Apostle of Temperance, born at Thomastown Castle, near Cashel, Tipperary, Ireland, 10 October, 1790; died at Queenstown, Cork, 8 December, 1856. His father was James Mathew, a gentleman of good family; his mother was Anne, daughter of George Whyte of Cappaghwhyte. At twelve he was sent to St. Canice’s Academy, Kilkenny. There he spent nearly seven years, during which time he became acquainted with two Capuchin Fathers, who seem to have influenced him deeply. In September, 1807, he went to Maynooth College, and in the following year joined the Capuchin Order in Dublin. Having made his profession and completed his studies, he was ordained priest by Archbishop Murray of Dublin on Easter Sunday, 1814. His first mission was in Kilkenny, where he spent twelve months. He was then transferred to Cork where he spent twenty-four years before beginning his great crusade against intemperance. During these years he ministered in the “Little Friary”, and organized schools, industrial classes, and benefit societies at a time when there was no recognized system of Catholic education in Ireland. He also founded a good library, and was foremost in every good work for the welfare of the people. In 1830 he took a long lease of the Botanic Gardens as a cemetery for the poor. Thousands, who died in the terrible cholera of 1832, owed their last resting-place as well as relief and consolation in their dying hours to Father Mathew. ln 1828 he was appointed Provincial of the Capuchin Order in Ireland a position which he held for twenty-three years.
In 1838 came the crisis of his life. Drunkenness had become widespread, and was the curse of all classes in Ireland. Temperance efforts had failed to cope with the evil, and after much anxious thought and prayer, in response to repeated appeals from William Martin, a Quaker, Father Mathew decided to inaugurate a total abstinence movement. On 10 April, 1838, the first meeting of the Cork Total Abstinence Society was held in his own schoolhouse. He presided, delivered a modest address, and took the pledge himself. Then with the historic words, “Here goes in the Name of God”, he entered his signature in a large book lying on the table.
About sixty followed his example that night and signed the book. Meetings were held twice a week, in the evenings and after Mass on Sundays. The crowds soon became so great that the schoolhouse had to be abandoned and the Horse Bazaar, a building capable of holding 4000, became the future meeting-place. Here, night after night, Father Mathew addressed crowded assemblies. In three months he had enrolled 25,000 in Cork alone; in five months the number had increased to 130,000. The movement now assumed a new phase. Father Mathew decided to go forth and preach his crusade throughout the land. ln Dec., 1839, he went to Limerick and met with an extraordinary triumph. Thousands came in from the adjoining counties and from Connaught. In four days he gave the pledge to 150,000. In the same month he went to Waterford, where in three days he enrolled 80,000. In March, 1840, he enrolled 70,000 in Dublin. In Maynooth College he reaped a great harvest, winning over 8 professors and 250 students, whilst in Maynooth itself, and the neighbourhood, he gained 36,000 adherents. In January, 1841, he went to Kells, and in two days and a half enrolled 100,000. Thus in a few years he travelled through the whole of Ireland, and in February, 1843, was able to write to a friend in America: “I have now, with the Divine Assistance, hoisted the banner of Temperance in almost every parish in Ireland”.
He did not confine himself to the preaching of temperance alone. He spoke of the other virtues also, denounced crime of every kind, and secret societies of every description. Crime diminished as his movement spread, and neither crime nor secret societies ever flourished where total abstinence had taken root. He was of an eminently practical, as well as of a spiritual turn of mind. Thackeray, who met him in Cork in 1842 wrote of him thus: “Avoiding all political questions, no man seems more eager than he for the practical improvement of this country. Leases and rents, farming improvements, reading societies, music societies — he was full of these, and of his schemes of temperance above all.” Such glorious success having attended his efforts at home, he now felt himself free to answer the earnest invitations of his fellow-country-men in Great Britain. On 13 August, 1842, he reached Glasgow, where many thousands joined the movement. In July, 1843, he arrived in England and opened his memorable campaign in Liverpool. From Liverpool he went to Manchester and Salford, and, having visited the chief towns of Lancashire, he went on to Yorkshire, where he increased his recruits by 200,000. His next visit was to London where he enrolled, 74,000. During three months in England he gave the pledge to 600,000.
He then returned to Cork where trials awaited him. In July, 1845, the first blight destroyed the potato crop, and in the following winter there was bitter distress. Father Mathew was one of the first to warn the government of the calamity which was impending. Famine with all its horrors reigned throughout the country during the years 1846-47. During those years, the Apostle of Temperance showed himself more than ever the Apostle of Charity. In Cork he organized societies for collecting and distributing food supplies. He stopped the building of his own church and gave the funds in charity. He spent 600 pounds ($3000) a month in relief, and used his influence in England and America to obtain food and money. Ireland lost 2,000,000 inhabitants during those two years. All organization was broken up, and the total abstinence movement received a severe blow. In 1847 Father Mathew was placed first on the list for the vacant Bishopric of Cork, but Rome did not confirm the choice of the clergy. In the early part of 1849, in response to earnest invitations, he set sail for America. He visited New York, Boston New Orleans, Washington, Charlestown, Mobile, and many other cities, and secured more than 500,000 disciples. After a stay of two and a half years he returned to Ireland in Dec., 1851. Men of all creeds and politics have borne important testimony to the wonderful progress and the beneficial effects of the movement he inaugurated. It is estimated that he gave the total abstinence pledge to 7,000,000 people, and everyone admits that in a short time he accomplished a great moral revolution. O’Connell characterized it as “a mighty miracle”, and often declared that he would never have ventured to hold his Repeal “monster meetings” were it not that he had the teetotalers “for his policemen”.
His remains rest beneath the cross in “Father Mathew’s Cemetery” at Queenstown. On 10 October, 1864, a fine bronze statue by Foley was erected to his memory in Cork, and during his centenary year a marble statue was erected in O’Connell Street, Dublin. The influence of Father Mathew’s movement is still felt in many a country and especially in his own. In 1905 the Archbishops and Bishops of Ireland assembled at Maynooth unanimously decided to request the Capuchin Fathers to preach a Temperance Crusade throughout the country. In carrying out this work their efforts have been crowned with singular success. The Father Mathew Memorial Hall, Dublin, is a centre of social, educative, and temperance work, and is modelled on the Temperance Institute, founded and maintained by the Apostle of Temperance himself. The Father Mathew Hall, Cork, is doing similar work. The Dublin Hall publishes a monthly magazine called “The Father Mathew Record”, which has a wide circulation. A special organization called “The Young Irish Crusaders” was founded in Jan., 1909, and its membership is already over 100,000.
The Catholic Encyclopedia (1911)