The 31st International Eucharistic Congress, Dublin, 1932

Contributors: TOR.

1. Introduction

Roman Catholic Eucharistic Congresses are gatherings of ecclesiastics and laymen for the purpose of celebrating the Holy Eucharist. The first Eucharistic Congress was held in 1881 under Pope Leo XIII. Forty eight congresses have been organised by the Papal Committee for Eucharistic Congresses to increase devotion to the Eucharist as a part of the practice of faith, and as a public witness of faith to society at large. In addition to periodic Vatican-sponsored International Eucharistic Congresses, Catholic organisations are encouraged by the Church to hold national events when possible.

The 31st International Eucharistic Congress was held in Dublin, 21-26 June, 1932. It was the premier international Catholic event. The 1932 Congress was hugely significant in terms of asserting the identity of the Irish Free State as a leading Catholic nation. It was the largest public spectacle in twentieth-century Ireland. There was even an act passed by the Government specifically for the event. It was called the Eucharistic Congress (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1932.

Congresses were often linked with anniversaries or other events special to Christians and in particular to Catholics of the country in which they took place. The 30th Congress which took place in Carthage, Tunis, was to commemorate the 1500th anniversary of the death of St. Augustine. The 31st Congress in Dublin commemorated the death of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

The events surrounding the 31st Eucharistic Congress were a milestone not just in the decade that it took place but in the life of the infant Irish State. Though the Congress itself was formally finished in less than a week, to many of those who participated in the event, it remained a touchstone in their entire lives. The month of June in 1932 saw the new Irish State mobilise its meagre resources in order to meet the challenge posed by this show case for global Catholicism. From the much fêted arrival of the special Papal Legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri at Dún Laoghaire Harbour at the beginning of Congress Week to the incredible scenes of devotion that marked the Papal Mass in the Phoenix Park six days later, few efforts were spared by the Irish Government. The event itself, which culminated with a live papal broadcast from Rome on Sunday 26 June to the Irish people, was universally considered to be an outstanding success. The Irish State had successfully entertained literally thousands of churchmen who came to Dublin from every corner of the globe.

The varied material culture of the Congress is highly significant, including a number of large temporary structures erected for it—elaborate shrines created mainly in tenement areas of the city, and many souvenir objects. The event saw the use of cutting-edge technology, such as spectacular lighting effects, skywriting, and the largest personal-address (PA) system in the world. The scale of the International Congresses and the design of the crowd, have often been likened to European fascist spectacles of the 1930s, such as the Nuremburg rallies.

A large amount of archival material exists relating to the organisation of the 1932 Congress. This is very revealing in that it shows the efforts of both the Church and State to present Ireland as being at the centre of a spiritual empire, presented as a morally superior counterweight to the British Empire. Many objects relating to the Congress also survive, including souvenirs, the original architects’ plans, radio recordings, documentary photographs, newsreels and a documentary film.

A high power station was established in Athlone in 1932 to coincide with the staging of the Eucharistic Congress. 2RN, 6CK and Athlone became known as “Radio Athlone” or “Raidio Áth Luain”. Radio Athlone became known as “Radio Éireann” in 1938. Radio Éireann and Telefís Éireann were both renamed Radio Telefís Éireann (RTE) in 1966. 2RN covered the World Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932 using the new high-powered 60kw transmitter (later increased to 100 kw) installed at Athlone. Irish listeners heard the voice of John McCormack singing at High Mass. The event was also relayed by the BBC and several national stations in continental Europe. This was the largest event broadcast in the early years of Irish radio. By this time over 30,000 licences had been issued in the Irish Free State.

Political historians have studied the relationship between the Irish political class and the authorities of the Catholic Church in Rome. Certain strands in 20th century Irish political history have argued that successive Irish governments have loyally followed the wishes of the Catholic Church across a variety of matters, up to and including the content of legislation in parliament. Many commentators have argued that 1930’s Ireland was less a republican democracy than a clerically dominated theocracy. Examination of the relationship between Church and State in independent Ireland has come naturally to focus on the Eucharistic Congress, given the demonstrably close relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and the two governments who organised this event, i.e. the Cosgrave and de Valera administrations.

The Eucharistic Congress gave Catholic intellectuals and scholars an unparalleled opportunity to voice their opinions on a variety of matters. The fact that the vast majority of the Irish political and economic elite of this time were devout Catholics helped give many political projects a distinctly Catholic edge. The events of the Congress ensured that the Irish State would be defined in large part according to the religious loyalties of the vast majority of its citizens. The Constitution of the Irish Free State (as stipulated by the 1921 Treaty) expressly forbid the new Irish Government from giving precedence to any one faith over the other, particularly as regards legislation. The Eucharistic Congress can be seen as an important mark on the road that would lead to the new Irish Constitution, as enacted by the people in 1937. Echoing the sentiments of the hundreds of bishops who thronged Irish churches during this event, that document sought to make Catholic social and political thought the very basis of all legislative action in the state.

2. The ‘city of lights’

The arrival of the Pope’s special representative, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri, at Dún Laoghaire Harbour on Monday, 20 June 1932, was preceded by elaborate organisation on the part of all sections of the Irish State. City and county corporations, parish councils, state subsidiaries, senior members of the Civil Service and the Executive Council itself waited eagerly for Lauri’s arrival by steamer from Holyhead, en route from Paris and London. There was widespread recognition by the Government of the day that for 6 days Ireland and particularly the city of Dublin would be the very capital of the Catholic world. No effort or expense was to be spared in the country’s efforts to impress the Pope’s personal emissary and if possible organise a Congress of even greater distinction than that held in Chicago a generation previous.

The outgoing President of the Executive Council of the Irish Free State, W. T. Cosgrave attached great importance to the preparations. The defeat of his government in the Spring of 1932 brought with it a dramatic change in the Irish political situation. The religious devotion of his successor as President of the ministry ensured a basic continuity in approach to relations with Rome. Though Eamon de Valera had been officially excommunicated from the Catholic Church as a result of his support for the Republican side in the Civil War of a decade previous, he remained determined to display his religious loyalty to his local and international audience. In this, historians agree that he succeeded. He took a high profile part in the main events of the Eucharistic Congress, greeting the Papal Legate in person, speaking at some length on behalf of the Government and State at various formal functions and attending all of the major masses held in the course of the week.

Lorenzo Lauri was a cleric of great national and international distinction. The Pope’s selection of such a senior figure clearly showed the high hopes that he had for a successful event. Lauri was born in Rome in 1864 and received his education there. He attended the Pontifical Roman Seminary and was ordained as a priest in 1887. He subsequently became a faculty member of the Seminary and also at the Pontifical Urbanium Anthenaeum “De Propaganda Fide” [Propagation of the Faith] from 1887 until 1910. He served for 15 years as Official of the Vicariate of Rome until 1910. He was made Canon of S. Lorenzo, his first promotion of many, at the turn of the new century in 1901. After acting as Substitute of Regent of Sacred Apostolic Seminary and well as fulfilling his duties as a Domestic Prelate in 1910, Lauri moved to South America. He was elected titular Archbishop of Efeso and appointed internuncio in Peru in 1917. His consecration as a bishop took place in Rome at the same time and he returned to his work in Peru as the Pope’s chief advisor there until full diplomatic relations between the Papacy and Peru were established in 1921. Lauri was created a cardinal priest in 1926 and received his red hat and title of St. Pancrazio in the summer of 1927. After his service as Papal Legate in Dublin in 1932, he was allowed participate in the conclave of 1939 and shortly afterwards was named Camerlengo [cardinal who manages the pope’s secular affairs] of the Holy Roman Church. He died in 1941 after a very successful career and was buried at the Campo Verano Cemetry in his native Rome. It is difficult to imagine him ever receiving a welcome comparable to that which greeted him in Dublin amidst glorious sunshine in June, 1932. He was also honoured with the Freedom of Dublin City during his visit.

The city of Dublin underwent a dramatic makeover for the purposes of the unusual international publicity which came with the Congress. The Government arranged for all the major buildings in the city to be lit up at night by a series of powerful spotlights and coloured lamps. The General Post Office, the Central Bank, Trinity College, Government Buildings and O’ Connell Bridge amongst other key areas were illuminated in a major feat of technological prowess during the course of the Congress week. Resident associations and authorities at the city and ward level ensured that every major street in the capital would be decorated with fresh, natural flowers, bunting of various sorts and the distinctive flags that would bear the papal colours of yellow and white. Commentators were quick to point out that even the poorest tenement areas in the city made sure that their areas got their fair share of decoration in the hope of attracting the attention of some passing religious or political dignitary. Pictures and photographs from this time show that great effort and planning had gone into the transformation of normally sedate Georgian streets into multicoloured, celebratory thoroughfares that would be fit for an occasion of such outstanding significance in the life of the city.

3. The arrival of the faithful

Dublin saw the arrival of thousands of religious figures in the days and weeks prior to the official opening of the Eucharistic Congress, an event that was marked with addresses by the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Byrne, Cardinal Lauri and the Bishop of Namur. Ireland played host to literally hundreds of the Catholic Church’s most distinguished figures, figures described by the press of the time as ‘princes of the Church.’ Bishops and Cardinals from as far a field as China, Australia, Serbia, Africa and the United States enjoyed the hospitality of the Irish State in the form of the state receptions organised by the Government at Dublin Castle or the massive garden party that took place in the grounds of Blackrock College early in the week. This last event took place on a warm day under a clear blue sky and boasted a guest list of not less than 20,000 people. Though the primary events in the course of the Congress week were undoubtedly the special masses devoted to the Exposition of the Most Blessed Eucharist in churches around the country, those that travelled by special train to Dublin enjoyed the undoubted social side of the festivities. Religious adoration and social intercourse of various types had historically gone hand in hand in Ireland since the 18th century. Devotional activities brought families and communities together in a way that other events singularly failed to do. The Bishops must surely have been relieved that the Congress did not degenerate into the drunkenness and faction fighting that often marked popular devotional activities particularly in the 19th century. Catholicism had always presented itself as a creed that took a great interest in the nature of society as a whole, and as a system of values that could appeal to the individual as a member of a community bigger than him/herself. As such, in Ireland in particular, important dates in the Catholic calendar had as much a social element as they did a doctrinal one.

The mass exodus from rural Ireland to Dublin during the Congress week helped to powerfully reinforce a sense of national and of course religious fraternity, helping to confirm the Irish identity as a primarily Catholic and national phenomenon. Scholars have also pointed out the extent to which the massive participation by the ‘cosmhuintir’ [the common people] in the Congress helped close many of the wounds created by the Civil War of barely a decade previous to this event. Eamon de Valera’s government allowed all sections of the people attend the Congress events, including prominent members of the previous administration.

The Garda Siochána and the Irish Army performed their duties without demur, duties determined by a government whose ministers had taken up arms against these very organisations within living memory. As was the case with gaelic games in the countryside, so too did Ireland’s overwhelming Catholic faith help bind up the wounds of a bitter conflict. The Army loyally provided escorts and elaborate salutes on various occasions during the Congress and even joined de Valera’s ministers in a social drink after the culmination of the week’s events in the Phoenix Park on 26 June.

4. Events and sequence

Cardinal Lauri became the focal point for a vast outpouring of popular devotion in the course of his week’s stewardship of the Eucharistic Congress. His boat had docked on 20 June in Dublin under the cover of a squadron of planes from the Irish Air Corps flying in the formation of the crucifix. He was greeted by massive crowds as he made his way through the streets of Dublin and into the Pro Cathedral. He rode between two rows of young school children—36,000 in all— through almost nine miles of decorated crowded streets. Dublin had not witnessed such scenes since the funeral of Michael Collins in August 1922. He was greeted formally by a trilingual President de Valera at an official opening ceremony of the Congress at Dublin Castle on 21st June. The Papal Legate thrilled the assorted dignitaries and vast crowds who waited on his every word and deed when he announced that he had brought a special message from Pope Pius XI himself, addressed to the Irish people. Cardinal Lauri assured his audience that the Holy Father had charged him to:

“go to Ireland in my name and say to the good people assembled there that the Holy Father loves Ireland and sends to Ireland and its inhibitors and visitors not the usual Apostolic blessing but a very special all embracing one.”

His speech came in reply to de Valera’s assurance of Ireland’s unceasing devotion to the teachings of the Catholic Church and his own determination to do everything in his power to strengthen the bonds that existed between Ireland and the Holy See. This formal exchange set the tone for the rest of the official proceedings of the Eucharistic Congress. Events began in a formal eccelesiastical sense on the 22 June when after a brief rendezvous at Scoil Eanna, (Patrick Pearse’s famous Gaelscoil at Rathfarnam) the Papal Legate and his assorted entourage assembled on the High Altar at the Pro Cathedral in Dublin’s Marlborough Street at 2.30pm. With a full house, they proceeded to celebrate one of many memorable masses.

Clergy and the faithful in the country at large sought to mirror in so far as they could the activities of their fellow worshippers in Dublin. The Eucharistic Congress held a number of special masses over the course of the holy week, most notably open air Benediction and processions through the streets during which the Host would be held aloft. Special masses were offered for the children and the women of Ireland. Attendance at the local level was just as impressive and consistent as it was in Dublin. Thousands thronged open altars erected specially for the purpose in provincial centres across the country. Processions devoted to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament were common at this time, attracting up to 10,000 alone in Sligo and 8,000 at Carrick-on-Shannon at various times. Members of the local councils took great pride in the proceedings with various Mayors attending in full scarlet robes. The tone was perhaps set by the Lord Mayor of Cork prior to the Papal Legate’s official arrival, when amid remarkable scenes involving representatives of the various civic bodies, gardai and members of the armed forces, he welcomed the Italian liner ‘Saturnia’ and its American passengers at Cobh Harbour.

5. ‘Panis Angelicus’

The high point of the Eucharistic Congress came on the final Sunday of the week’s festivities in the form of a massive open air mass in the Phoenix Park. Elaborate decorations and constructions had transformed the large park that contained the old Vice Regal Lodge ( now Áras an Uachtaráin) into a meeting place of great elegance. An ornate High Altar flanked with choirs and bands from all over the Catholic world was the main focus of attention. The Papal Legate, his many assistants and the most distinguished members from the Catholic Church in Ireland and around the globe were about to pay homage to the Blessed Eucharist in one of the biggest displays of Catholic piety in this or any previous century. The largest PA system then in existence was put in place so that the faithful might catch every word of the Latin Mass that would make history as surely as it would define a generation of Irish Catholics. The sound technology was also used to ensure that the tones of Ireland’s international tenor and Papal Count John Mc Cormack might reach every ear in the country. Mc Cormack’s haunting rendition of Panis Angelicus (Bread of the Angels) would never be forgotten by those who heard it either in person or on the radio. His stature both in Ireland and around the world was immensely increased by his performance at the seminal moment in the 31st Eucharistic Congress, whilst his professionalism gave Irish people a renewed sense of pride in the excellence of their performance during the whole week. Newspapers and contemporaries estimated that close to a million souls had converged on the Phoenix Park for the climax of the Congress, some aboard a series of special trains that had been specifically laid on for that purpose. Saturday 26 June saw some 100,000 pilgrims come to an open air Mass in the same vicinity and commentators could be forgiven for thinking that this might have been a total that could not reasonably have been topped. Sunday’s display of devotion was without precedent and as such the Irish Press’ claim that the whole nation had been represented was not without foundation.

The Pontifical High Mass at the Phoenix Park had been distinguished by one feature that all the other events, regardless of their own remarkable nature, could not boast of. Modern technology had allowed the Pope himself to communicate with the million communicants in Dublin through the PA system. Speaking from his private library in the Vatican in distant Rome, Pope Pius remarked on the extraordinary success of the Congress, on the exceptional piety displayed by almost every section of Irish society and on the unique intimacy enjoyed by the Dublin and the Papacy. He argued that this intimacy was one born out of shared regard for the Immolated Christ, one forged in times of common persecution and one that was now triumphantly proclaimed before the entire world. Few spectacles compared to these scenes, scenes whose most glaring characteristic, according to one Irish Press reporter, were the panoply of colours on display:

“It is 12.30. The Bishops are assembling, their purple shining through the green of the trees. They march in hundreds, slowly, pensively, the Bishops of the world, in white and black and red, in cream and gold and brown. They file through the three thousand priests like a coloured thread being drawn through white silk. Then up the crimson carpet, turning right and left to the colonnades of the altar, and there they sit and seen from afar through the white pillars, each group looking like Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper.”

The Eucharistic Congress thus came to a close after the Consecration of the Host, at which point the Papal Legate threw himself before the main table of the constructed Altar, vacating his Throne in the most dramatic manner possible. The personal message of support, pride and gratitude from the Pope, considered by all members of the Catholic faith to be St Peter’s successor and Christ’s Vicar on Earth, brought the historic proceedings to a triumphant close.

6. Significance of the Congress

The Eucharistic Congress is historically significant for many reasons. It can be understood from a variety of vantage points. Politically speaking, the Congress Week is remarkable for the harmonious relationship that was in evidence between all sections of the Irish political establishment and the Catholic Church. The leaders of the state sought to define their politics in clearly Catholic terms. Historians have debated the nature of this phenomenon, with some arguing that the Church had a huge influence over politics in independent Ireland, some even go so far as to declare the state a confessional one. Others have argued that, given the overwhelmingly Catholic nature of Irish society at this time, the state was always bound to accord respect to the clergy in all matters in which they took an interest. They deny the charge though that the state saw itself in sectarian terms, pointing to the liberal clauses in the Free State Constitution and even more importantly Article 44 of the 1937 Constitution which gave explicit protection to all the minority faiths in the state. Some of the most important politicians and civil servants in pre war Ireland, while devout Catholics personally, saw the dangers in a democratic state submitting in toto to the dictates of organised religion.

The event coincided with a time of great confidence in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. The early part of the 20th century witnessed a growth in Catholic activity in a variety of spheres all over the world. The 18th century had been a difficult one for the Church, given the Enlightenment stress on secular thought not to mention the bloody excesses of the French Revolution. The 19th century saw a massive reorganisation at all levels of the Catholic Church and the gradual formulation of a series of distinctly Catholic ideas and programmes. Late 19th and early 20th century Europe, and Ireland is no exception, saw the emergence of many formidable Catholic intellectuals who relied on the principles of their faith to guide them in the search for a safer, fairer and happier society. Cardinal Lauri’s concern for the Dublin poor, as expressed in his comments during the Congress Week, show the extent to which Catholic thinkers were as concerned with the quality of life on Earth as they were with its quality beyond St. Peter’s gates.

Historians have seen more than self confidence in the proceedings of the Congress in Ireland. Some have come to see the activities and sentiments of this week as aggressive and dismissive of those that might hold different views. Indeed the form of Catholicism most favoured in Ireland by 1932 has been classed as an anomalous one in many ways. Ireland’s particularly virulent form of High Tridentine Catholicism had become obsessed with issues of sexual morality and the perils of personal indulgence of all sorts. This virulence was often at variance practice in other Catholic communities. Press reports of the proceedings over the course of the week contain many references to the Catholic Church being ‘the one and only true Church’, references that cannot have been very welcome to other faiths in the country. Indeed the very emphasis on the Blessed Sacrament during the Congress could have created tensions with Ireland’s Protestant community, given the fact that the dispute over whether Christ is actually present at the Consecration was in large part responsible for the Reformation and the birth of European Protestantism.

The events of the Congress illustrated with a vengeance the great gap of understanding that existed between the two parts of Ireland. A study of the Congress can go some way to explaining why Ireland was partitioned in the first place. It shows the obvious religious differences, not to mention animosities on the island. Far more damaging to harmonious relations between the two religious communities in Ireland were the political differences that arose out of religious identity. Protestant ‘Ulster’ cherished, at least notionally, the freedom of the individual to decide all things for himself. Salvation came in the form of a personal, individual relationship between man and God. This had important political consequences, in that Protestant politics tended to favour a form of liberalism that gave maximum freedom to the individual citizen. The Eucharistic Congress in Dublin showed the Catholic Ireland looked on the world in very different terms. Salvation came through membership of a ‘community of the faithful’ and through loyal service to the Holy Father and his bishops. Individualism and liberalism in political terms tended to be seen as bankrupt and immoral, leading to vices and temptations of all sorts. Only through willing membership in the religious community could the individual ever hope to be happy. This idea was given eloquent expression in a contemporary newspaper report at the time. Looking out over a sea of bowed heads at one of the massive Pontifical Mass in the Phoenix Park, the Irish Times described the scene in the following terms:

“…the audition was marvellous, whether it was of the full tones of the Cardinal Legate as he spoke the Mass, the tuneful antiphon of the choir, the sharp clamour of the trumpets as they paid homage at the elevation of the Host, or the beautiful voice of John Mc Cormack that came clear and bell like, borne without a tremor over the whole silent space, midway through the Service. It was at that moment of the Elevation of the Host, the supreme point in Catholic ritual, that one fully realised the common mind that swallowed up all individuality in the immense throng. Flung together in their hundreds of thousands, like the sands on the seashore, these people were merely parts of a great organism which was performing a great act of faith, with no more ego in them than the sands themselves.”

Nothing could have been more repugnant to northern Protestant identity. Catholic stress on the infallibility of the Pope on all matters affecting conscience was another bone in the Protestant throat, since this doctrine conflicted sharply with their historic regard for the conscience of the individual. Reports at the time of 1932 argued that Ireland had never been more united than it was during these six extraordinary days. When looked at through the lens of the north-eastern Protestant, June 1932 was evidence, if any was needed, why a border was needed in the first place. The sectarian attacks on convoys of Catholic pilgrims coming from Northern Ireland to Dublin for the High Mass can be seen in the context of this formidable religious and political split that had disfigured Ireland’s two states since their birth.

John Paul McCarthy & Tomás O’Riordan