Eucharistic Congress, Dublin 1932 Rory O’Dwyer

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Eucharistic Congress, Dublin 1932
Rory O’Dwyer
The 31st International Eucharistic Congress, held in Dublin in 1932, is one of the most remarkable public events to have taken place in Ireland in the twentieth century. The congress generated a level of enthusiasm among Irish people which has few real parallels. With extremely favourable weather conditions prevailing in the run up to and during the event, the country was in festive mood and the congress left an unforgettable impression on all who witnessed it. The sheer scale of the event bore striking testimony to the pride in identity, both national and religious, which patently guided the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the congress. In this regard it has often been noted how the congress was one of those events in the early decades of Irish independence which manifested, in this case very dramatically, the Catholic nature of the new state.
Common perceptions of the Ireland of this time are of a dull and drab society – the word ‘joyless’ has been applied. However, the Congress emerges from the same period as surely the most colourful, vibrant and joyful mass public celebration in the history of this island. It was an event which elevated people on various levels, providing enrichment both spiritually and psychologically. If it was a temporary escape from very harsh economic realities on another level, particularly for the poor of Dublin (who were specially celebrated by the international media during the Congress), then it was a most welcome escape for all concerned. The Congress deserves close study as it was the greatest festival in Irish history but also, more importantly, because it was an event in which a whole culture (one which had an enormous influence on how so many people in Ireland lived their lives) was at its very apex. As Irish society has changed so much since the early 1930s, a study of the Congress can help to reveal much of the Ireland of that bygone and sometimes misunderstood era.
Although the congress holds a distinct place in Irish history, such events, if not on quite as large a scale, had been taking place in various parts of the world since the late nineteenth century. Defined as gatherings of ecclesiastics and laymen ‘for the purpose of celebrating and glorifying the Holy Eucharist and of seeking the best means to spread its knowledge and love throughout the world’ (Catholic Encyclopaedia 1910), international eucharistic congresses; held generally every two years in this period, were major demonstrations of global Catholicism which attracted considerable pageantry and attention. The Dublin Congress took place over five days (22-26 June) in a city decorated and beautified to an exceptional degree. Visiting journalists and commentators, including the well-known Catholic intellectual, G.K. Chesterton, were struck by the efforts of Dublin people, most especially the impoverished tenement dwellers, to embellish their native streets and laneways with bunting, festoons, banners, garlands, floral arrangements, grottos, shrines and various other forms of religious decoration.
As Dublin was chosen as the venue for the congress - ostensibly at least - to celebrate the 1500th anniversary of the beginning of St. Patrick’s Christianizing mission in Ireland, Early Christian Ireland was often a theme in the decoration. Versions of ecclesiastical artwork associated with that period featured prominently in the multifarious material published about the congress, for which there was a phenomenal demand. The great achievements of the early church fathers in ‘golden age’ Ireland were celebrated proudly. Replica Round Towers, for example, were erected in two city centre locations. With the many distinguished prelates from around the globe visiting Dublin for the congress, along with the international media interest, there was a sense that Ireland was on show to the world.

The congress also highlighted the remarkable number and status of Irish ecclesiastics serving both the Irish Diaspora and countless others in many different parts of the world. Among those who participated in the congress was the Waterford-born Archbishop of Sydney, Michael Kelly, who had sponsored an international eucharistic congress in his adopted city in 1928. Most Irish people would have been very much aware of other Irish ecclesiastics (Daniel Mannix, Patrick Clune, James Duhig etc.) who dominated the Catholic Church hierarchy in Australia at this time. Similarly, most of the dominant figures in the Catholic Church in the United States were either Irish-born or of immediate Irish descent. The Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Hayes, was one of those to have travelled over for the congress, as did the Archbishop of Boston, William O’Connell, together with numerous other notable Irish-American prelates. A significant number of Irish missionary priests and bishops serving in Africa and elsewhere also participated in the congress. Among the many non-Irish prelates visiting for the congress were the Catholic Primate of Poland, Cardinal Hlond, the Archbishop of Malines (Belgium), Cardinal Van Roey, and the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Verdier. Although these very notable figures attracted much attention, it appears that the more exotic-looking churchmen, such as those of the Eastern Rite (as opposed to the Latin Rite), with their elaborate vestments, ‘strange’ liturgical practices and typically large beards, most captured the imagination and interest of a thoroughly engaged Dublin public.

The visual manifestations of enthusiasm for the congress were matched by the very notable levels of religious observance in advance of and during the event. Thousands participated in retreats and special services to pray for the congress. Diocesan and parochial units participating in the congress were organized throughout Ireland by a Eucharistic Congress League. A ‘Crusade of Prayer’ was organized for the success of the congress, involving thousands of people. A tridium was held in all the churches of the archdiocese of Dublin in the run up to the congress. Amid spectacular lighting displays, and with the words Adoramus, Laudamus, Glorificamus, beamed into the night sky in gigantic ‘letters of light’, midnight Mass was held in all churches on the opening night of the congress, with many churches simply unable to accommodate all of those gathering for Mass. The greatest indicator of this religious fervour was the massive number of people who participated in the main congress events. The Men’s Mass, held in the ‘Fifteen Acres’ of the Phoenix Park on 23 June in front of a giant altar flanked by colonnades, was witnessed by a congregation of approximately 250,000 people. The Women’s Mass on 24 June was attended by some 200,000 women. The Children’s Mass on 25 June saw approximately 100,000 children gather in the Park. The main pontifical high Mass on 26 June was attended by an estimated one million people.
Although the congress included many highlights the most memorable must be the main Mass in the Phoenix Park which featured a live broadcast by Pope Pius XI from the Vatican. The broadcast was transmitted amidst considerable excitement via the most extensive P.A system ever used anywhere in the world; with loudspeakers located in the Park, along the city quays and in various city centre locations. Dublin became a virtual open air Cathedral as the Mass was broadcast to many throughout the city who, it was noted, could be seen giving all the necessary responses. Following the Credo, John McCormack sang the offertory motet, Panis Angelicus, to a captivated audience. McCormack, a Papal Count since 1928, was an internationally renowned tenor whose greatly valued and emotionally significant participation confirmed the collective desire for a professional approach to the congress and added to the sense of pride that so many people derived from the event. It was an unforgettable moment for all present.

Following the impacting motet, the consecration was heralded with a command in Irish to the attendant guard of officers to present arms, and, in a brilliantly orchestrated sequence, thirty-six glinting sword-blades were pointed to the altar. The total silence among the congregation was broken by six trumpeters who sounded a general salute. This was followed by the tolling of an ancient bell traditionally associated with St. Patrick (removed from the National Museum especially for the Mass). From the consecration to the communion the guard of honour continued with swords dramatically rendered in a highly impressive gesture of reverence. All sequences were performed exquisitely. The entire Mass was organized with great precision and detail. Some 20,000 stewards (all voluntary) and 4,000 Catholic Boy Scouts, all with detailed instructions and duties, offered their services for the occasion - as they had throughout the congress period. All of the parishes of Dublin, all of the dioceses of Ireland, all of the overseas pilgrims, were allocated special positions in the Park facing the altar. Large catering tents had been erected, information bureaus, first-aid stations, toilets, even a special water supply to the Park was established for the occasion.

After an interval of half an hour for refreshment, the Mass was followed by a procession of the Blessed Sacrament (a central part of every eucharistic congress), involving most of the enormous congregation, from the Park to the city centre. The logistical achievement here was truly extraordinary as the vast procession maintained perfect order moving down the city quays, with thousands dividing in carefully organised sections at Capel Street and Parliament Street (north and south sides of the River Liffey) to all eventually join together, in a truly remarkable scene, around O’Connell Bridge, where an altar had been especially erected for the service of benediction - traditionally marking the culmination of the eucharistic congresses. On this occasion benediction of the Blessed Sacrament was given by the visiting Papal Legate, the major guest of the state, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri – who had been a focal point for displays of devotion from his arrival in Ireland, amid memorable scenes of pomp and sheer exuberance, on 20 June.
Although the congress took place over five days, ‘the Congress period’ was legally designated as commencing on 18 June and ending on 1 July. An Act was written into the Irish Statue Book to extend over this period - The Eucharistic Congress (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1932. This Act introduced special traffic control regulations, special exemptions for hotels and restaurants in the Dublin area and numerous other special arrangements and provisions. All efforts were made to confront the short-term accommodation crisis caused by massive numbers of people travelling to Dublin for the Congress, most especially from other parts of Ireland. Large Camps were established in Cabra and Artane. Emergency accommodation was provided in numerous national school, town hall and even library buildings in the greater Dublin area. Catering centres were set up in key city centre locations. Mattresses were produced on a very large scale in advance of the congress to facilitate countless Dublin households to accommodate visiting relatives and, where possible, other congress pilgrims. For many of those who travelled from abroad (particularly from America) the liners in which they travelled served as ‘floating hotels’ during the congress. The numerous liners docked or moored in Alexandra Basin, Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and Scotman’s Bay excited the insatiable curiosity of Dublin people over the period and added to the sense of occasion – making a particularly beautiful sight when lit up on the warm summer nights.
Befitting any great congress, there was also an informative and intellectual side to the events. Public lectures, most particularly relating to the Eucharist and Ireland, took place, usually in front of packed audiences, in the Theatre Royal, the Savoy Theatre, the Mansion House and University College Dublin (UCD); then situated mainly in Earlsfort Terrace. UCD provided an ideal meeting place for the many sectional groups of congress pilgrims (groups from Portugal, Mexico, Uruguay, France, Malta, Poland, Holland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Spain, Italy, Lithuania, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, ‘the Oriental group’ etc.). These meetings included an address frequently focusing on Irish connections with the particular country – the work of Irish missionaries in that country etc. An exhibition in the college on Irish Catholic Education, presumably directed towards the visiting pilgrims, represented an emphatic demonstration of pride in Irish Catholic history. The old UCD building in St Stephen’s Green featured another very significant exhibition on Irish missionary work, intended to further stimulate public interest in mission work – especially in the work of contemporary Irish missions. Vast numbers of people visited the exhibition and given that the number of men and women who dedicated themselves to missionary work would increase substantially over the next couple of decades, it seems reasonable to speculate that this exhibition may have been an inspiration to many.
Shortly after the official congress events came to a close in Dublin the papal legate was conferred a Freeman of Dublin in a moving ceremony in the Mansion House. Cardinal Lauri’s cheerful countenance and pleasant manner had made a very positive impression. Some Irish clerics were already acquainted with him long before the congress. The Archbishop of Dublin, Edward Byrne, was one of those who studied under Cardinal Lauri when he lectured at the esteemed De Propaganda Fide (Propagation of the Faith) College in Rome many years previously. Lauri was a very distinguished ecclesiastic who, having served for many years as papal nuncio to Peru and then Poland, was raised to Cardinal in 1926 and became a special advisor to Pius XI before becoming the holy father’s ‘grand penitentiary’ in 1932.
During his final week in Ireland, the Cardinal Legate visited a number of Irish towns, where the welcome he received was just as jubilant as it had been in Dublin. On 28 June, he visited the Primate of All-Ireland, Cardinal Joseph MacRory at Armagh, where an address of welcome was presented to the legate on behalf of the Armagh Urban Council. In villages as well as in towns en route (overwhelmingly Catholic) throngs of people welcomed him. There were highly impressive scenes in Drogheda, Dundalk and Newry churches, where special welcomes were also given. On the following day the legate paid an informal visit to St. Patrick’s College Maynooth, where he was received by the president of the college and members of the college staff. On 30 June, the legate and his suite journeyed to Killarney by special train and enjoyed very enthusiastic receptions at Thurles, Mallow and Killarney. Following an address of welcome in Killarney, the legate was accompanied by the bishop of Kerry on a tour of some of the famous local beauty spots. As on so many other occasions, visiting journalists noted the beautiful decorations in the streets and local countryside.
On his departure from Ireland on 3 July, the legate wrote to the archbishop of Dublin: ‘I shall never forget the unforgettably glorious days of this Eucharistic Congress…all have participated, all have co-operated to make this congress a triumph, government and civic leaders, as well as ecclesiastical authorities, priests members of religious communities, men, women and children, have all united to make this Eucharistic Congress a plebiscite of love for the Blessed Eucharist, a plebiscite of devotion to the vicar of Christ.’
The Congress presents a very valuable snapshot of a period in modern Irish history when levels of Catholic devotion were at a remarkably high point. This was a time when it was extremely common for young men and women to join sodality or confraternity groups. The retreat movement was also very strong. The Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart had over 250,000 subscribers. The Catholic Truth Society of Ireland (with whom Frank O’Reilly worked) published many popular booklets and texts, as well as organising national pilgrimages, public lectures, study clubs, public lectures etc. The Central Catholic Library, apart from having an impressive collection of religious books, also organised various activities. Catholic imagery and icons were typically present in most households – statues of Our Lady of Lourdes, images of the Sacred Heart, pious medals, rosary beads etc. These religious objects along with the various Catholic organisations, provided a very strong cultural identity and Catholicism had long been a very significant component in the construction (or sense) of an Irish identity.
There was also a tradition of devotional cults to local figures of piety such as Matt Talbot and St. Charles of Mount Argus (only recently canonised). Organisations such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society (whose founder, Sir Joseph Glynn, was a chairman of one of the Congress sub-committees) and the Legion of Mary (founded in 1921) were increasing in strength and the Legion, in particular, benefited greatly from the Congress as it provided an excellent opportunity to establish international contacts. Many very distinguished prelates attended a reception at the Legion’s Regina Coeli Hostel and complimented the work done by Legion, while expressing their hope that branches of the Legion would be established in their native dioceses. With the expansion of various Catholic organisations in this period the ultimate effect was an increase in levels of devotion, however short-lived. The congress demonstrated that the Irish Free State was, to all intents and purposes, a Catholic state. There was a definite air of Catholic triumphalism about the congress, although the very deep-rooted historical circumstances, it was felt, provided ample justification for these celebrations. It should be stressed, however, that the general atmosphere during the congress must have further fostered a sense of exclusion or pronounced ‘separateness’ for at least some non-Catholics living in the state.
On a political level the Congress proved fortuitous for the recently elected Fianna Fáil minority government, in particular for the new president, Eamon de Valera. Excommunicated from the church due to his active support for the republican side during the Civil War in 1922 (a figure-head to some but not a military leader), the Congress provided de Valera with the opportunity to demonstrate his Catholic bona fides - very important given the overwhelmingly Catholic population of the state. Concerns about de Valera extended even to the Vatican at this time (due, in particular, to an Irish envoy who repeatedly presented a negative impression of him until his recent election victory). However, de Valera remained a devout Catholic throughout his life and even during the Civil War he continued to enjoy the friendship of a number of churchmen. In 1932 he was on very friendly terms with the young President of Blackrock College, Dr John Charles McQuaid (future Archbishop of Dublin), who hosted the great garden party to welcome the Papal Legate to Dublin. Photographs of de Valera at this event reveal him to have been in convivial form, comfortable exchanging greetings and pleasantries with the various prelates – many of whom he would have already met while on political tours of America, Britain and elsewhere. He made an impressive bi-lingual speech (speaking in Irish and Latin) during the state reception for the Papal legate in Dublin Castle on the following evening, and was very frequently photographed participating in the Congress. De Valera maintained a very high profile throughout and by the close of events there was no doubting his Catholic loyalties. This ultimately helped to consolidate de Valera’s remarkable political appeal, with his distinct blend of traditional Gaelic Catholic nationalism attracting many voters. Calling a snap election six months after the Congress de Valera’s party was extremely successful and, as a result, was able to form a majority government which would serve a full term and remain in office (in both majority and minority governments) until 1948.
De Valera also used the occasion of the Congress to deliver a serious snub to the representative of the British Crown in the Irish Free State (theoretically the chief executive officer of the state), the Governor-General, James MacNeill. De Valera had already declared his intention to terminate such links with the Crown which were written into the Free State Constitution in 1922. Shortly after assuming office in 1932 two of de Valera’s ministers (Frank Aiken and Sean T. O’Kelly), in a blatant affront, walked out of a function held by the French Legation in Dublin when MacNeill and his wife arrived. Although MacNeill had been very prominent in the Catholic Emancipation centenary celebrations in 1929 (hosted by a different government), in the run up to the Congress in 1932 de Valera expressed dismay at MacNeill’s stated intention of having several ‘distinguished European Catholics’ as guests during the Congress, with de Valera noting the embarrassment to the government. It was further stressed that the government would be unable to assist the Governor-General in inviting any other visitors. During the garden party at Blackrock College special measures were taken by Dr McQuaid (at the request of de Valera) to minimise, wherever possible, contact between himself and MacNeill.
Astonishingly, the Governor-General was not invited to the lavish state reception to welcome the Papal Legate in Dublin Castle. Given such treatment it was hardly surprising that the situation came to a head later in the year and, following a rather sensational protest over his treatment, MacNeill was forced to resign. He was soon afterwards replaced by a personal choice of de Valera himself, Domhnall Ó Buachalla, who would fully comply with de Valera’s wish to dramatically lower the profile of the Governor-General, until the position was terminated altogether following the Constitution Amendment Act in 1936.
As regards old civil war animosities the Congress undoubtedly aided the process of healing. De Valera and W.T. Cosgrave stood across from one another as canopy bearers during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament. After the ceremonies the Guard of Honour attended a dinner with the new Fianna Fáil government - two groups who had fought on opposite sides during the civil war. There was understandably some tension at first, but Eamon de Valera’s gesture of inviting the officer in charge to sit at his side during the meal seemed to quickly change the atmosphere. The sense of common purpose and identity became foremost on the occasion.
In terms of a broader significance the Congress highlighted a fundamental difference between the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, where some Catholics travelling to the Congress were attacked by loyalist mobs. Congress flags in Catholic areas were often torn down, damaged or destroyed. In some cases deliberately provocative banners, intended to insult Catholics and the Congress, were displayed on streets. An unpleasant situation which arose in the village of Donemana, Co Tyrone, illustrates how Northern Ireland in this period could be, to say the least, a ‘cold house’ for Catholics. An Orange service was planned to take place in Donemana on 26 June (the penultimate day of the Congress in Dublin), and was attended by over three hundred who had come from all over the surrounding district and who planned to march through the village after the service. Part of the route from the Church through the village was lined by Congress flags. The Orange brethren made it known in advance to the local District Inspector that they refused to pass under such decorations while also refusing to take any other route from the church. The District Inspector requested the flags and arches on the particular road should be taken down. Some Catholics objected to this. As the service in the church proceeded a large group of Catholics began to gather in the village. The District Inspector called in reinforcements. On leaving the church the Orange brethren were informed that a hostile crowd had gathered in the village but they expressed their determination to march along the street. As they made their way along the road a mêlée broke out with bottles being thrown and several shots fired. Although the police managed to restore peace wild scenes were witnessed later in the day with many of the Congress decorations in the town being torn down with a large crowd of loyalists gathering afterwards to sing ‘God save the King’.
Some of the worst scenes were witnessed as Congress pilgrims from the North returned home. Although the bishop of Down and Connor, Rev. Dr Mageean (who participated prominently in the Congress) and the Nationalist MP Joseph Devlin (selected as one of the distinguished canopy bearers during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament) sent messages to the Minister of Home Affairs, Sir Dawson Bates, demanding adequate protection for the returning pilgrims, that message was not sufficiently heeded. It was estimated that approximately five hundred loyalists gathered outside the central train station in Belfast, many with bottles and other missiles to attack the pilgrims. In Larne those returning on the ferry from Dublin were attacked. Groups of stone-throwers had already attacked the same passengers as they embarked for Dublin a few days previously when about a dozen pilgrims, most of whom were women, were injured either by stones or broken glass. At Ballymena buses were attacked and windows smashed. Similar scenes took place in Coleraine and many other towns and villages in the North. Two weeks later main streets in most Northern towns were profusely decorated with loyalist symbols for the Twelfth of July celebrations. There was no record any of damage to these decorations.
The charge that the Eucharistic Congress being such a vibrant Catholic celebration in Dublin, so thoroughly embraced at every level in the Free State, could only serve to further consolidate the partition of Ireland, is undeniable. However, it should be stressed, opposition to a united Ireland was a long-held bedrock political stance among Protestant unionists in Northern Ireland and, in a psychological and very real sense, partition was firmly entrenched at this stage. In that regard the Congress did not offer any threat, only further confirmation, if needed, of existing beliefs. It has even been suggested that the unionist political elite quietly admired the Congress [Although no Unionist MP from the North attended, all Northern Ireland MPs were invited to the Congress. Frank O’Reilly had actually grown up in the Falls Road area of Belfast]. Media coverage from Belfast was overwhelmingly favourable and extensive. The pomp and the ceremony involved in welcoming the Papal Legate in the south was akin to a royal visit elsewhere. No visit of any British monarch to Belfast had yet been carried off with such élan and lessons could be learnt from the planning and organization of the Congress. However, in truth, the only subsequent ‘royal’ visit to Ireland to compare in scale and popular enthusiasm with that of the was the visit of a Polish ecclesiastic in 1979, who had recently been elected Sovereign Pontiff (head of the Holy Roman Apostolic See) and titled, Pope John Paul II.
The Pope’s visit in 1979, very interesting though it was in many respects, did not see a return to the same depth of religious feeling that had been witnessed in 1932. Levels of religious devotion and practice in Ireland had declined markedly since the 1930s. There would be no mighty Crusade of Prayer in preparation for the Pope’s arrival. Although great crowds gathered in 1979 there was not the same sense of a nation (albeit the Catholic nation) proudly on show to the world. There was not the same virtual absence of cynicism. There could not be the same post-Civil War healing value. There was not the same fervent desire to send out a vibrant positive message to an international audience. There was not the same sense of a nation at prayer. The Congress in 1932 saw the most remarkable fusion of state, nation and religion. Even if it may not have necessarily been ‘the greatest moment in the religious history of Ireland’ as many journalists and some members of the clergy proclaimed during the event, it was certainly the greatest festival in Irish history.

Further reading:

31st International Eucharistic Congress, Dublin 1932: A Pictorial Record (Dublin, 1932)

J.P. McCarthy, 31st International Eucharistic Congress, Dublin 1932 (

D. Keogh, Ireland and the Vatican (Cork, 1998)

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