In what one friend has jokingly described as “a victory for secularist alcoholics”, the Luas Cross City project eventually caught up with the statue of Father Theobald Mathew. Sculpted by Mary Redmond, the statue serves to remember the “apostle of temperance”, and it was unveiled before a huge crowd in 1893. One contemporary magazine described it as “a distinguished addition to artistic Dublin.” In the years immediately before Ireland was ravaged by the starvation of the 1840s, Matthew succeeded in enrolling some three million people into the temperance movement, pledging to abandon alcohol. It was said that over a period of only five days in Dublin, seventy thousand people enlisted. Speaking in 1889, the parliamentary leader John Redmond complained of the lack of a monument to Father Mathew in Dublin, with one newspaper reporting that:
It was nothing short of a scandal that in the city of Dublin, where they had monuments in honour of patriots and heroes, poets and scholars, they had no statue in memory of the one man whom he regarded as the most perfect type of an Irish patriot of the present day.
One of those who took ‘the pledge’ from Matthew was Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and celebrated American abolitionist who would spend several months in Ireland in 1845, even sharing a platform with Daniel O’Connell. Of Matthew, Douglass would remember that “His whole soul appeared to be wrapped up in the temperance cause … His time, strength and money are all freely given to the cause; and his success is truly wonderful.” Douglass would later come to denounce Father Mathew, as the later did not issue an outright condemnation of slavery during a visit to the United States in 1849. Douglass “wondered how being a Catholic priest should inhibit him from denouncing the sin of slavery as much as the sin of intemperance.”
In recent months, the media and others have discussed possible new locations for the statue. One fitting location could be Church Street, where the Capuchin Order, to which Father Mathew belonged, maintain the Father Mathew Hall. In an interview with Joyce Fegan of the Irish Independent late last year, Father Bryan Shortall stated that “I’d certainly be interested in sitting down with Dublin City Council and having a conversation about relocating it to maybe Fr Mathew Square, which is just opposite our church on Church Street”. Shortall also stated that Fr Mathew was an “amazing character,” and that if he was around today he would bring the drinks industry “to its knees.”
A Mathew Testimonial Committee had been established in Dublin in 1843, with the aim of honouring the work of the Capuchin priest. Interestingly, it was led by a wealthy Protestant businessman, Peter Purcell. It included the Duke of Leinster and Daniel O’Connell in its ranks.
The relationship between Mathew and the brewers and distillers of the Ireland of his time would, you may imagine, have been a very strained one. Yet according to one nineteenth century biography on Mathew, one influential Dublin distiller had a few words of praise:
‘No man’, said George Roe, ‘has done me more injury than you have Father Mathew; but I forget all in the great good you have done my country.’ And he presented his proud and delighted applicant with a handsome donation.
Praise also came from Colonel Beamish, head of the Beamish and Crawford brewery, when Corkonians met in 1857 to plan a commemorative statue there.
In his lifetime, Mathew toured Ireland and further afield, speaking with passion of his cause and enlisting millions behind him. He is a hugely significant and often overlooked figure in Irish social history, and while brewers and distillers may have heaped praise on him in the nineteenth century, there were no doubt others glad to see the decline of his movement in subsequent decades!
What filled our goals and bridewells? The effects of intoxication. What crowded the very lunatic asylums? Drunkenness and its effects. What fed the very gibbets? Drunkenness. I never will give up until we are freed, with the blessing and the assistance of God, from all these deplorable evils; and if I encounter during my career the sneers of some, and the contumelies of others, I must expect it….Let them show me anyone brought to misery or ruin by total abstinence. Show me anyone sent to the lunatic asylum by total abstinence. Oh no! Not a single one.