the charm that held spell-bound the close-packed hundreds beneath the pulpit, that riveted the attention of the crowded galleries, and moved the inmost hearts even of those who had come to criticise? The earnestness of the preacher— … the earnestness of the truth, of sincerity, of belief. Father Mathew practised what he preached, and believed what he so persuasively and urgently enforced.”

His striking personal appearance is thus described:

“A finely-formed, middle-sized person, of exquisite symmetry; the head of admirable contour, and from which a finished model of the antique could be cast; the countenance intelligent, animated, and benevolent; its complexion rather sallow, inclining to paleness; eyes of dark lustre, beaming with internal peace, and rich in concentrated sensibility, rather than speaking or kindling with a super-abundant fire; the line of his mouth harmonizing so completely with his nose and chin, is of peculiar grace; the brow open, pale, broad, and polished, bears upon it the impress not merely of dignified thought, but of nobility itself.”

Endowed with such capacities of mind and body, and divested of sectarian bitterness, it is not surprising that he exercised a considerable influence not only over his co-religionists, but over persons of all persuasions in the south of Ireland.

Through his exertions, a new cemetery was opened at Cork, and he established several literary institutions and industrial schools. He was fearless and untiring in the cholera epidemic of 1832.

During all these years his ministrations were mostly amongst the poor, and he saw more clearly day by day that most of the miseries of their lot arose from drink.

Already considerable efforts had been made in Ireland by different associations in the direction of temperance, or abstinence from the use of spirits of all kinds. About 1830, however, a new movement was inaugurated—that of teetotalism, or total abstinence from all intoxicating liquors.

The apostles of this reform in the south of Ireland were Rev. Nicholas Dunscombe, a Church clergyman; Richard Dowden, a Unitarian gentleman; and William Martin, or “Billy Martin,” as he was familiarly called, a member of the Society of Friends.

Of these, perhaps William Martin most closely identified himself with the cause, and through his influence, Father Mathew, in April 1838, was induced to sign the total abstinence pledge at a public meeting in Cork, and to promise to the movement all the aid in his power. His brother and many of his intimate friends were brewers or distillers, so that this decided step showed great depth of conviction and determination.

The influence that Father Mathew—a popular Catholic clergyman — exercised by thus throwing himself into the temperance cause can scarcely be over-estimated.

Thousands flocked to hear him, and take a pledge to abstain from all intoxicating liquors; and the immediate benefit to those who abstained appeared so great that it was thought by many, forgetting the weakness of human nature, that the habits of a people were about to be permanently changed through his means.

Father Mathew extended his temperance crusade from Cork to the most remote parts of Ireland, and wherever he went addressed and gave the pledge to enormous multitudes of people.

The face of Irish society was almost revolutionized; public-houses and distilleries were closed in many places, temperance halls were opened, and temperance musical bands organized. It was estimated that at one time the pledged abstainers in Ireland numbered some millions.

Comparing the years 1839 and 1842, the annual consumption of spirits in Ireland fell from 12,296,000 to 6,485,443 gallons; the duty from £1,434,573 to £864,725; and the number of persons committed to jail from 12,049 to 9,875—Dr. Channing said:

“History records no revolution like this; it is the grand event of the present day.”

After a few years Father Mathew extended his ministrations beyond Ireland, and was warmly received in different parts of England and Scotland, where some 600,000 took the pledge from him. An observer, writing on his mission there, says:

“The secret of his success consists chiefly in the fact that he has wholly abstained from doing what his opponents have accused him of. He has avoided making his labours subservient either to religious or political objects; but it is by this singleness of purpose—this determination to make temperance his chief and only object—that he has been able to achieve so much for the cause he has undertaken.”

He gave away much in charity, and subscribed largely for eccleiastical purposes, contributed to the support of temperance bands, and spent much money in the gratuitous distribution of thousands of medals; and although he travelled free in Ireland, through the courtesy of the coach proprietors, and received large sums for the furtherance of his mission, he was soon immersed in pecuniary difficulties.

In 1844 he became so involved that he was for a short time incarcerated for debts, none of which were incurred for personal expenditure.

Father Mathew was untiring in his exertions during the famine years of 1845-’6-’7.

In 1847, on the death of Dr. Murphy, his name was sent forward to Rome by the Archbishop of his province and his suffragans as “dignissimus,” on a list of candidates for the appointment of Catholic Bishop of Cork; and confirmation in the office was regarded by himself and others as certain.

His was not the name selected. While bowing to the unexpected Papal decision, he felt the blow acutely—a blow lightened, however, by the reverence and love of the public, which thereafter assumed a character at once deeper, more affectionate, and more sympathetic than ever.

The same year, mainly through the exertions of S. C. Hall, he was granted a Civil List pension of £300 by Lord John Russell, a sum which, though ample in itself, is understood to have been little more than sufficient to keep up the payments on policies of assurance on his life for the benefit of his creditors.

After rigorous fasting in the Lent of 1848, he was attacked with paralysis of a very alarming character. His mind, fortunately, was not affected, the weakness in his limbs soon diminished, and the entreaties of friends and physicians were unable to prevent him from resuming his arduous labours in the temperance cause.

More than two years, from the summer of 1849 to December 1851, were passed in a mission to the United States. He was received with great respect in the twenty-five States in which he travelled. He was honoured with a formal reception by the Senate, and was entertained by the President.

His abstinence from all expression of opinion regarding the horrors of American slavery greatly disappointed his anti-slavery friends.

There can be little doubt that the fatigues endured in this journey gave the finishing stroke to a frame already enfeebled by anxiety and disease. Yet to the warnings of physicians who recommended absolute rest, as necessary to preserve his life, he replied:

“Never will I desert my post in the middle of the battle—it cannot be sacrificed in a better cause. If I am to die, I will die in harness."

In February 1852, he was stricken with apoplexy; yet he recovered sufficiently to pass some months in Madeira, and on his return to his home—his brother’s house at Lehenagh—resumed his old routine.

“Day by day he became more feeble and helpless; still he would totter down the steps, and limp along the avenue, to meet a poor drunkard half-way, or to anticipate the arrival of a friend whom he had recognized from the window or the door. Sweetness, humility, and holiness marked every hour of his declining days.”

His last years were passed at Queenstown—a white-haired, venerable old man, slowly creeping along sunny places—his tottering steps assisted by a lad, on whose shoulder one hand of the invalid rested for support—softening of the brain sadly and darkly settling down upon him. He was often absorbed in prayer before the altar two hours of each day.

He passed away, 8th December 1856, aged 66, in the forty-second year of his ministry, and was buried in the cemetery he was instrumental in establishing at Cork.

Reference must not be omitted to Father Mathew’s influence in curing or allaying diseases. Dr. Barter, the distinguished hydropathic physician, says:

“I often witnessed great relief afforded by him to people suffering from various affections, and in some cases I was satisfied that permanent good was effected by his administration. Such satisfactory results, on so large a scale too, made him the more earnest in his purpose, and gave the recipient unbounded faith in his power; and the result from such a favourable combination of circumstances, could not be otherwise than beneficial to the public. Father Mathew possessed in a large degree the power of animal magnetism, and believe that the paralytic affection from which he suffered, and which brought his valuable life to an untimely end, was produced by an undue expenditure of this power.”

His biographer, Mr. Maguire, thus summarizes the benefits that have accrued to Ireland mainly from Father Mathew’s mission:

“Formerly, drunkenness was regarded rather as a fault for which there were numerous excuses and palliations; now, drunkenness is looked upon as a degrading vice, and the drunkard finds no universal absolution from the judgment of society. Whatever opinion may be held as to the necessity of total abstinence, or the wisdom of moderation, there is but one opinion as to excess—that is one of just and general condemnation. Formerly, there was not a circumstance in one’s life, or an event in one’s family, or in the family of one’s friend or acquaintance, that was not a legitimate excuse for a poor fellow ‘having forgotten himself’, or ‘being overtaken by liquor;’ but a sterner verdict, which evidences a higher tone of public wisdom and morality, is another of the results of Father Mathew’s teaching.”

A fine statue of Father Mathew was erected in Cork shortly after his decease.


236. Mathew, Rev. Theobald, Biography: John F. Maguire. London, 1863.