An Irishman's Diary

In perverse twists of fate, while the Celtic Tiger has spawned a drink problem, the Great Famine defeated Fr Theobald Mathew'…

In perverse twists of fate, while the Celtic Tiger has spawned a drink problem, the Great Famine defeated Fr Theobald Mathew's temperance campaign.

Alcohol consumption decreased dramatically in pre-Famine Ireland, but his crusade floundered during the years of despair and social dissolution which followed.

Theobald Mathew - who died 150 years ago yesterday - was born at Thomastown Castle near Cashel, Co Tipperary, in 1790. His father was employed as an agent by a cousin who had conformed to the established church to secure the Mathew estate.

Lady Elizabeth Mathew, who inherited the castle, took an interest in Theobald's education. He attended schools in Thurles and Kilkenny. He went to Maynooth to study for the priesthood, but left after being caught entertaining friends in his room, which was considered a serious breach of college regulations. He continued his studies for the priesthood as a Capuchin friar in Dublin.


Fr Theobald was ordained in 1814 and assigned to Cork. He gained a reputation for his non-sectarian outlook and his concern for the poor of Cork city. He set up schools, organised charities and founded a cemetery for the Catholic poor. (By June 1847, 10,000 had been interred in it.) He noticed that, in a city where brewing and distilling were major industries, many of the problems of the poor were linked to excessive drinking.

The temperance movement grew rapidly when the charismatic Mathew agreed to lead the Cork Teetotal Society in 1838. By the following autumn crowds were arriving daily from all over Ireland to take the pledge in person from him.

Three years later, nearly every part of the country had been reached by one of his missions. Temperance societies were established in towns to counteract the drink-related entertainments of the fair day, the pattern and the racecourse.

From 1842 the number of Mathew's crusades began to decrease, however, partly due to the chaotic state of his finances. He visited Britain the following year, as Daniel O'Connell's agitation for the repeal of the Union reached its climax.

Although not opposed to repeal, Fr Mathew saw teetotalism as a means to social improvement and wished to keep the two movements apart. But this was proving impossible, with many repeal speakers referring to his temperance work as preparation for Irish self-government.

While there was general approval of his work among Irish emigrants, brewers were suspected of offering men free beer to disrupt some of his meetings in London. Having pledged 200,000 people, he returned home to witness the decline of O'Connell's Repeal Association.

From 1846 Mathew's own energy became absorbed increasingly in Famine relief efforts. He was on the Cork Relief Committee, worked tirelessly seeking aid from abroad, and turned his own home into a soup kitchen. But some were suspicious of what they perceived as his accommodating attitude towards the British administration.

In August 1846, in an otherwise obsequious letter, he warned Charles Trevelyan about the second failure of the potato crop: "On the 27th of last month I passed from Cork to Dublin and this doomed plant bloomed in all the luxuriance of an abundant harvest. Returning on the 3rd instant I beheld, with sorrow, one wide waste of putrefying vegetation.

"In many cases the wretched people were seated on the fences of their decaying gardens, wringing their hands and bewailing bitterly the destruction that had left them foodless."

In 1848 Mathew had an attack of paralysis, probably due to overwork. After an incomplete recovery, he went to the United States, where he quickly became involved in controversy. Irish nationalist opinion censured him for having accepted a pension from the British government as a solution to his financial problems; abolitionists vilified him for not condemning slavery in America as he had done earlier in Ireland, while southern politicians denounced him for having condemned slavery in the first place.

Nevertheless, he spent more than two years in the US, visited 25 states and administered the pledge to large numbers, mostly Irish Americans. Those exertions weakened him further and, on returning to Ireland, he was unable to participate in temperance crusades. But people continued to visit him at his brother's home, where he was living, to take the pledge.

Fr Mathew had a stroke early in 1856 and died on December 8th of that year in Cobh. His friend and biographer, John Francis Maguire, recorded that he left no property except his watch, and the altar plate and sacred vestments which belonged to him as a priest. Appropriately, he was buried in the cemetery he had founded for the poor of Cork.

Although he failed to banish drunkenness from Ireland, his influence on the temperance movement was enormous. Several successful campaigns in the late 19th century owed their inspiration to him. With his single-minded commitment and reputation for personal sanctity, he remains a revered figure.

William Smith O'Brien, who in 1844 had resolved to abstain from drink until the Union was repealed, regarded Fr Mathew "as an apostle who was specially deputed on a divine mission by the Almighty, and invested with powers almost miraculous. To none of the ordinary operations of human agency can I ascribe the success which attended his efforts to repress one of the besetting sins of the Irish nation."