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Matt the mitcher

30 November, 1999

“Matt the Mitcher” is the story of ‘Barney’ Matt Talbot, from his childhood in the Dublin of the 1860s to his death on Trinity Sunday, 7 June 1925. Set against the grinding poverty of tenement life, of a large family on a small income, it tells of Matt’s alcoholic father and his ever-patient and loving mother. Paula Murray takes the reader on the journey of Matt’s life, from his first days in O’Connell’s Christian Brothers’ School, to his final days in Rutland Street, by which time rumours of his holiness were beginning to spread. This is a story of ‘triumph over addiction’ as his canonisation prayer states, of a man emerging from slavery to self to the ‘glorious liberty of the children of God’. The author is an active member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association of the Sacred Heart, a writer and poet.

 pp 89. Veritas Publications. To purhcase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie


The sun was beaming down on the busy city as the young boy walked in silence through the streets.

He felt the warmth of its rays on the back of his neck as he headed westwards on his journey. Looking up, he could see the nest of clouds from which the sun had just emerged. It had been really warm all day.

He loved when it was warm. Then he could play outside in the sun with his friends: Gerry Murphy, or ‘Ginger’, as they called him on account of his red hair, and ‘Spike’, or Billy Keogh, whose hair stood up on end.

The August sunshine put him in a good mood, but it also reminded him of just how soon autumn and then winter would approach, and he would be stuck inside the one-bedroomed tenement with his mother and six brothers and sisters. But for now, all was well. He had food in his belly and no one to scold him.

The sun was getting hotter and hotter and he wiped away the beads of sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. His hands felt clammy and he wished he had a lighter shirt on. He thought it must be about three o’clock in the afternoon. All around him the city was alive and busy. As he crossed the street in the direction of the North Strand he narrowly missed the hooves of the two horses pulling a very fancy carriage.

`Out of the way!’ shouted the grumpy driver, and when the young boy looked back he could see a beautifully dressed woman in the carriage fanning herself.

Beside her, a serious looking gentleman with a top hat and beard looked thoughtfully through the window of the carriage.

For a brief moment, the boy felt a pang of jealousy. His parents didn’t own a carriage. Own a carriage? They had never even sat in one. They probably never would.

Suddenly feeling self-conscious, the boy looked at his own clothes. His shirt was dirty white, almost grey, from years of over-use. It had belonged to his older brother John before being given to Matt. His trousers were grey and too small now. His boots had two large holes where his big toes stuck out.

The sun was getting hotter. He walked in silence still, but faster. Then from the corner of his eye, he noticed a pub with a group of men outside. They were rough, gruff, labouring men with sharp voices and shabby clothes. They stood outside the entrance to the pub, chewing tobacco and spitting, waiting for the bar to open.

`By God, he’s a long time at his lunch today,’ one complained.

`You’d think we weren’t paying him,’ said another.

`And to think we’ve given him custom for all these years,’ said the first man. The boy couldn’t help but stare at the group.

‘What are you looking at?’ snarled the first man, ‘Off with you!’

The boy hurried past. He knew the men were unemployed – unskilled labourers who were idle as often as they worked. He also knew some of them were heavy drinkers, spending almost all of their money on drink while they had wives and children at home. He knew this. He knew all these things because it was like that in his own home. His father drank too much, and although Charlie Talbot had worked for a long time with the Port and Docks Board, he drank so much that the family remained poor.

All of these thoughts went through the boy’s mind as he turned off Sackville Street and down North Earl Street into Gardiner Street. He loved this street. It seemed to glisten in the sunshine. On either side of the street were the beautiful Georgian houses of the rich. They were freshly painted and the sheer size of them brought open-eyed wonder to the boy.

From some of the houses, well-dressed gentlemen and ladies came out and stepped into their waiting carriages. They would be going to the races or to a garden party or a tea party with their wealthy friends. They would not notice the solitary figure staring at them. They  would never think of him or of the many thousands of people like him in Dublin. They could never imagine the difference between their lives and his. They would not have had a childhood like his.

In the strong sun, the long dresses looked even brighter. The men, in top hats and tails, looked even more handsome. The carriages gleamed in the sunlight and from one of them the boy could hear loud voices and laughter.

The cobbled street echoed to the sound of horses’ hooves, polite conversation and posh accents. How the boy envied these people. Then he saw a boy about his own age about to step into a carriage. He was blond and dressed like a king. For a moment, their eyes met – it was the meeting of two different cultures, two different ways of life, two different worlds. The poor boy had seen enough and he moved on, turning from Gardiner Street and up towards the North Strand. This was his neighbourhood. He felt safe here. No one would stare at his clothes and make him feel small. No one would think badly of him, or look down on him. No. This was home, even if that meant poverty and deprivation. Here he could be himself. The wealthy people with their rich food and wine? Forget about them! He couldn’t wait for his bread and dripping!

He was turning into his own tenement before he realised it. His mother would welcome him and smile when he brought in the mended shoes from the shoemaker. He would have completed his errand and be able to sit down with the others. As second eldest, he often did these chores. He never had any money of his own, but he liked to make his mother smile. She didn’t have much to smile about.

As he opened the door to their room, he heard the clatter from his brothers and sisters, for all the world like the cackling of hens.

`Hello, Matt,’ his mother said, smiling, `you weren’t long. Was it busy in town today?’

‘Yes, mother,’ he replied. ‘I saw lots of interesting things, but I’m glad to be home.’