Happy death-day, Father Mathew!

Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), from the frontispiece to volume II of Winskill’s ‘The temperance movement and its workers’

“On the 8th of December, 1856, a wail of sorrow in the crowded streets of the city of Cork told that one fondly loved, yea, almost idolized by the people of every creed and party was now no more. Not Ireland alone, but all Christendom mourned the loss of a hero in Father Mathew — the “Irish Apostle of Temperance.” (Winskill, 1891).

Winskill’s description of the death of Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856) captures something of the ambivalence surrounding one of the most important nineteenth-century temperance workers. A handsome and charismatic Capuchin Friar, Mathew launched a teetotal crusade in Ireland, Britain, and the United States in the 1830s and 1840s.  The first reformer to make a significant impression on Irish Catholics often wary of temperance’s Protestant roots Mathew’s appeal crossed sectarian lines, though it proved impossible to separate his campaign from Daniel O’Connell’s simultaneous agitation for the repeal of the Act of Union. Mathew claimed to have issued millions of pledges, but he foundered in the 1840s as the Famine threw Ireland into disarray. A series of financial and personal setbacks also undermined Mathew’s authority. And for many in Britain and elsewhere, his tremendous success in promoting teetotalism was always going to be qualified by his Irish Catholicism; popularity was one thing, but being idolized was quite another.

Born in County Tipperary, Mathew trained for the priesthood at Maynooth before withdrawing to become a Capuchin friar in Dublin. Mathew was sent to Cork in the autumn of 1814, becoming popular with the poor of the city for his preaching and charity. There were teetotal and temperance societies near Cork in the first decades of the nineteenth century, some of them Catholic, and by 1830 it was probably the strongest centre of Irish temperance outside Ulster. Encouraged by the Quaker William Martin, who had established Cork’s total abstinence society in 1835, Mathew signed the pledge in April 1838 with the words “Here goes, in the name of God!”

With Mathew as president the Cork society became the biggest in Britain and Ireland. By the end of that year 6,000 had joined; thousands traveled to see Mathew, and his visits to Limerick and Waterford in 1839 were received by crowds in the tens of thousands. Thousands took the pledge each week as O’Connell and other supporters of Repeal gave their support to Mathew’s meetings in Galway, Dublin, and elsewhere. By June 1840 Mathew claimed to be the leader of two million teetotallers in Ireland. He  visited Scotland in 1842 and England in 1843 (Beckingham, 2009), partly to get away from O’Connell’s Repeal agitation. Many Irish men and women supported both campaigns and Mathew feared this would blunt the effectiveness of his own efforts. It seems likely that Mathew supported Repeal but thought temperance more important; Quinn argues that O’Connell — teetotal from 1840 — sought to harness temperance for his own ends but also thought it demonstrated the discipline and virtue of the Irish. However Mathew was unable to persuade everyone in England that he had no connection to the Repeal movement. The English drink trade’s opposition to his religion and his teetotalism ensured an angry response from elements of the English press. London was the first place to receive Mathew with any degree of real hostility and a violent crowd interrupted his Bermondsey meeting.

By 1843-44 it is estimated that Mathew had recruited nearly six million people in Ireland, from a national population of around eight million. However the momentum of his crusade was lost as Famine relief took much of Mathew’s energy from 1846. Like other temperance workers he criticised the use of grain for brewing and distilling when it could have been used for food, and temperance writers continued to blame drink — rather than the British state — for Irish dearth. But Mathew’s crusade had already peaked before 1845, and he faced a number of pressing problems of his own.

Elizabeth Malcolm suggests that Mathew’s crusade was both messianic and millenarian; the faithful made pilgrimages to take the pledge in Cork and miracles were attributed to Mathew. The sale of medals to pledgers also smacked of idolatry; the Reverend Dr. John Edgar, a leading moderationist in Belfast, claimed Mathew had earned hundred of thousands of pounds this way, and others suggested that he was a “cunning Jesuit,” with temperance “a mere blind to carry on some deep-laid political scheme.” Despite Mathew’s desire to avoid sectarian divisions, the Catholic trappings of his mission worried many Protestants. Queen Victoria later admitted that while she admired his crusade she did not wish to be the patron of anyone who relied upon ‘superstition.’

Mathew’s charitable nature and poor grasp of finances created enormous difficulties. Many of those who signed the pledge were too poor to pay for their medals, and Mathew gave thousands away for nothing. By 1845 he owed £5,000. English supporters encouraged Lord John Russell to offer Mathew an annual pension in 1846, but he turned it down because the sum — £100 — was insultingly small. Desperate, he wrote to Russell in 1847 and was granted £300 a year. When Mathew was then chosen by the priests of Cork to be their new Bishop, he was blocked by the Catholic hierarchy; it seems likely that his ecumenicalism, Anglophilia, and a British pension counted against him in Ireland and Rome.

Mathew took his mission to the United States between 1849 and 1851 and was well received by temperance groups, Catholics, liberals and Irish Americans, though some of the latter criticised him for taking a British pension. He created new controversies along the way, too. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison knew that Mathew had signed the Anti-Slavery Address to Irish Americans in 1845, and expected Mathew to speak out against slavery while in the US. Mathew refused, wishing to concentrate on temperance, which lead Garrison to publicly denounce him. Mathew visited twenty-five states, though he left physically exhausted and no better off financially.

Broken by these efforts, Mathew made few public appearances in the last five years of his life and died of a stroke in 1856, aged 66. In many ways Mathew’s campaign was enormously successful, but because it was a ‘flat’ mass movement lead by one charismatic individual without the support of a wider organization it was hard to translate this into something more permanent. The Famine did not help, and neither did Mathew’s ecumenicalism. Later Catholic temperance societies in Ireland and England, like Cardinal Manning’s League of the Cross, were better organised and less ecumenical. While Mathew may have been ‘an apostle of modernisation’, in H. F. Kearney’s words, he still had to contend with equally modern currents of sectarianism and nationalism.


Beckingham, D. (2009) ‘The Irish question and the question of drunkenness: Catholic loyalty in nineteenth-century Liverpool,’ Irish Geography, 42: 2, 125—144

Kearney, H. F. (1979) ‘Father Mathew: Apostle of Modernisation,’ in Cosgrove and McCartney, eds. Studies in Irish History Presented to R. Dudley Edwards. Dublin: University College.

Malcolm, E. (1986) Ireland Sober, Ireland Free: Drink and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Quinn, J. F. (2002) Father Mathew’s Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and Irish America. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

Winskill, P. T.  (1891) The temperance movement and its workers, vol II, London: Blackie.


Some of the material in this post is based on a short piece I wrote some years ago, though it is quite different to the published version. The publisher failed to deliver what was promised in the contract, anyway.

James Kneale