Life of Matt Talbot – Introduction

cover of the ebook 'Life of Matt Talbot, by Sir Joseph Aloysius Glynn'In March, 1926, the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland published a short “Life of Matt Talbot, a Dublin Labourer.” The Life came to be written almost by accident, as the name of Matt Talbot was altogether unknown to the writer until a friend and fellow member of a charitable society who had known Matt Talbot for 25 years, told something of the life of that holy man and suggested that the author should write a short sketch for the edification of Matt Talbot’s fellow-workers in Dublin. The booklet was written and ready before Christmas, 1925, but several unforeseen events delayed its publication until the beginning of the Lent of 1926. During Lent in Ireland it is customary to hold, in the cities and large towns, missions and retreats for the parishioners, and the little booklet was used by the various missioners to point out the spiritual height to which the lowliest amongst their hearers could aspire.

The effect on the working people of Ireland was remarkable. The first edition of 10,000 copies was sold out in four days, and edition followed edition until 120,000 copies had been sold in a few months. At the time this is being written, 140,000 copies have been printed in Ireland. The spread of the fame of Matt Talbot was equally remarkable outside Ireland. The Australian Catholic Truth Society republished the pamphlet under the title of “A Saint in Overalls.” Within a short time, applications for permission to translate it into foreign languages began to arrive, so that within one year from the date of the original publication” editions had appeared, or were in course of preparation, in French, German (three separate editions, for Germany proper, Alsatia and German-speaking Austria), Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Yugoslavian, Russian, and Breton. At the same time there arose a demand for more information about this remarkable man, and the writer was asked to prepare a larger life giving more intimate details of Matt Talbot’s daily life. The result is the present book, which contains all that it has been possible to gather from every available source about Matt Talbot from his youth to his death.

Realizing the seriousness of the task which he was compelled by events to undertake, the writer personally interviewed a large number of people who were in a position to give him any information on the subject. Two sisters gave full details of their brother’s life, and their evidence was corroborated in very many essential particulars by fellow-workers and personal friends. In practically every case the statement of evidence was written out and read over to the witnesses before being accepted by the writer, and where there appeared to be a discrepancy between statements every effort was made to clear it up. Such discrepancies were usually the result of faulty memory. As one of the sisters put it, “We always took Matt for granted and never minded to take notes of what he did. We never thought anyone would want to write his life.” Both sisters were very scrupulous in their statements and avoided anything which might savour of exaggeration. The writer found the same care exhibited by all the witnesses, who seemed fully to realize that nothing should be set down which was not in strict accordance with the truth. The only merit the writer can claim is that, having been a lawyer for many years, he was able to appraise the value of the evidence taken by him and not allow his imagination to run away with his discretion. In all, some thirty witnesses were interviewed. It was a wonderful experience. Here one found oneself in touch with the actual friends of a saint, and saw reflected in them the holiness which had spread from Matt Talbot to those around him – the little group which gathered on the steps of Saint Francis Xavier’s Church, Upper Gardiner Street, at 5:30 a.m., winter and summer, waiting for the doors to open; the old lady, bent with age, who still wore the chains which Matt Talbot had given her; the men and women of another, rank of life who had known and reverenced their poor friend and model; the fellow-workers who had worked with him during the long years of common toil. How unconsciously they revealed their own beautiful lives as they told stories of their saintly friend, and how, as one listened to them, one realized that these were the true types of our people, and not the wretched degenerates which a so-called, National Theatre presents to the world as types of Catholic Ireland.

Those who mix amongst the poor of our Capital know that beneath the squalor, and in spite of it, there exists holiness of life and a wonderful charity; holiness which reveals itself in the resignation with which the poor bear the manifold troubles which are their daily lot; charity which, is seen in their kindness to those amongst them who are poorer than themselves. It seems easy to be holy in the cloister or in the sheltered surroundings of a comfortable home, but to see real goodness go to a room in a tenement house and look around you. There is a perpetual lamp kept alive somehow, even where there is no bread. There are the objects of piety – crucifix, pictures, statues, and the tiny altar decked in coloured paper and tinsel. There a patient wife alone with her little ones, for the husband is gone on the never-ending quest for work, or the lonely widow who earns a pittance for a few days charing each week, will meet you with a smile of welcome, and will thank the good God for the little timely aid you have brought in His name to those, His little ones. Go to our churches on the night when the men’s sodalities meet and see the thousands of workers of every class, who, after their day’s labour in yard, or shop, or tram, come week by week or month by month, to gain new strength and help from their devotion to the practices of their sodality. Go on the Sunday mornings to the early Masses, and see the throngs of men and women who crowd the altar rails to receive their Lord and Master. If you would go still higher, follow the foot steps of the young men and the young women of the City who visit the pool in their own homes, the wanderers in the lodging houses, the homeless in the Poor Law Union, and the sick in the wards of the Hospital. These are our people, the God-fearing men and women of our City from whom Matt Talbot sprang and who number amongst them many, who, like Matt Talbot, live lives of holiness and self-sacrifice in the midst of their fellow-men. Why did they throng the book-shops for the little booklet which told of Matt Talbot’s prayers and penances? Was it not in the depths of their own hearts they felt spring up the desire for holiness such as his and the thought that what he had done they could strive to accomplish? Was it not because the life of Matt Talbot proved to the world that sanctity is not the preserve of the cloister, nor holiness of life a matter of social position, and that in our own day, as in the days of Christ, His friends are to be found amongst the poor and the lowly.

To the writer the life of Matt Talbot presents two aspects for all workers: rugged honesty in the fulfilling of his contract of service with his employers, and a dignified confidence in the cause of his fellow-workers. Every page of his life reveals these points, as every page reveals how he regulated all his dealings with his fellow-men by the rules of Charity and Justice.

It was in the hope that this larger life of Matt Talbot might lead to still greater devotion to his memory, and, above all, to the greater glory of God, that the writer undertook a task for which he felt himself utterly unfitted. However, it is now. finished, and he humbly offers to the Christian workers of every land this life of one of themselves, who, in an age of change and disillusion, never turned from the path of righteousness, but ever sought his true happiness in the bosom of the Catholic Church, in obedience to her laws and in the full knowledge that she alone could shield him from the false gods of modern paganism which sought to drive the supernatural from the lives of the people and would close the doors of Hope on all who labour and are burdened.

One more word. Just as this life was being finished the writer received an anonymous letter which raised two points: One, the use of the name “Matt” instead of “Matthew”; the other, that the original life left the impression that blasphemy was common amongst Irish workers some years ago. On the first point the writer considers that there is nothing irreverent in describing a very holy man by the name by which he was known all his life. Everyone spoke of him with deep affection as “Matt” and the writer thinks that a name which is now so familiar to all Irish Catholics might well be allowed to remain. On the other point the anonymous correspondent is right. The use of the word “blasphemy” was not justified. Our Irish people seldom blaspheme; they speak at times irreverently, through, carelessness, and they use the name of God or the Sacred Name of Jesus without adverting to what they are doing. It is hoped this short explanation will prevent any future misunderstanding.


The fifth edition of this Life of Matt Talbot was issued in 1934. In the preface, it was recorded that when His Eminence Cardinal Jean Verdier, Archbishop of Paris, was in Dublin two years earlier, for the 31st International Eucharistic Congress, he knelt and prayed in the room in No. 18 Upper Rutland Street, where Matt Talbot had kept vigil with Jesus down many years, and, deeply moved by his experiences, had kissed the floor.


The author desires it to be understood that, unless where he expressly states that the Church or the Holy See has recognized the truth of miracles or other supernatural manifestations referred to in the following pages, he claims no credence for them beyond what the available historical evidence may warrant.


This work has the Nihil Obstat of Father Reccaredus Fleming, Censor Theol. Deput.

It has the Imprimi Potest of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, C.S.Sp., Archdiocese of Dublin, Ireland, 7 November 1942.