Life of Matt Talbot – Chapter IX – Illness and Closing Years

cover of the ebook 'Life of Matt Talbot, by Sir Joseph Aloysius Glynn'Hitherto, Matt Talbot’s sufferings had been self-imposed. We have seen how severe were the mortifications to which he subjected his body; but that body was strong, though small, and his iron will bent it to his bidding. The gathering years were telling their tale, yet the daily round went on unceasingly; the heart beat a little faster when the shoulders bent to the load of timber, and the breath came a little quicker. At length Nature rebelled, and he who during a long life had really never known illness now found himself suddenly unable to carry on his work. For two years more he was to live and suffer. He who was so active was to be idle all the day long, he who had imposed so many sufferings on himself was to accept sufferings from the hands of the Lord he had so faithfully served. The great trial which came to many saints came to him in the destruction of his own activities and the patient acceptance of the Will of God in his regard. Feeling very ill, he spoke to a friend who procured him a letter of introduction to an eminent surgeon attached to the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, Dublin, and armed with this letter, having humbly removed his chains lest they should reveal his life of penance, he presented himself at the hospital. The examining doctor diagnosed heart trouble and admitted him at once to the medical ward of the hospital on June 18th, 1923. This beautiful hospital, which was founded in the year 1861, stands in a commanding position on the north side of the City of Dublin. It contains over 350 beds and is in charge of the Irish Sisters of Mercy. The physician, in whose care he was, writes, “When Talbot first came to the hospital we had no electrocardiograph and therefore it would be impossible to give an exact diagnosis of his condition. He was suffering from a cardiac arrhythmia which I believe to be auricular flutter. We have cured several cases of this condition within the past few years, but when Matt Talbot was coming to the hospital the condition was neither well understood nor had we the means of treatment that we have now at our disposal.”

This letter refers to Matt Talbot’s first stay in the Mater Hospital. The electrocardiograph was in the hospital the second time he was there, as will be seen by the statement of Sister Dolores, quoted later on. During his first stay he was changed from one ward to another as it is customary during the summer to have the hospital thoroughly cleaned ward by ward. This fact has made it difficult to obtain particulars of his first stay, but one fact is recorded by the Sister of Mercy in charge of the ward which he occupied when he was removed from the upper to the lower floor, namely, that he spent all his spare time before the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel of the hospital. The records show that he had received the last Sacraments on June 21st and was discharge’d from hospital on July 17th. He continued to attend the hospital as an out-patient until August 17th, when he resumed work at Messrs. Martin’s. He was unable to continue his employment and left again on the 3rd September. He was re-admitted to the Mater Hospital on October 1st, when he was placed under the care of Sister Dolores. Her statement is of great interest and is given in full:

“I was Sister in charge of Saint Laurence’s Ward of the Mater Misericordiae Hospital when Matt Talbot returned there on October 1st, 1923. He was suffering from heart disease and was put to bed at once. He remained in bed nearly all the time he was in Hospital, viz., from 1st October, 1923, to the middle of November. He did not then wear chains. He was very quiet and retiring and had little to say to anyone. He had a very sweet smile, and was always very gracious in his manner. He took whatever food was given to him, and made no comment nor complaint. It was noticed that he did not use butter. His sisters and a friend, Mrs. B., brought him eggs and fruit. These he handed to me without any remark. I was at liberty to use them as I liked, but gave them to him with his meals. He got very ill and I had him anointed. I sent for his sisters, and told them he was dying, and that it was as well he should die then, he was so well prepared. He seemed to be dying, as he was scarcely breathing after having received the last Sacraments. I now think he may have been in a state of profound recollection. His extraordinary calmness at the time struck me as remarkable. I said all the prayers for the dying. He got over this attack, and two days later was able to go down stairs to have a cardiograph taken. He then returned to bed and after a few days more was allowed up. The first day he was allowed up he disappeared and could not be found in the hospital or in the grounds. I thought he had gone out and had got an attack in the street. He was eventually discovered in a corner of the chapel praying. When I Complained to him that he had given all of us a great fright, he replied with his usual quiet smile, ‘I have thanked the nurses and the doctors, and I thought it only right to thank the great Healer.’ These words made such an impression on me that I have since told the patients to go to the chapel to thank God for their recovery. At the various times he was in hospital, the Sisters noticed his great look of recollection in the chapel and observed that he never used a prayer-book. He was in the chapel every evening when the Sisters recited the Office. He always was to be seen in a remote corner kneeling quite erect. He never asked for any privileges. He received Holy Communion every Monday. On other mornings, if any patient was to receive Holy Communion, I asked him if he would like to receive also. He always said ‘Yes’ but he never asked for It himself. He did not speak of religious matters, with the Nuns. Some patients like to discuss religion, but Matt Talbot never showed by his conduct that he was anything more than a sweet-natured, holy, old man. Knowing now the life of austerity which he led, it is obvious to me that he sought to conceal his holiness from all around him.”

On his discharge, he was unable to resume work and attended the hospital dispensary at regular intervals. It is possible to trace the course of his illness by the payments he received under the National Health Insurance Acts from his approved society, the builders’ labourers’ section of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. On 26th November, 1923, he had drawn 26 weeks sickness benefit at the rate of 15/- a week. From the 26th November he became entitled to disablement benefit at a lower rate, namely 7s. 6d. a week for the entire period of the disability. In November, therefore, he found himself ill and unable to work, and with his only income a sum of 7s. 6d. a week to pay for his food, lodging, fire and light. His condition was known to his well-to-do friends and some, with very great difficulty, persuaded him to accept gifts of money.

He found it difficult at times to attend the 6.15 a.m. Mass, but whenever possible he was “at his place in the church, and on his return, having partaken of his meagre breakfast, he returned to the church for 11 a.m. Mass, remaining in prayer, if he felt able, until 1 p.m. He suffered very severely during this period. His sister, Mrs. Fylan, who came in the morning to see him, relates that she often found him lying exhausted on his plank bed unable to speak owing to the exertion of walking from the church to his home. Though he could not speak she observed that he continued to pray. When he had taken some food and felt somewhat relieved, he went out again to the later Mass. Knowing. that he might die suddenly, Mrs. Fylan on one occasion asked him if she would come back later and remain with him. His answer was, “What good could you do? If I die here I shall have Jesus and Mary with me.” He resumed his chains, as Mrs. Fylan testifies, and continued, so far as his broken health allowed, his regular fasts and vigils, but there were intervals when he could only move about. Through it all he made no complaint beyond regretting his enforced idleness. In April, 1925, he felt that he could resume work and went back to his old post at Castle Forbes. He looked broken and ill but he continued to do his day’s work in the yard as usual. As time went on he seemed to recover, and on the very day before his death he told the foreman that he felt as well as ever. He was able to go out to an early Mass on Trinity Sunday, June 7th, 1925, and returned to breakfast as was then his habit, leaving his home for the last time after 9 a.m. to go to Saint Saviour’s Dominican Church, a walk of from 15 to 20 minutes, via Mountjoy Square, Gardiner’s Row, Parnell Square, Granby Row, into Granby Lane, which leads to Dominick Street, where the church stands. There is a foot-path on the left-hand side of Granby Lane going towards the church, and on the right, about half way down, is a general store kept by Mrs. Anne Keogh. Matt Talbot was passing along the foot-path, when Mrs. Keogh, coming out of the doorway adjoining her store, saw him fall. She called her son and both ran over to where he lay, lifted him and carried him to the hall door beside the store from which she had come, intending to bring. him into the store. Seeing that he was very pale and unable to speak, she entered the shop to get some water, which she brought out. Then lifting his head to give him a drink, she realised that it was not a faintness but that he was dying. As she put the cup of water to his lips she said, “My poor fellow, you are going to Heaven.” Matt Talbot opened his eyes and stared at her very earnestly, but did not speak. He then laid his head down, and as she withdrew her hand from under it, he died.

A man who was returning from the church came over to where Matt Talbot lay and blessed him with the crucifix. Father Walsh, O.P., came from the church, and seeing that he was dead, knelt in the lane and recited prayers. Later on the Corporation ambulance arrived and the body was removed to the mortuary attached to Jervis Street Hospital (Sisters of Mercy), which was close by. Here, later on in the morning, Sister Ignatius, Sister of Mercy, came with a nurse and the hospital porters to prepare the body for burial. As Sister Ignatius was. cutting away the clothes the scissors struck something hard, which, on further investigation, proved to be the chains which bound the body around the waist. With reverence, not unmixed with awe, they removed the chains and ropes and the big beads with its crucifix which always rested against his heart. The chains were rusty but the body was scrupulously clean. Then dressing the body in the brown habit of Saint Francis, they placed it in the coffin with the chains, ropes and medals.

Lest there should be any question hereafter as to the class of chain found on the body, it is well to mention that Mrs. Fylan possesses a new chain which she had bought for Matt Talbot to replace the one found on him, as he was in the habit of changing the chains when they became very rusty. This chain is not a cart chain but resembles a strong dog chain with a hook at one end and a ring at the other. Those who removed the chains from the body thought that the larger chain was a trace for a cart. The point is a very small one, but it is mentioned for the sake of accuracy.

It was not considered necessary to hold an inquest, and on Wednesday, June 10th, the body was removed to the Church of Saint Francis Xavier, Upper Gardiner Street, so often mentioned in this book, and from there the funeral took place on Corpus Christi, June llth, 1925, to the Glasnevin Cemetery, where in a humble grave in which no one had ever been buried, the body of Matt Talbot awaits the Resurrection.

Since this book was first published, I have got in touch with Mr. John Mulvany, who, about five years before Matt Talbot’s death came to live in the same tenement, occupying the room which adjoined the hall-door, which was usually closed. He stated that he frequently opened the door for visitors to Matt Talbot, and in that way washable to supply further interesting information.

Mr. Mulvany at first regarded Matt Talbot as an old man who lived the life of a recluse. He frankly admitted that at first he thought him an old miser, but after some conversations with Matt’s visitors, he got to know him as a man of prayer. He related one very interesting story of a girl who knocked at the door early one evening, enquiring for Matt Talbot. She stated that she was out of work and she wanted his prayers that she might secure a job. She saw Matt, and went away immediately. Within a week she called again in glowing spirits, and told Mr. Mulvany that Matt’s prayers had secured her request.

I questioned Mr. Mulvany regarding his last conversation with Matt Talbot, and he made the following statement:

“On Trinity Sunday I met Matt Talbot at the hall door about 8.30 a.m. I asked him how he was, and he replied that he was feeling weak. I said that he ought not to have gone back to work, and he said that he had felt all right until that morning. He went upstairs, and I remained about half-an-hour at the hall-door. He came downstairs and he looked very weak. I remarked that he ought not to go out until he had rested himself.”