Talbot was born on 2 May 1856 at 13 Aldborough Court, Dublin, Ireland, the second eldest of twelve children of Charles and Elizabeth Talbot, a poor family in the North Strand area. He was baptised in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral on 5 May. His father and all but the oldest of his brothers were heavy drinkers. In 1868 Matt left school at the age of twelve and went to work in a wine merchant’s store. He very soon began “sampling their wares”, and was considered a hopeless alcoholic by age thirteen. He then went to the Port & Docks Board where he worked in the whiskey stores. He frequented pubs in the city with his brothers and friends, spending most or all of his wages and running up debts. When his wages were spent, he borrowed and scrounged for money. He pawned his clothes and boots to get money for alcohol. On one occasion, he stole a fiddle from a street entertainer and sold it to buy drink.
Alcohol became the most important thing in Matt’s life. He spent all his money on liquor, and when he did not have money from his regular job, he often stood outside a pub waiting for a friend to invite him in and buy him a drink. Soon he had no friends left. Whenever he drank, he got into fights.
One evening in 1884 28-year old Talbot, who was penniless and out of credit, waited outside a pub in the hope that somebody would invite him in for a drink. After several friends had passed him without offering to treat him, he went home in disgust and announced to his mother that he was going to “take the pledge” (renounce drink). He went to Holy Cross College, Clonliffe where he took the pledge for three months. At the end of the three months, he took the pledge for six months, then for life.
Having drunk excessively for 16 years, Talbot maintained sobriety for the following forty years of his life. There is evidence that Matt’s first seven years after taking the pledge were especially difficult. That was when Matt turned to God for help. He began to go to daily Mass. He often spent his free time—the time he used to spend in the pub—praying—and slowly he managed to pay all his debts scrupulously. He became especially close to Mary. He knew that our Blessed Mother wanted to help him live a happy life. He read stories of the saints and joined the Third Order of St. Francis.
Matt stopped carrying the money he earned from his job in a lumberyard. He wanted to avoid the temptation to spend it on liquor. Instead, he gave his wages away to friends who needed money for rent or to buy food or shoes for their children. He was also generous in donating money to his church.
Matt stayed sober for the rest of his life—almost 40 years. He was on his way to Mass on Trinity Sunday, 7 June 1925, when he collapsed and died of heart failure on Granby Lane in Dublin. Nobody at the scene was able to identify him. His body was taken to Jervis Street Hospital, where he was undressed, revealing the extent of his austerities. A chain had been wound around his waist, with more chains around an arm and a leg, and cords around the other arm and leg. The chains found on his body at death were not some extreme penitential regime but a symbol of his devotion to Mary, Mother of God that he wished to give himself to her totally as a slave.
Matt Talbot has been declared “Venerable” by the Catholic Church. This is the first step on the journey to sainthood. Matt was healed from his addiction by God’s love and his faith. Like Matt, we can bring our troubles to God and Mary in prayer. We can remember that God hears and answers all of our prayers. Today, many men and women who struggle with alcohol addiction carry with them a “Matt Talbot,” a medal with Talbot’s likeness on it, to help them in their struggle.