Theobald Mathew (temperance reformer)

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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 1790-1856 (The Temperance Priest) in Dublin’s O’Connell Street

The movement with which his name is associated began on 10 April 1838 with the establishment of the "Cork Total Abstinence Society" which relied on one enduring act of will to keep a person sober for life. It was called simply The Pledge. It could be made by anybody, either with or without an alcohol problem.

Father Mathew did not believe in gradual approaches or temporary commitments. He advocated a promise that meant complete commitment. It did not bind like the vows of marriage, but the principle of permanent commitment was the same. Fr Mathew believed that as long as the act of will continued, it could overcome all difficulties.

One simple commitment, encased in the words of the Total Abstinence Pledge, supposedly did the trick. The surroundings did not make much difference. One could take the pledge as a single individual or as one of a waiting line coming up in a parish, mobilised and brimming with enthusiasm for the occasion. However, Father Mathew arrived at this conclusion only after much prayer for guidance and after urging by others who proposed total abstinence over moderation. There is also unconfirmed knowledge that he was a heavy drinker before he saw a vision of a strange bird-man who told him to change his ways. Theo Mathew Peter Dillon is his great great great grand nephew.

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

[citation needed]

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 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.

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!”[4]

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.

However, his campaign did have the unforeseen consequence of an increase in the consumption of diethyl ether, a chemical much more pharmacologically dangerous and chemically unstable than alcohol, by those seeking to become intoxicated without breaking the letter of their pledge.[5] It also caused many breweries and distilleries to close.

Father Mathew in the United States[edit]

Father Mathew The Apostle of Temperance Centenary Statue 1890

On July 2, 1849, New York welcomed Fr. Mathew. Mayor Woodhull, a non-Catholic, placed City Hall at his disposal. For two weeks the crowds besieging its chambers practically eliminated all city business. Vice-President Millard Fillmore was one of the callers. In Washington, President Zachary Taylor invited Fr. Mathew to dine at the White House. Congress gave the humble Capuchin friar its highest honours. The House unanimously admitted him to a seat on the floor of the House. The Senate admitted him within the bar of the Senate, an honour given previously only to Lafayette.

Statue of Father Mathew in St. Patrick's Street, Cork

For two years, despite grave illness, Father Mathew blazed a trail of success across the United States. Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Little Rock, New Orleans, and many places in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Delaware and other areas heard his exhortations and were won to the practice of total abstinence. Everywhere there were crowds and enthusiastic receptions.

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.[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".


Fr. 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. ^ Father Mathew a Biography - John Francis MacGuire (Longman Green, Longman, Roberts and Green Lon 1863
  5. ^
  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 10/01/2013.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)

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