Life of Matt Talbot – Chapter II – His Conversion

cover of the ebook 'Life of Matt Talbot, by Sir Joseph Aloysius Glynn'At the time of his conversion, Matt Talbot was in his twenty-seventh or twenty-eighth year. He was then working at Messrs. Pembertons’, though he had worked for other builders in the City when work at Pembertons’ was slack.

For a week before the day in question he had not gone to work. He had spent the time drinking, and had thus earned no wages, so that when Saturday, pay-day, arrived, it found him sober from necessity, thirsty, and without, a penny in his pocket. Still he was hopeful that his friends in the yard would come to his assistance and enable him to quench the terrible, thirst for spirits which consumed him. There was no use going to the yard in the morning at the usual hour, as he would not be employed for a half-day, which was all the men worked on Saturday, so he decided to wait until the men were paid and were leaving the yard. He dressed with his usual care and left the house about midday accompanied by his younger brother, Philip. They stood at the corner of Newcombe Avenue, where the family then lived, and the North Strand, so that the labourers coming from Messrs. Pembertons had to pass them by. As the men passed in two and threes they nodded to the brothers with a “Good day, Matt,” but none of them stopped to ask if he would like a drink. The reason for this was very obvious to the brothers – their company without wages to spend was too expensive for their old companions. Matt became silent, and, as he often told afterwards, he was cut to the heart by the conduct of his friends. At last he could stand it no longer, and turning to Philip, he said, “I’ll go home.” Philip replied that it was too early, as the dinner would not be ready, but Matt remained firm and returned alone. His mother was busy preparing the midday meal when he arrived, and, looking up with surprise, said, “Oh, you’re home early, Matt, and you’re sober!” He only answered, “Yes, mother, I am.” Gradually the other members of the family arrived and dinner was partaken of, after which they again left the house for their Saturday half-holiday, leaving Matt alone with his mother and one or two of the younger children. Matt was silent for a time, and finally turning to his mother said, “I am going to take the pledge.” She smiled rather incredulously, and said, “Go, in God’s name; but don’t take it unless you are going to keep it.” He answered, “I’ll go in the name of God.” He went to the room in which the boys slept, washed himself carefully, and, taking his cap, turned to leave the house. As he stood at the door his mother turned to him and said gently, “God give you strength to keep it.” He made no reply, but went out. His objective was Holy Cross College, the Seminary for the Archdiocese of Dublin, which was only a short walk away from his home. This famous seminary takes its name from a large relic of the True Cross which is kept in the College Chapel. It was founded in 1859, and was then under the Presidency of Father Fitzpatrick, afterwards the Right Reverend Monsignor Fitzpatrick, Dean of Dublin, and one of the Vicars-General. Matt always stated that he took the total abstinence pledge from the Rev. Dr. Keane at Clonliffe College. It is not easy to reconcile this statement with the dates. The Rev. Dr. Keane was a Professor in Clonliffe College until 1879, when, at his own request, he was transferred to a curacy in Saint Michan’s Parish. He remained in Saint Michan’s until sometime in 1883, when he joined the Dominican Order. Matt took the pledge in 1884, though the time of the year is not known. His sister, Mrs. Andrews, fixed that year by her own marriage, which was in August 1882, and she states that she was about two years married when Matt’s conversion took place. Dr. Keane was a constant visitor at Clonliffe College during the years he was a curate in Saint Michan’s, and it is possible that he met Matt Talbot there on the Saturday afternoon in question and administered the pledge. It is, of course, quite possible that Matt made a mistake in the identity of the priest who heard his confession and administered the pledge, though this is difficult to imagine because Dr. Keane was a very well-known man in the public life of the country during these years and his name must have been familiar to all Dublin working men. Eleven years later Matt went to Confession to Dr. Keane, then a Dominican attached to Saint Saviour’s Church, Lr. Dominick Street, and in the course of his confession told Dr. Keane that he had taken the pledge from him eleven years before. Dr. Keane was very pleased to find a labouring man so ardent a total abstainer. On the present occasion, Matt had made up his mind to take the pledge for three months as he doubted his ability to keep it for any longer period. He had been about three years from confession, so he went to confession in the College and took the pledge when his confession was ended. He then returned home, and on Sunday morning attended the 5 a.m. Mass at Saint Francis Xavier’s Church, Upper Gardiner Street, where he received Holy Communion.

He had now to consider what steps he should take to enable him to keep his pledge. If he continued his ordinary course of life it would mean meeting his companions at the most dangerous hours, namely, after the day’s work had finished. To avoid them without giving offence he could not remain in the neighbourhood of his home after working hours, and he should, therefore, go where they would not think of looking for him. His decision was to go to daily Mass at 5 a.m. in Saint Francis Xavier’s Church, Upper Gardiner Street, and after the day’s work was done to visit a distant Church where he could pray for strength to keep his promise. On Monday morning he began the fight for his soul’s freedom by attendance at Mass. He then went to his work at 6 a.m., and worked during the day as usual. When evening came, and he had finished his evening meal at home, he walked to a distant church on the North Side of the City, either the Vincentian Church at Philsboro, or the Parish Church at Berkeley Road, where he remained in prayer until it was time to return home to bed. The first Saturday provided a temptation. As the men left work it was usual to turn into the nearest public-house and take a drink. Matt was in their company and did not like to refuse to enter, but whereas the others drank either whiskey or porter, he drank a bottle of mineral water. It was his last visit, as afterwards he declined to enter and passed on home. He suffered intensely, for the craving for drink was strong in him and the effort to pray, after so many years’ neglect of prayer, was very wearying. All the week evenings, every Saturday afternoon and all day on Sunday, except during meal-time, he spent in a church or near one. Coming home at night weary and dispirited, he would say to his mother, “It’s no use, mother, I’ll drink again when the three months are up.” She encouraged him by gentle consolations, and to use the very graphic words of his sister, “During the three months, as the religion gripped him, he got fonder and fonder of the Church, and used to live in it after his work was done.” He gave up all company, and, save for his mother, he had no one in whom to confide. His wages he handed to her every Saturday and then went out to the Church to fight but his battle before Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Needless to say, such heroic action won, and when the three months expired, he returned to Clonliffe College and renewed the total abstinence pledge for a year; and at the end of that further probationary period, for life.

During the period of his first pledge his father introduced him to the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Francis Xavier’s Church, and enrolled him as a member in his own Section, a membership which lasted without a break for over forty years.

One little episode of this time is not without its humorous side. The elder sister, Mary (Mrs. Andrews), had been married a few years, and hearing from her mother of Matt’s pledge, bought and gave to her mother for Matt the book known as “Hell Open to Christians,” which contained very realistic, but very crude, pictures of the damned in torment. One would have imagined that poor Matt’s torments at the time were sufficient without this added horror, but he read the little book, which he told his mother “frightened the life out of him.” He kept it all through his life, and it was found after his death at the bottom of his box of books neatly rebound by himself in imitation leather.

His conversion was not without many grave struggles. Two incidents related by himself refer to the early years of his change of life. In one case he stated that when about to enter Saint Francis Xavier’s Church, shortly after he had taken the total abstinence pledge, he was violently pushed away from the door two or three times by an unseen hand. He persisted, and believing that the action was diabolical, he used some vigorous language towards his unseen opponent and passed into the church.

The second incident was a very remarkable example of his pertinacity in following out the course of life he had now, adopted. The date is uncertain, but it was within two or three years of his conversion. On one Sunday morning he attended the 6.30 a.m. Mass at Saint Francis Xavier’s Church, and at the end of the Mass rose in his place to approach the altar rails in order to receive Holy Communion. The moment he stood up he was assailed by a violent temptation to despair. He heard an inward voice telling him that it was useless for him to try to keep from drink, that all his pious actions were worthless, and that he would not persevere. He was physically incapable of approaching the altar, and after a time was compelled to leave the Church. He wandered about the streets unconscious of his direction, but now quite free from the temptation, and after a little time he noticed that he was outside the Pro-Cathedral, in Marlboro Street. It was just 8 a.m. and he entered to attend 8 o’clock Mass and receive Holy Communion. Nothing occurred during Mass, but, at the end, when he rose to approach the altar rails, the temptation assailed him with all its previous violence. He was actually driven from the church, and again found himself in the streets. He began walking along, again quite unconscious of the direction, until he found himself at the parish church on Berkeley Road, just at 9 a.m. He entered, attended the 9 o’clock Mass and endeavoured to go to the rails to receive Holy Communion. It was useless, the temptation returned, and he could hot move. In great distress he left the Church and continued his course through the streets until, about 9.45 a.m., he was back at Saint Francis Xavier’s. Instead of entering the church he threw himself on his face on the steps, with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross and said, “Surely, Lord! I am not going to fall again into the habits I have left.” He prayed very fervently to the Blessed Virgin to intercede for him, and after about ten minutes he felt the weight of depression suddenly lifted from him. He entered the church, attended 10 o’clock Mass and received Holy Communion at the end without any return of the temptation. The struggle had lasted from about 7 o’clock, the end of the early Mass, until 10 o’clock, and it was never repeated. The man, J. R., to whom Matt had related this incident, was a very close friend, with whom he had worked for years.

As already mentioned, one other bad habit which Matt had acquired was taking the Holy Name in vain. He found it by no means easy to correct this fault and invented a simple but ingenious method of reminding himself of his ailing. He fixed two pins in the sleeve of his coat in the form of a cross so that he could not look at his hands without seeing the cross and being reminded of the Crucifixion. The sights of the pins conveyed no information to others, as it was taken for granted that they were kept there for use.