Skip navigation

Temperance Reform

Father Theobald Matthew

(See also Thackeray, Mayo, Westport cards)

There was another great Irishman in this period between the Union & the Famine: this was Father Matthew, the Apostle of Temperance. He was born in 1789 at Cashel, in Tipperary, where his father was agent to his kinsman, the Earl of Glandaff. Educated as a priest, he finally settled in Cork, and as a simple Franciscan monk worked ardently among the poor. In 1838 he took up the temperance movement which had been started by the Quakers, and was soon giving the Pledge to thousands of people a day. He toured the towns & cities of Ireland, and also visited England, Scotland, & America. He worked hard for the people during the Famine, which incidentally destroyed his work, and died worn out by his labors in Queenstown in 1853. The results of his crusade were truly remarkable. The production of whiskey in Ireland fell by half, and crime diminished. Owing to his fine character & personal magnetism he was adored by the people, who considered him a saint who could actually work miracles. The account of Mrs. Carlyle of the effect made upon her by one of his meetings is well-known: "I could not speak for excitement all the way home," she wrote to her husband. "When I went to bed I could not sleep, the pale faces I had seen haunted me, & Father Matthew's smile." He is described in the Dictionary of National Biography as being of middle height, with pale complexion, dark eyes of softest blue, his expression in repose being somewhat stern & somber, but when animated being remarkable for its gentleness & sweetness. All visitors to Ireland who saw & heard him were both charmed & impressed, and record with approval that he kept himself free of politics.

- Constantia Maxwell, The Stranger in Ireland, p. 217 (Mil. Lib.)


For a spell, from 1839 on, Ireland took the pledge from Father Theobald Matthew, a gentle Capuchin of Cork city, saintly and naïve, working a modern miracle with the race, who, reports showed, improved noticeably in a material way but, other reports indicated, became sullen, morose, & irritable from the strain of abstinence.

- Patton, The G. Door, p. 89

Father Matt brought down the consumption of spirits from 12,000,000 to 5,000,000 gallons. The movement collapsed with his death in 1856.

- En. Brit.

In Donegal (Glenfin, east central part) the Halls speak of entering a neat dwelling with "a likeness of the good Father Matthew which hung over the chimney."

  • Halls, Vol. III, p. 268 (note)


Charles Dickens, who came to America in 1842, wrote in his American Notes of the Grand Temperance Parade he watched in Cincinnati:

"I was particularly pleased to see the Irishmen, who formed a distinct society among themselves, and mustered very strong in their green scarves, carrying their national harp & their portrait of Father Matthew high above peoples' heads. They looked as jolly & good-humored as ever; and working the hardest for their living & doing any kind of sturdy labor that came their way, were the most independent fellows there, I thought."

Chas. Patton, To the G. Door, p. 200

The Irish Catholic temperance movement, faltering & feeble, burst into a flaming crusade in the U.S. with the sudden emergence of Father Theobald Matthew in Ireland as the inspiration of one of the most remarkable movements of the 19 th century - the temperance evangelizing of a man who had none of the characteristics of the evangelizer, a humble, diffident, self-effacing, & unworldly Capuchin friar.

Interestingly, Father Matthew's extraordinary ___sion was an indirect outgrowth of the American temperance movement. He was a priest in the city of Cork, a devoted worker among the poor, founder of an industrial school for boys & another for girls, and a member of the Board of Guardians for the Cork workhouse. The Quakers, taking example from the American movement, had founded the Cork Total Abstinence Society, & under the persuasion of William Martin, a fellow member of the workhouse board, Father Matthew signed his name on April 10, 1838, with the remark, "Here goes, in the name of God." Clerical eyebrows were raised at the news of a Capuchin friar associating himself with a Quaker society. ...Father M. started giving the pledge of total abstinence to the poor of Cork... His miracle in evangelizing Ireland to temperance without hysteria originated in a native innocence & saintly self-abnegation that made Father M. the best-known Irishman in the world next to O'Connell. He gave the pledge personally to more than half the population of Ireland in massive open-air meetings... Every Irish town had its Father M. band & marching banners... Catholics & Protestants pressed invitations upon Father M. to visit the U.S.. When he finally arrived at Staten Island, July 9, 1849, his visit turned into a national reception by all creeds & classes... By the time of the Civil War, the Father M. movement appeared dead, hastened to its grave by the hard times of 1856-58, which increased intemperance. The temperance societies founded under the spell of his name withered away.

- Ibid., p. 521 & 525

"At 8 o'clock the next morning Father Matthew gave a stirring scriptural discourse on the importance of temperance, proving from the scriptures, as well as from facts, the sin of using ardent spirits. The concourse was immense, so that they 'strode one upon another.' At twelve o'clock he gave another address. His simple, unaffected manner carried that evidence of sincerity & integrity with it, that no one can doubt but he who loves to doubt...

I had heard much of this man in my own country, but here I saw him, and must acknowledge he is the only person of whom I had heard much praise, who ever met the expectation given. He more than met it, he passed it by."

- Mrs. Nicholson, Ireland's Welcome to a Stranger, p. 156 (Mil. L.)

"Called at Father Matthew's ([in] Cork). His house is quite plain; the hall door is fastened open from six in the morning until the same time in the evening, saying to the citizen & stranger, 'Ye all are welcome'...

The room is entirely devoid of ornaments, except the papers pasted upon the wall as cautions to the intemperate. Benches were arranged about the room for those in waiting, on one of which, in an obscure corner, I took my seat and saw the lame[?] and deformed, the clean and the filthy, the well-clad and the tattered, kneel & take the pledge and enter their names in a book, which the clerk who registered them said counted 5 million and 4 thousand. To the meanest beggar he speaks as kindly as [to] the titled gentleman, and to the suffering I often saw him slip a little change, bidding them depart & not disgrace him by breaking the pledge.

The next evening a temperance meeting was held in a neatly decorated room, prepared by the poor fishwomen, who were teetotalers. 'You must go,' said Father Matthew, 'These women 5 years ago were the greatest nuisances in Cork, but they took the pledge, and not one has broken it.' I went. The rich were there too; they had been invited because it was the poor who made the feast. [This sentence doesn't make sense to me but this is as it is in the book.] The room was crowded; tea was prepared, and the meeting was opened by three cheers for the Queen." [Mrs. N. then goes out at great length to tell "how kindly she herself was received."]1

- Ibid., p. 248-50

Father Matthew succeeded in keeping many millions of men sober during the '40s, until the Great Famine engulfed his work as it did O'Connell's. To him is due the feature of Irish life, the brass band with banners, which he originally organized as a counter-intoxicant.

- Shane Leslie, in The Glories of Ireland, p. 158

Begun in the late 1830s, it soon embraced half the population of Ireland. O'Connell was one of the first to welcome the movement (he was abstemious but not a teetotaler); he said that Father Matthew was "entitled to the nation's gratitude beyond all other living men." For Repeal the advantages of the Tem. Movement were inestimable - it made possible the monster meetings.

[- no citation is given here]

Rev. Geo. Carr ( Est. Church) read in American newspapers about the Temperance Movement in America. He spoke at a Quaker meeting house, asked their help, & the 1 st Irish Temperance Society was formed at New Ross, County Cork, on 20 th August, 1829.

Soon after one organized in Cork. They asked the help of the popular & liberal Father Matt. On 10 th April, 1838 the "Cork Total Abstinence Society" was formed. He traveled through nearly every district of Ireland; in Oct. 1840 his list of members included 2,530,000 names (information in the Halls, Vol. I, p. 36-37).

"During our stay in Cork we were anxious to meet Mr. Matthew... He resides in a bye street running off from one of the old quays. We saw him administer 'the pledge.' The neophyte receives it kneeling, & repeats after the priest the following words: 'I promise to abstain from all intoxicating drinks, except used medicinally, and by order of a medical man, & to discontinue the cause & practice of intemperance.'

Mr. Matthew then marks on his forehead the sign of the cross and says, 'God give you strength to keep your resolution.'"

- Halls, Vol. I, p. 42

"No one who sees Rev. Mr. Matthew will hesitate to believe that he has been stimulated by pure benevolence to the work he has undertaken. The expression of his countenance is particularly mild & gracious; his manner is persuasive, gentle, simple, & easy, and humble without a shadow of affectation, & his voice is low & musical - 'such as moves man.' A man more naturally fitted to obtain influence over a people easily led & proverbially swayed by affection we have never encountered. No man has borne his honors more meekly, encountered opposition with greater gentleness and forbearance, or disarmed hostility by weapons better suited to a Christian. His age is somewhat above fifty, but he looks younger & his frame is strong, evidently calculated to endure great fatigue, & his aspect is that of established health. He is somewhat above middle size; his features are handsome as well as expressive. Our brief interview with him confirmed the favorable impression of his character we had obtained from a knowledge of the benefits derived from his labors."

- Halls, Vol. I. p. 46


Mrs. Nicholson & Temperance

(In Wexford) "I reached the stopping place of the coach in good time to give a temperance lecture to a company of travelers who were taking their punch. At first they made light of it, but soon became sobered when I cited to them the judgement, where we must all appear... I had a great and attentive audience, with a multitude of 'God bless & speed ye on your way; for surely you're a wonderful body, & the like of ye never was seen.'"

- Ireland's Welcome to a Stranger, p. 233 (Mil. Lib.)


1 Brackets in this paragraph appear in the original manuscript.