Working man's saint or misguided victim?


IN A Catholic Church of declining vocations and recent sexual scandal the search for an unblemished symbol of faith to reinvent the unsullied church of 30 or 40 years ago is ongoing.

The beatification of Edmund Rice recently focused attention on the traditions of Catholic education. The possibility of another beatification, that of Malt Talbot, may not be a cause for celebration in the same unreserved way by Catholics or people in other churches.

A couple of months ago the auxiliary Bishop of Dublin, Dr James Moriarty, spoke of Malt Talbot's example and how his canonisation would be a rich reward for a supremely devotional life.

The campaign for his canonisation is currently collecting evidence. If his beatification - the first step to canonisation - is granted, many, Catholics will reflect on what this means for the church now. The meaning of Edmund Rice's beatification to a church desperately trying, to hang on to its central role in education is obvious. It is less clear what the canonisation of Malt Talbot would say.

I remember as a schoolboy in Dublin, in the mid-1980s, being told the story of Malt Talbot. A teacher informed us that this man's life should be an inspirational model. The shock and genuine fear among our group when we heard the full story was manifest.

The story is well known to generations of Catholic children who were told the only way to stay off the drink was to copy Malt Talbot's conversion to God.

Malt Talbot was born in a drab tenement house in Rutland Street, Dublin, in 1856. He was an alcoholic from the age of 16 after he began sampling pints of porter at a bottling plant where he got his first job. Before he embarked on his penitential journey, he was known as Barney Talbot, a stereotypical hard man of Dublin pub life, who regularly drank himself into a stupor.

It is claimed his conversion came suddenly one Saturday in 1884 when he pledged to abstain from drink for three months. His future devotional practices were a way to divert his mind from a genuine addiction.

In fact he would probably never have achieved recognition within the church if it had not been for the chains which were found embedded in his skin when his dead body wash examined in hospital. Does the church hierarchy now honestly believe that people should follow Malt Talbot's example of devotion and sanctity, which included punishing himself with cords, chains, wooden pillows and plank beds?

The image of Malt Talbot wearing chains and taking the Stations of the Cross on his knees does not seem in tune with post-Vatican II ideas of religious worship and freedom or the new radical Catholic social thinking of recent years.

For most people such penitential practices are hard to imagine, even at Lough Derg. They will remind, many older people of the austerity, harshness and brutality of the early years of the State or even worse the fundamentalism of Opus Dei.

Another unsettling element in Malt Talbot's story is the relationship that existed between him and his spiritual directors. Every part of his life eventually became ruled by the guidance given to him by priests such as Dr Hickey, the then rector of Clonliffe College.

Once when a young girl proposed marriage to Talbot, he told her the answer was "no" - Our Lady had told him not to gel married. But we do not know if the advice came from a less celestial source, either Dr Hickey or another key confessor, the Jesuit Father James Walsh.

The impression one gels from these relationships is of Matt Talbot, illiterate for much of his life, being given guidance by people better educated and more comfortable in society than him. Were these people not, obliged to dissuade Talbot from trying to achieve sanctity through extreme forms of self-abuse? Would they themselves have taken the same punishing road to devotion which they recommended to this simple and unassuming working man?

Malt Talbot was trying during all this to replicate the ascetic environment of a monastery. A book called True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin by the 18th-century French saint Louis Grignon de Montfort - which is also one of Pope John Paul II's favourite devotional books - gave him the idea for the chains and self-punishment.

The dark stories which have emerged from homes and orphanages like Goldenbridge remind us what Catholicism often meant in practice in the early and middle part of this century. Far from Matt TaIbot being the working man's saint, his form of devotion and the authoritarian mindset which controlled the church then exemplify all the things that kept the working man in a subtle form of subjugation.

In one pamphlet produced about Matt Talbot, a comparison is drawn between his spiritual achievements and the seafaring achievements off the explorer Tim Severin, who emulated the Brendan voyage, using an exact replica of the saint's leather boat.

Another description of Talbot's efforts in the same pamphlet is that he engaged in "no half measures". Particular emphasis is placed on his Irish nationality, which no doubt makes him a more wholesome cause for committees in the US who have championed his cause.

It is no wonder that Archbishop John Charles McQuaid wrote the preface to the man's biography in 1954. No other figure has been more associated with the powerful, dictatorial and puritanical church of the time. It is known that from the comfort of his palatial residence, he regarded Malt Talbot's life with some awe.

Is it possible that Matt Talbot was a victim of the ethos that Archbishop McQuaid came to represent? But more importantly would a canonisation now offer some kind of retrospective approval for those values?