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Rooting for Matt

Matt TalbotBarney McGuckian recounts his valiant but failed attempt to convince ‘Gerry Ryan Show’ listeners to vote for Matt Talbot as Ireland’s favourite saint.


Late in October, Evelyn from the Gerry Ryan Radio Show phoned. “We are looking for Ireland’s favourite saint. Will you “root” for Matt Talbot?”

I was game for anything if it promoted Matt’s cause. “The Saint in over-alls”, as the Americans used to call Matt, just about qualified for the contest as he had been declared Venerable thirty years earlier on October 3rd, 1975. He was really up against it. All other nine contenders were long-established “biggies” like Saints Anthony of Padua, Therese of Lisieux or Gerard Majella. Supporting Matt in this league was like being up for Cobh Ramblers against Real Madrid. The odds were pretty long, to say the least. In any case I gave it my best shot. Sadly it wasn’t good enough. Poor Matt was dumped “out of the basilica”, as Gerry put it, in the early stages.

I just couldn’t convince the listeners that as the only 20th century Irish person in the line-up he should have got all the Irish first preferences. If they had been sports at all they would all have got behind the little under-dog who picked himself out of an alcoholic gutter. He was only in school for a few short years. Even after that the only recorded comment about him in his life-time was an entry in the roll-book, “Mitcher”.

None of the listeners took my point that to ignore him in his country of origin was liable to have a devastating effect on the more than 40,000 members of the Matt Talbot Association in the U.S. He is their inspiration in their struggle for sobriety. Nor did the fact that May 22, 2006 will be his 150th birthday, another compelling reason for honouring him, cut any ice at all. And you would think that none of them had ever crossed the Liffey on his bridge. Was I the only one who took seriously the uniqueness of Matt Talbot Bridge in Dublin. It is the only public monument of any kind in the world named after an “ordinary” working man who, in his life time was never known as anything else. Matt wasn’t a worker who eventually became a boss, trade union official, clergyman, politician, peer, millionaire, writer or any of the other escape routes from ordinary anonymity. All these points must be taken seriously in next year’s poll.

A role model for all of us Matt had no identity crisis. He was his own person. This was evident in his remark about his employer. “T.C. Martin may be my boss. He is not my Master”. Once Matt broke with the mastery of drink he was only to have one Master. It was appropriate that he should die on Trinity Sunday, 80 years ago this year, after a life of such wholehearted and secret service of his Master and ours.

For the record St Anthony of Padua emerged as winner. With regard to him, take a word of warning when next in Portugal. Don’t say “of Padua” but “of Lisbon”. The Portuguese will remind you in no uncertain terms that he is no more Italian than yourself or myself.