Theobald Mathew, founder of the The Total Abstinence Association is born at Thomastown, near Golden, Co Tipperary. He received his schooling in Kilkenny, then moved for a short time to Maynooth. From 1808 to 1814 he studied in Dublin, where in the latter year he was ordained to the priesthood. Having entered the Capuchin order, after a brief period of service at Kilkenny, he joined the mission in Cork.
Father Mathew encouraged his flock to take the following pledge: I promise to abstain from all intoxicating drinks except used medicinally and by order of a medical man and to discountenance the cause and practice of intemperance.
“In 1838 came the crisis of his life. Drunkenness had become widespread, and was the curse of all classes in Ireland. Temperance efforts had failed to cope with the evil, and after much anxious thought and prayer, in response to repeated appeals from William Martin, a Quaker, Father Mathew decided to inaugurate a total abstinence movement. On 10 April, 1838, the first meeting of the Cork Total Abstinence Society was held in his own schoolhouse. He presided, delivered a modest address, and took the pledge himself. Then with the historic words, “Here goes in the Name of God”, he entered his signature in a large book lying on the table.”
In less than nine months no fewer than 150,000 names were enrolled as taking the Pledge. It rapidly spread to Limerick and elsewhere, and some idea of its popularity may be formed from the fact that at Nenagh 20,000 persons are said to have taken the pledge in one day, 100,000 at Galway in two days, and 70,000 in Dublin in five days. At its height, just before the Great Hunger of 1845-50, his movement enrolled some 3 million people, or more than half of the adult population of Ireland. In 1844 he visited Liverpool, Manchester and London with almost equal success.
His work had a remarkable impact on the condition of the people in Ireland.
On 2 July 1849, New York welcomed Fr. Mathew. When he left the USA in 1851, strong temperance societies carried on the work. “I thank heaven I have been instrumental in adding to the ranks of temperance over 600,000 in the United States,” he wrote. Mathew has a statue dedicated to him in Salem, Massachusetts.
Mathew, a high-profile visitor to the USA, found himself at the center of the Abolitionist debate. Many of his hosts were pro-slavery, and wanted assurances that their influential guest would not stray outside his remit of battling alcohol consumption. But Mathew had signed a petition (along with 60,000 Irishmen and women including Daniel O’Connell) encouraging the Irish in the U.S. to not partake in slavery in 1841 during Charles Lenox Remond’s tour of Ireland. Now however, in order to avoid upsetting his slave-owning friends in the U.S., he snubbed an invitation to publicly condemn chattel slavery, sacrificing his friendship with that movement. He defended his position by pointing out that there was nothing in the scripture that prohibited slavery. He was condemned by many on the abolitionist side, including the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass who had received the pledge from Mathew in Cork in 1845. Douglass felt “grieved, humbled and mortified” by Mathew’s decision to ignore slavery while campaigning in the U.S. and “wondered how being a Catholic priest should inhibit him from denouncing the sin of slavery as much as the sin of intemperance.” Douglass felt it was his duty to “denounce and expose the conduct of Father Mathew”.
Fr. Mathew died on 8 December 1856 in Cobh (then known as Queenstown), Co Cork after suffering a stroke. He is buried at St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Cork city, which he had himself established.
Statues of Mathew stand on St. Patrick’s Street, Cork by JH Foley (1864), and on O’Connell Street, Dublin by Mary Redmond (1893). There is also a Fr. Mathew Bridge in Limerick City which was named after the temperance reformer when it was rebuilt in 1844-1846
Photo: Fr Theobold Statue on O’Connell St, Dublin, by Mary Redmond