The 1932 Eucharistic Congress – an organisational triumph that saw an estimated million people assemble for Mass – was a demonstration that the Free State had become a Catholic state for a Catholic people, writes DIARMAID FERRITER.
LESS THAN 10 YEARS after the end of the Civil War, the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in June 1932 provided an opportunity for both church and State to emphasise what united the citizens of the Free State rather than their deep political divisions.
Seán Clancy, a Free State Army captain, was a member of the officer guard of honour for the open-air pontifical High Mass in the Phoenix Park during the congress. He recalled that after the ceremonies, the guard of honour attended a dinner with the new Fianna Fáil government, which had defeated Cumann na nGaedheal in the general election in February. The two groups, who had fought on opposite sides during the Civil War a decade earlier, felt uneasy in each other’s company until Éamon de Valera broke the tension by inviting the officer in charge to sit at his side during the meal.
One of the reasons the leader of the previous government, William T Cosgrave, had dissolved the Dáil at the end of January was to ensure there would be stability rather than uncertainty during the congress. For the new government, it provided an opportunity to emphasise its impeccable Catholic credentials and win over its critics in that regard. The strategy worked.
Paddy Little, the Fianna Fáil minister for posts and telegraphs, later recalled that the Vatican had been disturbed by the change of government but that the role it played during the congress ceremonies lessened those fears. De Valera, his ministerial colleague Seán T O’Kelly and Cosgrave were canopy bearers for Cardinal Lauri, the papal legate, who presided over the congress, and Cardinal MacRory, the archbishop of Armagh.
MacRory had supported the Treaty and had denounced and encouraged the excommunication of anti-Treaty republicans during the Civil War. Before the congress officially started, de Valera formally welcomed Lauri, and made pointed reference to “our people ever firm in their allegiance to our ancestral faith”. This further underlined the extent to which the congress provided public opportunities for the new government to repair damaged relations with the church.
Intended to deepen spiritual awareness through a greater understanding of the Eucharist, and organised to celebrate the 1,500th anniversary of the arrival of St Patrick to Ireland, this 31st congress was an emphatic public assertion of Irish Catholicism, but had a strong international dimension, with visitors from Europe, the US, Canada, India and Africa.
In 1979 Michael McInerney, a journalist at The Irish Times, recalled the congress and his participation as an altar steward. “My memory is a jumble of masses of people gazing at some wonderful spectacle performed by more lavishly arrayed religious personalities than ever I had seen before, and of numerous processions going through the streets. Another memory is of the tens of thousands of foreign visitors of every colour of skin and speaking in hundreds of strange languages. They had been carried to Dublin in great passenger liners from, it seemed, everywhere.”
Like many of his contemporaries, McInerney was greatly moved when the Irish tenor John McCormack sang Panis Angelicus at the Mass in the Phoenix Park, which was attended by an estimated million people: “Seldom can an artist have been blessed with such a magnificent audience and auditorium in any part of the world.”
The congress was regarded as an organisational triumph, and the crowds assembled were greater than any that gathered again in the country until the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979. The ceremonies in 1932 also included a procession from the Phoenix Park to O’Connell Bridge for the solemn benediction and papal blessing by Lauri, with all eyes fixed on the moving canopy in which Lauri knelt, holding the monstrance enshrining the blessed sacrament.
Before and during the congress there were many practical challenges to be surmounted in order to ensure its smooth running. While the Cumann na nGaedheal government that was in power when it was being organised accepted the principle of State involvement, it sought to avoid spending public money, which meant the church went to extraordinary lengths to fundraise from parishes, banks, businesses and individual members of the Catholic hierarchy.
But the new Fianna Fáil government seemed more willing to spend money on it; agreeing, for example, to a cavalry escort for the papal legate, and a special dress uniform, costing £2,000, was approved.
AS SPONSOR OF the congress, the archbishop of Dublin, Dr Edward Byrne, supervised its organisation, but committees of laymen and clerics carried out most of the work. A prominent lay Catholic, and secretary of the Catholic Truth Society, Frank O’Reilly, who had helped to organise the Catholic Emancipation celebrations in 1929, was appointed director of organisation by Byrne. But the entire Catholic hierarchy was involved in its planning; for an event of such magnitude it was deemed imperative that all dioceses, north and south, be involved.
Plants and baskets of flowers abounded, monuments were built and decorated, some houses were painted in congress blue and papal colours, tenements were given facelifts and an estimated 12 miles of bunting was strung through Dublin city centre. Searchlights illuminated the sky over Dublin, while state-of-the-art loudspeakers broadcast the religious services.
The piety and devotion on display were extraordinary and the exaltation of faith unprecedented, dwarfing the celebrations of 1929. In the speeches, declarations and articles to mark the occasion there was a strong focus on the experience of Catholics under the penal laws. By dramatically linking the great religious spectacle with the august resurrection of a nation, the congress was presented as a triumph of faith over historical persecution.
But there was also a carnival atmosphere; legislation was introduced to extend licensing hours and the sale of alcohol to bona fide residents of ships moored in Dublin Bay. There were treats and ice cream, and competition developed between villages and streets that aimed to construct the most elaborate shrines.
Political tensions were not completely forgotten, however. Fianna Fáil’s determination to snub the governor general (the king’s representative in the Free State), James McNeill, as part of its republican agenda to undermine the Treaty, meant that although he was a guest at the garden party in Blackrock hosted by Cardinal MacRory and attended by more than 20,000 people, he was not invited to the government’s own reception at St Patrick’s Hall in Dublin Castle. By the end of the year, McNeill had left his position, ground down by the government’s crude determination to humiliate him.
The congress also provided an opportunity for Catholics in Northern Ireland to ensure the celebrations had an all-Ireland dimension. An estimated 100,000 of them travelled south, and a Mass at Corrigan Park in Belfast attracted another 80,000 people. Open-air shrines appeared all over Belfast.
Lauri later travelled to Newry and drove to the cathedral through the decorated streets as children sang and waved papal flags. The Northern Ireland cabinet recorded that the congress had created “excitement amounting to frenzy . . . along the Border”. Loyalists in Belfast, Lurgan, Portadown and Lisburn attacked trains and buses that were bringing pilgrims to and from the event.
The congress seemed to indicate that the Free State was a Catholic State for a Catholic people. The combined ceremonies epitomised an approach to religion that was based on communal devotion, huge gatherings and a very public piety that was the hallmark of Irish Catholicism for much of the 20th century.
Security in a dangerous world: Religion and Ireland in 1932
The renowned English writer and Catholic convert GK Chesterton published his book Christendom in Ireland in the year the Eucharistic Congress was held. He had attended the congress and lauded the devotion and humour of Dublin's poor as they wholeheartedly embraced the event.
As Chesterton saw it, it was a demonstration of the democracy of Irish faith: "Instead of the main stream of colour flowing down the main streets of commerce and overflowing into the crooked and neglected slums, it was exactly the other way; it was the slums that were the springs."
But the encouragement of such devotion also served another purpose. The focus on communal devotion, conformity and obedience suited the church hierarchy, as it narrowed the ground available to those who wanted to promote radicalism or protest. At a time of international upheaval, the rise of communism and socialism and concern about the impact of the 1929 crash, religion was presented as providing security in a dangerous world.
In 1932, the Free State was suffering. Between 1926 and 1936, unemployment rose from 66,000 to 83,000. There was a much reduced rate of emigration: 7,000 people returned to the State in 1932, as there were few opportunities abroad, before emigration picked up again later in the decade.
There was also widespread rural and urban poverty. The census of 1926 had revealed that 800,000 people were living in overcrowded conditions. Ten years later, 43,000 families, amounting to 125,000 people, were living in one-roomed dwellings.
In 1932, the child and maternity welfare section of Dublin Corporation noted that large numbers of babies were dying unnecessarily in the first month of life due to lack of education about health, inadequate diet and the conditions in which expectant mothers were living. Although hygiene and public-health awareness were improving, the overall infant mortality rate of 7 per cent was high by European standards.
Rickets and anaemia were rife and tuberculosis was causing about 4,500 deaths a year. Outside the cities, where 61 per cent of the population lived, 36,000 farm labourers were still living in their employers' housing. There were 6,000 children in industrial schools.
The civil service, railways and breweries were big employers, but 50 per cent of the population had a weekly income of 20 shillings or less and spent eight shillings or less on food. A contemporary estimate was that a weekly income of 30 shillings was needed to keep a person. Spending 10 shillings on food would provide a diet "almost nutritionally adequate".
For wealthier people, life was very comfortable: some senior civil servants earned £1,500 a year, in contrast to casual labourers who, if they could find work at seven shillings a day, might earn about £100 annually.
On the plus side, social life was varied and quite vibrant. Radio listenership was on the rise, dance halls were popular and the Irish were committed cinemagoers and sports enthusiasts.
In 1932 the Irish Catholic Church was rigid and authoritarian in its governance, conversionist in its attitude to Protestants, Marian in its devotional emphasis and strongly focused on external religious practice rather than interior spirituality.
For those promoting a Catholic ethos at a time when only 7 per cent of the population of the Free State was Protestant, religion was deemed to be crucial in ensuring homogeneity and social solidarity and in diverting attention away from class differences.
The writer George Russell described the Catholic religion during this era as "the high culture of the average man, and especially of the poor". Devotional literature was omnipresent, containing many stark warnings about communism and Freemasonry, and Catholic sodalities and societies thrived, with membership providing a social outlet for women, in particular, who had few other means of social interaction.
Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin