Theobald Mathew (temperance reformer)

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For other people named Theobald Mathew, see Theobald Mathew (disambiguation).
Father Mathew

Theobald Mathew (1790–1856), was an Irish Catholic teetotalist reformer, popularly known as Father Mathew. He was born at Thomastown, near Golden, County Tipperary, on October 10, 1790.

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.[1]

Statues of Mathew stand on St. Patrick's Street, Cork by JH Foley (1864), and on O'Connell Street, Dublin by Mary Redmond (1893).[2] There is also a Fr. Mathew Bridge in Limerick City which was named after the temperance reformer when it was rebuilt in 1844–1846.[3]

Total abstinence Society[edit]

Father Mathew monument in St. Patrick's Street, Cork

The movement with which his name is associated began on 10 April 1838 with the establishment of the "Cork Total Abstinence Society", which in less than nine months enrolled no fewer than 150,000 names. 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 Famine of 1845–49, 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.[4]

Father Mathew monument in Dublin’s O’Connell Street

His work had a remarkable impact on the condition of the people in Ireland:

The number of homicides, which was 247 in 1838, was only 105 in 1841. There were 91 cases of ‘firing at the person’ reported in 1837, and but 66 in 1841. The ‘assaults on police’ were 91 in 1837, and but 58 in 1841. Incendiary fires, which were as many as 459 in 1838, were 390 in 1841. Robberies, thus specially reported, diminished from 725 in 1837, to 257 in 1841. The decrease in cases of ‘robbery of arms’ was most significant; from being 246 in 1837, they were but 111 in 1841. The offence of ‘appearing in arms’ showed a favourable diminution, falling from 110 in 1837, to 66 in 1841. The effect of sobriety on ‘faction fights’ was equally remarkable. There were 20 of such cases in 1839, and 8 in 1841. The dangerous offence of ‘rescuing prisoners,’ which was represented by 34 in 1837, had no return in 1841![5]

The number committed to jail fell from 12,049 in 1839 to 9,875 by 1845. Sentences of death fell from 66 in 1839 to 14 in 1846, and transportations fell from 916 to 504 over the same period.

In the United States[edit]

Mathew visited the United States in 1849, returning in 1851.[4] While there, he 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.[6] 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."[7] Douglass felt it was his duty to now "denounce and expose the conduct of Father Mathew".[8]


Mathew died on 8 December 1856 in Cobh (then known as Queenstown), County Cork after suffering a stroke. He is buried at St. Joseph's Cemetery, Cork city, which he had himself established.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Theobald Mathew". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 
  2. ^ Irish Times 28 Oct 2010, p.17
  3. ^ "Dictionary of Irish Architects". Edward Uzuld. Irish Architectural Archive. 
  4. ^ a b "Theobald Mathew", in Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911), Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press, p. 886
  5. ^ MacGuire, John Francis (1863). Father Mathew: A Biography. London: Longman Green, Longman, Roberts and Green. pp. 200–201. Retrieved 13 September 2016. 
  6. ^ Dooley, Brian (1998). Black and Green: The Fight for Civil Rights in Northern Ireland & Black America. London: Pluto Press. p. 11. 
  7. ^ Kerrigan, Colm. "Irish Temperance and US Anti-Slavery: Father Mathew and the Abolitionists" (PDF). Hist Workshop J (1991) 31 (1): 105-119. Retrieved 10 January 2013. (subscription required (help)). 
  8. ^ Hogan, Liam (2014-09-29). "'Oh what a transition it was to be changed from the state of a slave to that of a free man!' Frederick Douglass's Journey from Slavery to Limerick". The Irish Story. Retrieved 2016-09-08. 

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