Cork City

Father Mathew Statue, Patrick Street

Father Mathew Statue, Patrick Street: This statue is a focal point in Cork City commemorating the apostle of temperance who lived from 1790 to 1856. The statue also served as the geographic hub of the electric tramway system in Cork from 1898 to 1931. Next to Daniel O’Connell, Fr. Theobald Mathew was perhaps the best known Irishman of his time: even today their statues share O’Connell Street, Dublin. He was born on 10th October 1790 the son of a noted Tipperary family, related to the Butlers, Dukes of Ormond; he was brought up at Thomastown Castle, where his father was Agent. Toby’s (as he was called) early education took place in the Market House in Thurles, at a school run by a Mr. Flynn and where he became a friend of a fellow pupil –Charles Bianconi – who was later to become famous as the pioneer of stage-coaching in Ireland. On the 4th February 1810 Theobald was received as a novice in the little friary of the Capuchins near Church St. Dublin and, as was then, and still is, customary in that order, he took a saint’s name, in his case Andrew, but he always signed himself Theobald Mathew as the Government’s strict regulations against religious order had not yet been officially revoked. Having completed his noviceship of preparation, Theobald was ordained on Holy Saturday, 17th April 1813, in St. Andrew’s Church, Townsend St. on the site of which there stood a convent of the Sisters of Mercy up to the late 1970s when there school was transferred nearby. A plaque on the wall of the deserted building gave details of the Ordination. His first post was at the friary in Kilkenny, which consisted of an old hay loft in what is now Friars St. It was said that they “brewed their own ale and baked their own bread”. After a misunderstanding, for which received an apology from the vicar capitular he was transferred to Cork, where his missionary field flourished from 1814 to 1838. In 1822 the Provincial of the Capuchin Order died and Fr. Mathew was elected to the post, which he held for over 29 years, until failing health forced him to resign.Fr. Mathew constantly worked with the poor but he was terribly unhappy that all the graveyards in Cork were under Protestant control, permission had to be sought by priests in order to officiate at Catholic burials. This permission was frequently only grudgingly given  and having personally witnessed an attempt by the Protestant Dean of Cork to prevent the Catholic Dean from officiating at an interment in St. Finbarr’s Churchyard, Fr. Mathew’s mind was made up to provide a burial ground of their own for Catholics. As a result of a well-supported subscription, the Botanic Gardens in Ballyphehane were leased and opened in February 1830 and designated as St. Joseph’s Cemetery. A portion was set aside for free burial of the poor, whose bodies previous to that were left in their open coffins outside their dwellings until sufficient money was collected for their internment. Fr. Mathew is mainly linked to the total abstinence society in Ireland. However that special campaign against the flagrant misuse of drink did not start with Fr. Mathew nor in Ireland nor even Europe but in America where temperance societies existed before the end of the 18th century. In 1817 the first total abstinence society in Ireland, and possibly in Europe was formed by Jeffry Sedwards, a nailer in Skibbereen, County Cork, but it was merely local among artisans and trades people of that town. A more impressive movement, claimed to have been the first Irish Temperance Society, against the use of spirits was founded in New Ross, County Wexford in 1829 by Rev. Whitmore Carr, Congregational Minister of that town of Wexford. The following month, the Ulster Temperance Society was established by Rev. Dr. Edgar who was encouraged by Carr’s action. These societies were, however, mostly confined to non-Catholics, and therefore had very little impact on the general evil of drunkenness. Three years later, in September 1832, a total abstinence campaign was launched in Lancashire, drunkenness being also widespread in England and Scotland.

A Dublin Total Abstinence Society was launched some years later, in 1836, and in October of that year a Great Temperance Banquet was held in the Rotunda, Dublin. There Judge Philip Cecil Crampton made an impressive speech in which he declared pledged moderation in drinking pattern to be ineffectual, arguing that total abstinence was the only course to lead to success. Influenced by this speech several workers in the cause in Cork united their efforts. Prominent among these was a James McKenna, an ex-soldier; also Rev. Colthurst Dunscombe and William Martin, a member of the Society of Friends. Meeting many setbacks Martin decided to recruit Fr. Mathew in the cause. As both he and Fr. Mathew were governors of the House of Industry (later the Cork Workhouse), Martin took advantage of each new tragic case of degradation which came before them to impress on the priest that it was the result of strong drink and how he could do so much against it. Fr. Mathew needed time to think it over as he wrestled with opposing thoughts. Should he join a movement which most people considered lunacy, as the social custom entailed the provision of strong drink as a necessary accompaniment of entertainment at every social, political and religious meetings including christenings and marriages, funerals, wakes and bargaining at fairs. Would his joining compromise his brother in Cashel Co. Tipperary and his    brother-in-law at Midleton Co.Cork., both proprietors of distilleries. Finally, when he decided to join he publicly renounced the personal taking of intoxicating drink, this happened on Tuesday 10th April 1838, the 25th anniversary of his ministry, he was aged 48 years and in a clear voice he uttered the famous words; “Here goes in the Name of God”, as he signed the register of the Cork Total Abstinence Society with ‘Revd. Theobald Mathew, O.C., Cove Street, No. 1.’

With Fr. Mathew at the head the movement quickly spread. In March 1841 he reached Galway where for the first time he met Daniel O’Connell the Liberator, who was deeply impressed by the influence the friar aroused and wondered if he could enlist such a power in the Repeal Campaign. This hope he never realised because Fr. Mathew would not mix politics with the Total Abstinence Movement. In the same year he met an old school friend of his- Charles Bianconi – now a wealthy businessman and he placed his public transport at the friar’s disposal. A

A grand procession of the Total Abstinence Society held in Cork on Easter Monday 1842 was attended by Daniel O’Connell as Lord Mayor of Cork. Again Fr. Mathew resisted O’Connell’s advances to join the Repeal Movement and the Liberator’s high opinion of the friar is summed up in his declaration that he was ‘the most useful man Ireland had ever produced’. In August 1842 Fr. Mathew visited Scotland where he was received with great enthusiasm, and in the summer of 1843 he visited England. 

In 1849 he extended his mission to America arriving on Staten Island on 1st July. The ships of all nations at anchor in the harbour hung out their ensigns in greeting and the cheering was deafening. He visited 25 states while in America in spite of being seriously ill. While in Washington he was elected to a seat in the Bar of the United States Senate, an honour only once before bestowed on a foreigner, that being the Marquis de Lafayette. Due to his health deteriorating rapidly he departed for Ireland on 8th November 1851 where on Sunday 6th December 1851 he arrived in Cork to be greeted by a number of well wishers including his brother Charles. When he stepped from the train there was a gasp of surprise from the crowd at the appearance of his grey hair, pale, drawn face and feeble gait. To weak to address the crowd he departed with Charles for Lehenagh. He was relieved of his duties as Provincial and he resigned his superiorship of the Presentation and Ursuline Convents. Increased suffering and the fear of burdening the household with his final illness made him insist on removing to Cobh Co. Cork, to a house run by a faithful follower, John Sullivan at 18, The Beach, on the sea front. One morning in November 1855 he went down with a stroke, which left him with only slight motion of the fingers. After he had been anointed his brother Charles, who was summoned from Lehenagh, asked, ‘Theobald, would you like to be buried with Frank and Tom in Tipperary?’ to which the dying man attempted to shake his head. ‘Is it in the cemetery?’, enquired Charles, meaning St. Joseph’s Cemetery, for which Fr. Mathew had been responsible; by a movement of the fingers assent was indicated. After several days of unconsciousness, ‘death came very peacefully on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Monday 8th December 1856, in the sixty-seventh year of his age, the forty-fourth of his priesthood and the fifteenth of his Apostolate’.

Thousands came to pay respect to his remains which were clothed in the Capuchin habit as it lay before the high altar in the Church of the Holy Trinity. His funeral procession took an hour and a half to pass through the closed-down shuttered city. The Bishop of Cork recited the prayers over his grave at St. Joseph’s cemetery and his body was then laid to rest under the large stone cross which the friar himself had erected twenty six years before.

A few weeks after his death an enormous meeting of Cork citizens was called, with the object of perpetuating his memory. The erection of a suitable statue in a prominent position was agreed on. The subsequent death of the selected sculptor, John Hogan, caused a delay until Foley’s fine image was unveiled on October 1864; there, in its prominent position, it welcomes the visitor to Cork.

The Madrai Trough: Across the road from the statue is a shoe shop named Zarep and under the window is a water trough for dogs with an Irish Language inscription “Madrai” (Irish for Dogs).The building has an interesting history. Back in the 1940s it was a restaurant known as The Milk Bar which was owned by Knolly Stokes and his wife Christine. In those days life was more leisurely. To accommodate ladies who brought their dogs with them to town, a rail was erected outside the restaurant to which leads could be attached while the owners partook of refreshments inside. Christine got the idea that dogs should be catered for as well, so her husband asked the famous sculptor Seamus Murphy to cut a limestone trough with the inscription “Madrai”. Christine made sure a fresh water supply for the customers’ dogs and I trust, for the stray madrai also. Although this sculpture is not in the same league as some of Murphy’s major works such as ‘Dreamline’ the bust of Michael Collins in Fitzgerald Park, the very beautiful statue of St. Gobnait in Reilig Gobnatan in Baile Bhuirne  County Cork and the quaint and lifelike ‘Onion Seller’ in Bishop Lucey Park, The story goes that some time before his death, when he was asked what his favourite work was, he smiled and he replied; The “Madrai in Patrick Street.” The trough is easy to miss but thanks to the National Monuments Committee of Comhairle Cathrach Chorcai, a few years ago it became subject to a preservation order, so it will remain a curious and unique attraction on Cork’s main shopping street for many years to come.

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