A recent screening of RTE’s ‘Operation Transformation’ (a programme described by some critics as ‘cringe-making’) attracted much adverse comment. It was alleged that a participant was publicly humiliated because she had not met the dietary conditions prescribed for her. Her excuse was that she had gone to the races, had more than a ‘few drinks’, which did nothing for her transformation.
While I had not seen the programme, I did listen to a radio discussion, in which the medical expert on the production, passionately defended her critical stance, because according to her, we Irish have a very dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. We all know the arguments. We celebrate everything, big events, small events, non-events, with booze. It is a component of poverty, ill health, crime, unhappiness. And then, the doctor said, there was the cost. We spend eight billion a year on alcohol, and at least two billion annually in dealing with its effects on our mental and physical health. Think, she said, what that ten billion could do in the provision of extra doctors and nurses and hospital beds. In the promotion of healthy living.
“Oh! what’s new?”, I asked myself. I had just laid aside my book so that I could listen to the radio discussion. And that book, coincidentally, had the title: ‘The Statue - Cork’s Monument to Father Mathew, The Apostle of Temperance’. The author is RTE’s Antoin O’Callaghan, a member of the ‘Nationwide’ team.
The publication marks the 150th anniversary of the erection of Cork’s best-known landmark, situated on the riverside opening to that most attractive of our Irish city streets - Patrick’s Street. The Statue (‘the statcha’) is the hub of the city. Buses start and finish their routes in its shadow. It is a meeting place for people, a dating locale for young boys and girls. It is a focal point easily located by strangers to the city. When, some years ago, the local authority proposed moving the statue to another site (to facilitate the flow of traffic), there was a public outcry. While the history of ‘The Statue’ occupies the major section of Antoin O’Callaghan’s book, the person commemorated in the bronze figure on top of the plinth defies relocation in early 19th century Irish history. Father Mathew was, indeed, a practical social reformer, a revolutionary and a very good man.
At a time when the government is considering reforms in the pricing of alcohol and a debate is taking place on the sponsorship of sporting events by the alcoholic drinks industry, the following quotation from Professor Dermot Keogh’s (Historian and Author) contribution to the O’Callaghan publication would appear to be particularly apposite.
“Fr Mathew today may be considered a witness from another era, a great man who has nothing to say to people today. Think again. His statue is a challenge to those who wish to hook young people on alcohol by making it attractive, sporty and likely to make one popular. It does none of those things. Think again”.
Theobald Mathew was born in October 1790 in Thomastown Castle demesne near Golden in County Tipperary. The Mathews were almost unique in the Ireland of their time, Catholic, land-owning, wealthy. His mother was Anne Whyte from Cappawhite and the Mathews were dispersed in adjoining Tipperary territory, Thurles, Borris, Rathcloheen. Antoin O’Callaghan tells the story of his journey from the lush lands of the Golden Vale to the fetid lanes of Cork city where he ministered as a priest in the Capuchin Order to a people living in appalling, over-crowded conditions and who were deprived of the most fundamental decencies of life. He learned Irish so as to understand them better. He founded schools to teach them to read and write and to give them some basic skills. One of his schools would be unimaginable in today’s world: an abandoned store house, 500 pupils, 200 older girls in the loft, 300 younger children in the store below. He bought a plot of land where Catholics could be buried (St. Joseph’s Cemetery) because they could not afford burial in the available cemeteries. He spent his inheritance (and some of his brother’s money) in feeding and clothing the poor and the destitute.
Although Father Mathew is known today as The Apostle of Temperance, in fact he had to be persuaded into the temperance movement by Protestant and Unitarian clergymen and by a Quaker businessman. They had identified that alcohol was a ‘disease of the poorer classes’. He already had more than enough work on hand, but convinced that poverty was reinforced by drink, he took to the crusade with his remarkable energy and dedication.
It was a crusade that eventually took him all over Ireland and to areas of Britain where congregations of Irish were living. His story is extraordinary and inspirational, and he eventually wore himself out. He died at the age of 67 in 1856. Perhaps, because of his education and the privileged class from which he came, Father Mathew seems to have been remarkably adept at avoiding entanglements with the politics of the time and with the undoubted coolness exhibited by some of the Catholic bishops to the Religious Orders.
The period of Irish history covered by this book has now become a source of study by our modern historians. The early 19th century, following the amelioration of some of the more punitive aspects of the Penal Laws in the last decades of the previous century, saw the emergence of educated, middle class Catholics, who contributed to a social and educational reformation. ‘The Statue - Cork’s Monument to Father Mathew, The Apostle of Temperance (Publisher Libraries Leabharlanna - Cork City Council) takes an honourable place in that study.