Father Theobald Mathew, the Apostle of Temperance, was born near Cashel in 1790. Ordained a Capuchin priest in 1814, he served for most of his life in Cork. While in Cork, he became one of the most influential figures in the social life of the city in the first half of the nineteenth century, and attained national importance during the temperance crusade of the late 1830s and 1840s. Apart from his role in the temperance movement, he was known and loved in Cork for his efforts to alleviate distress during the cholera epidemic of 1832 and during the Great Famine from 1845 to1850. He was also responsible for the purchase of the botanic gardens in Ballyphehane and the establishment of St Joseph's cemetery on that site.
Dogged by ill health in his declining years, he suffered a stroke in 1852 which curtailed his activities. He died in Cobh on 8 December 1856 following another stroke.
Following his death a proposal to erect a monument in his honour was enthusiastically received by citizens of every class and denomination, reflecting the respect and affection he had inspired during his lifetime. The renowned sculptor John Hogan was chosen to design the monument. Hogan died before he could execute his design and the commission was given to John Foley, R.A., another noted sculptor of the time whose later works would include a monument to Britain's Prince Albert in Hyde Park and the O'Connell monument in Dublin.
The Father Mathew statue was cast in London in the foundry of Mr Prince, Union Street, Southwark. It was placed on a stone pedestal designed by W. Atkins of Cork. The unveiling of the statue took place on 10 October 1864 amid scenes of great rejoicing. 'The Statue' has held a special place in the affections of Corkonians ever since — as demonstrated during 2000 when a proposal to move the statue to a new site near Winthrop Street was abandoned following protests from the people of Cork.
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