August 16, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Visits from the Old Country: Learning about Father Theobald Mathew

Baltimore is no longer one of the largest cities in America, but was so for many years (see early image, above). It was the nation’s second largest in 1850, vying with Philadelphia off and on. The city’s population hit its highest point in 1950, when 949,708 residents were part of what at that time was America’s 6th largest city. Baltimore was still a “top ten” city as recently as 1980.

Historical figures were well aware of the importance of Charm City, as Baltimore is known, and major figures throughout history have made Baltimore part of their tour of America. Irish leaders came to promote causes and raise money, and we will talk about some of these visitors in our issues of the Big Pivot series, where we bring the Irish Railroad Workers Museum to you on social media. The series will ultimately be part of our rapidly developing new web site, where you will be able to read issues anytime.

We will begin with Father Theobald Mathew, a huge figure on several fronts.

Theobald Mathew (pictured below) was born in 1790, a native of County Tipperary. He was raised in Thomastowne Castle, which rested on lands that had been in the Mathew family for a considerable time. His family included both a Catholic and a Protestant wing, and he chose to become a priest of the Capuchin order.

Father Mathew lived a life in dedication to the care of the “least of these”, including those who fell victim to a cholera epidemic, millions who suffered due to destructive excesses related to alcohol consumption, and many who experienced trauma as a result of the Great Hunger. He was devoted to the poor, and said “Every time I see a barefooted child in the street, I seem to see Jesus Christ himself”.

Like others we have learned about in the Irish community, he came from a family of distillers and others who were involved in the liquor trade. He began his temperance ministry during a time where very few spoke out against dissipation, including the clergy. He began his crusade on April 10, 1838 when he spoke at a temperance meeting. Addresses were made, and men of resolve formed the Cork Total Abstinence Society that evening.

Within just a few years the Society had half a million members, and the gentle, caring priest drew many to gatherings in the surrounding towns and counties, each seeking to take the Temperance Pledge.

Most insisted that they would only take the pledge when it was led by Father Mathew personally, and crowds formed wherever he went. His visits to cities and towns were brought about by invitations coming from the area's Bishops, and many thousands came over a period of days to affirm their commitment.

The seminary town of Maynooth experienced 35,000 pledges when Mathew visited there, during a visit by New York’s Bishop John Hughes.

His work among the people of Ireland led to a massive reduction in the partaking of distilled spirits: at least that produced under license. Production nationwide dropped by approximately 40%; unknown is the effect of his ministry on the hidden stills of the nation. That being said, it is estimated that more than six million Irish took the Temperance Pledge in the first half of the 1840’s.

Rev. Mathew also had a huge role in the relief of the starving Irish in Cork City once the horrors of the Great Hunger began. He organized many soup kitchens and worked personally to provide care for many, even to the point that his own home was a destination for the desperate who sought some measure of comfort.

Father Mathew was part of the consortium of Irish leaders who welcomed the famine relief ship U.S.S. Jamestown to Cork City in 1847 (pictured), and met with ship captain Robert B. Forbes to offer thanks on behalf of the starving Irish.

The “Apostle of Temperance” received several honorary presidencies of American temperance societies as well as many invitations to come to America and speak, which he finally accepted in 1849. He was welcomed to New York by Bishop Hughes and other dignitaries at Castle Garden, the immigration facility of the time.

Once in America he continued the pattern of not speaking out on other vital issues, insisting that his cause for temperance was not going to be hijacked by sectarian or political causes. This brought him some measure of resistance in Ireland, where political forces wanted in on his many major gatherings. Fellow priests and bishops were generally very supportive of his ministry, which was open to all, but some thought his inclusion of Protestant leaders and laymen was a travesty.

This also happened in America, where churches and convents were under attack from nativist groups such as the “Know-Nothings”.

A few American leaders, who were entirely supportive of total abstinence, were perplexed and angered by Mathew’s refusal to be part of the abolitionist movement in America, and refused to partner with him.

Father Mathew visited several cities during his two-year tour of America, and Baltimore was among those locales who welcomed him. Though in declining health, he arrived in December, 1849 and took up a short residence with Father James Dolan of St. Patrick Catholic Church. Dolan was the chaplain of Baltimore’s Hibernian Society  at the time, and the society's leaders met with the priests for a short visit on December 14, bringing both Catholic and Protestant members. Other small gatherings were part of his short visit to Baltimore, and the Temperance Pledge was administered to all who desired it. He blessed those who came, and said “May God bless you, and grant you grace to keep the pledge. May God grant you peace and prosperity here, and eternal happiness hereafter”.

Among those at these gatherings were the 22 boys who made their home at the Male Orphan’s Farm in Govanstowne. These famine survivors were under the tutelage of Galway’s Brothers of St. Patrick, placed there by the kindness of Father Dolan and St. Patrick Catholic Church. Each took the pledge from Father Mathew.

The largest gathering was on Sunday, December 16th when Mass was held at St. Patrick’s, as a large congregation gathered.

The ministry of Rt. Rev. Theobald Mathew is immeasurable. He administered the Temperance Pledge to millions, and likely inspired many others towards moderation. Baltimore’s St. Patrick’s Day parades in earlier days had a considerable percentage of temperance marchers, and important Irish parishes in Baltimore were led by pastors who also had their own temperance societies. Even more significant is the many who survived the Great Hunger due to his work on the mean streets of Cork City. He is remembered there by a prominent statue (pictured).

Resources for this article include:

Baltimore Sun

Library of Congress

Rev. Michael J. Roach

Rogers, Patrick. Father Theobald Mathew: Apostle of Temperance. New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1945.

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