Talbot was an unskilled labourer. Though he lived alone for most of his life, Talbot did live with his mother for a time. His life would have gone unnoticed were it not for the cords and chains discovered on his body when he died suddenly on a Dublin street in 1925.
Though he has not been formally recognized as a saint, Talbot may be considered a patron of men and women struggling with alcoholism. He is commemorated on 19 June.
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.
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. He found strength in prayer, began to attend daily Mass, and read religious books and pamphlets. He repaid all his debts scrupulously. Having searched for the fiddler whose instrument he had stolen, and failed to find him, he gave the money to the church to have Mass said for him.
Even when his drinking was at its worst, Talbot was a hard worker. When he joined Pembertons, the building contractors, as a hod-carrier, his work-rate was such that he was put first on the line of hodmen to set the pace. Later, in Martin's timber yard, he took on the meanest and hardest jobs. He was respectful to his bosses but not obsequious, and on occasion stood up for a fellow-worker. On 22 September 1911 Talbot joined the builder's labourers branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. When the Dublin Lockout of 1913 led to sympathy strikes throughout the city, the men of Martin's, including Talbot, came out. At first Talbot refused his strike pay, saying that he had not earned it. Later he accepted it but asked that it be shared out among the other strikers. After his death a rumour was put about that he was a strike-breaker in 1913, but all the evidence contradicts this.
From being an indifferent Catholic in his drinking days, Talbot became increasingly devout. He lived a life of prayer, fasting, and service, trying to model himself on the sixth century Irish monks. He was guided for most of his life by Dr. Michael Hickey, Professor of Philosophy in Clonliffe College. Under Dr. Hickey's guidance Talbot's reading became wider. He read laboriously Scripture, lives of saints, The Confessions of St. Augustine, and writings of St. Francis de Sales and others. When he found a part difficult to understand, he asked a priest to clarify it.
Dr. Hickey also gave him a light chain, (much like a clock chain), to wear as a form of penance. He became a Third Order Franciscan in 1890 and was a member of several other associations and sodalities. Talbot was a generous man. Although poor himself, he gave unstintingly to neighbours and fellow workers, to charitable institutions and the church. He ate very little. After his mother's death in 1915 he lived in a small flat with very little furniture. He slept on a plank bed with a piece of timber for a pillow. He rose at 5 a.m. every day so as to attend Mass before work. At work, whenever he had spare time, he found a quiet place to pray. He spent most of every evening on his knees. On Sundays he attended several Masses. He walked quickly, with his head down, so that he appeared to be hurrying from one Mass to another.
Talbot 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. Talbot's story quickly filtered through the community and there were many spectators when his funeral took place at Glasnevin Cemetery on 11 June 1925. In 1972 his remains were removed to a tomb in Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Sean McDermott Street, Dublin, in the area where Matt spent his life.
On 6 November 1931, Archbishop Byrne of Dublin opened a sworn inquiry into the alleged claims of holiness of the former dock worker. The Apostolic Process, the official sworn inquiry at the Vatican, began in 1947. On 3 October 1975 Pope Paul VI declared him to be Venerable Matt Talbot, which is a step on the road to his canonisation, a process which needs evidence of a physical miracle in order to be successful. There is a particular devotion to Matt Talbot among some North American Roman Catholics among those involved in a ministry to achieve or maintain sobriety.
A possible miracle in Kansas, where a healthy child was delivered despite tests showing abnormalities—Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis—after his aunt organized a prayer chain asking the intercession of Matt Talbot, is currently under investigation. If shown to be "medically inexplicable", the case may bring Talbot a step closer to sainthood.
“Never be too hard on the man who can’t give up drink. It’s as hard to give up the drink as it is to raise the dead to life again. But both are possible and even easy for Our Lord. We have only to depend on him.” – Matt Talbot
As word of Matt Talbot spread he rapidly became an icon for Ireland's temperance movement, the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. His story soon became known to the large Irish emigrant communities. Many addiction clinics, youth hostels and statues have been named after him throughout the world from Nebraska to Warsaw to Sydney. One of Dublin's main bridges is also named after him. A statue of Talbot was erected at Sir John Rogerson's Quay in 1988. Pope John Paul II, as a young man, wrote a paper on him.
Graham Linehan has stated that the character of Matty Hislop in his comedy series Father Ted was based on Talbot.
Talbot's remains were removed from Glasnevin Cemetery to Our Lady of Lourdes Church on Seán McDermott Street, Dublin, in 1972. The tomb has a glass panel through which the coffin may be seen.
There is a small plaque in Granby Lane at the site of Matt Talbot's death.