Matthew Talbot (1856 - 1925) lived at an incredibly difficult time. He and his 13 siblings were born into poverty in Dublin shortly after the Irish Potato Famine. One million people died from this largely human-made disaster that saw, even while starvation was rampant, the British government's siphoning off of profit from Irish crops and livestock. Another million people emigrated out of the country, and alcoholism was rampant among those who stayed behind.
Matt's father was one man who succumbed to alcoholism and spend much of the family's income on the cheap whiskey that was widely available. Matt and his siblings spent little time in school and worked odd jobs to bring in extra money. Matt's first job, at age 12, was to deliver Guinness stout to pubs. He began drinking the dregs of the returned bottles and, at the age of 13, he too was an alcoholic. Even then he was known as a very hard worker, but as an adult he spent all his wages on alcohol. His friends later testified: “[Matt] only wanted one thing—the drink; he wouldn't go with us to a dance or a party or a school function. But for the drink he'd do anything.”
Already in his 20's Matt incurred large debts and resorted to thievery, even stealing the violin from a blind street entertainer and selling it to pay for rounds of drinks at the bar. But, at the age of 28, he realized his life had become desperate and small and his relationships extremely shallow. He resolved to take 'the pledge' for sobriety organized by Capuchin Franciscans and others in the Catholic Church began to attend Mass daily. More changes were happening inside him and, even though his hard labor as a dockworker paid little, he began quietly giving money to those around him to pay for shoes for their children or overdue rent.
Matt joined the Third Order of Saint Francis of Assisi (now called the “Secular Franciscan Order”) in 1890. His spiritual life centered him in a joyful way of being, earning him the reputation as a "happy little man . . . who smiled at everything except a dirty joke.” He filled his life with prayer, fasting, and service. He gave away most of his wages every week to the poor in Ireland and to international Catholic missions. His commitment to the lay Franciscans was incredible—the attendance records show that in 35 years he only missed a couple of the monthly meetings.
Matt often read the Bible and the lives of saints, and he also began reading papal encyclicals on social justice and books on the labor movement. His faith and his concern for the poor led him to action, and in 1900 he joined a strike from the Dublin Port & Docks Board to demand a modest raise of sixpence to their daily pay of four and sixpence. When management refused, he was one of four workers who held out from returning to work while the rest slowly gave in to the financial pressure.
He became a loyal member of Ireland's Transport and General Workers Union. When the Dublin Lockout of 1913 led to sympathy strikes throughout the city, Matt consulted a trusted priest as he discerned joining the strike. The priest encouraged him, and Matt joined the strike also came to quote a phrase from a book the priest gave him: “No man has the right to starve a worker into submission.” During this strike, he refused the strike pay given by the union to ease financial hardship, saying that he had not earned it. Later he accepted the pay but shared it among the other strikers. Matt was a vocal supporter of James Larkin, a famous union organizer and major figure in Ireland's labor movement. One union leader, Stephen McGonagle, described Matt as “a beacon of light to Irish workers.”
After a life of heroic perseverance, Matt died suddenly while walking to Mass on June 7, 1925. He was declared Venerable by Pope Paul VI in 1975. He is the Patron of Struggling and Recovering Addicts and Alcoholics and many addiction treatment programs, retreats, and centers throughout the world bear his name.