A MILLION people at Mass in the Phoenix Park; special trains laid on to transport the faithful; serried ranks of clergy filing before the altar; foreign princes of the church attending pomp-laden receptions; every arm of the State deployed in service of the occasion.
The Pope’s visit in 1978? Close. The event described above was in fact the Eucharistic Congress held in Dublin in 1932.
Th event was, in the words of one commentator, “one of the most remarkable public events to have taken place in Ireland in the 20th century”.
“To many of those who participated in the event,” according to historians John Paul McCarthy and Tomás O’Riordan, “it remained a touchstone in their entire lives.”
The Congress – which is a gathering of clergy and lay people to celebrate the Holy Eucharist – took place during the early months of the de Valera government. Much of the work had been done by the previous administration, led by W T Cosgrave of Cumann na nGaedhael (later Fine Gael).
De Valera was keen to use the occasion of the Congress to promote the young Irish state, and to show the world that we could host an event of this size.
For Dev, who had been ex-communicated by the Catholic Church for his Republican activities, it was also an opportunity to improve relations with the clergy and a chance for Fianna Fáil “to establish their impeccable Catholic credentials,” says historian Diarmaid Ferriter.
Accordingly, every arm of the State was pressed into service. There was even a special act of parliament enacted to facilitate arrangements: the Eucharistic Congress (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1932.
For those few days in June (21-26), Ireland was at the centre of the Catholic world, and thousands of clergy descended on Dublin to attend the Congress.
Public buildings were illuminated, temporary altars, grottoes and crosses were erected, and every road, street and square was decorated with fresh flowers.
The English Catholic writer G K Chesterton remarked on the efforts of the people living in the Dublin tenements to make their part of the city look a little less drab for the occasion.
The world’s largest PA system was installed, and a new, high-powered radio transmission mast was built at Athlone to broadcast coverage both of the event and of the special broadcast by the Pope to the Irish people made from his study in the Vatican.
Large camps to accommodate visitors from outside Dublin were set up at Cabra and Artane, and emergency billets were provided in town halls, libraries and national schools all over the city.
“It was a huge logistical exercise,” says Prof Ferriter. “There were something like 130 special trains coming into Dublin for the event.
“It’s sometimes forgotten that there was a very strong Northern element to it. Over 100,000 Catholics from the North attended, and many of them were attacked on their way south,” he adds.
De Valera spoke at length at many of the events, seeking to reassure the Church, both through his own words and through the leading articles in the newly-founded Irish Press newspaper, that his party’s policies had “translated the sweetness of Christianity into social progress”.
Proceedings began with the arrival of the papal legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri, by boat at Dun Laoghaire.
He was met by a massive crowd. Some 36,000 school children lined his route into the city. A fly-past by the Air Corps flying in crucifix formation also marked the occasion.
There is an air, looking back at the contemporary accounts, of a nation in the throes of a devotional fever.
Crowds gathered everywhere, and churchmen such as Archbishop Byrne of Dublin, Cardinal MacRory of Armagh, Cardinal Hayes of New York and Monsignor Heylen, Bishop of Namur, were cheered much as present-day crowds cheer X-Factor celebrities.
The Congress culminated in a vast open-air Mass in the Phoenix Park, which drew a crowd estimated at a million.
A high point of the Mass came when John McCormack, a Papal Count since 1928 and possibly the best-known Irishman in the world at the time, sang Panis Angelicus.
This moment, relayed through the PA system along the quays and into the city centre “added to the sense of pride that so many people derived from the event. It was an unforgettable moment for all present,” according to historian Rory O’Dwyer.
The Eucharistic Congress of 2012 will, of course, take place in an Ireland immensely different from the country Cardinal Lauri visited in 1932.
Then, there was an air of supreme confidence among the Catholic hierarchy; now, the church has been undermined by child-abuse scandals and accusations of a cover-up.
Then, the utterances and movements of the clergy were reported uncritically by a subservient press; today, various pronouncements, pastoral letters and encyclicals are much more rigorously examined.
In 1932, the gates of the Phoenix Park were removed to facilitate the Eucharistic procession into the city. This week, one correspondent asked that the organisers of the 2012 event put them back.
More tea, Father? How John Charles McQuaid
used the Congress to boost Blackrock College
JOHN Charles McQuaid, later to become the feared and revered Archbishop of Dublin, was President of Blackrock College in 1932. He was charged with hosting a garden party for dignitaries attending the Eucharistic Congress in the grounds of the college. He took immense pains over the organisation of the event, seeing it as a test of his administrative capabilities. Some 20,000 people attended, and it was regarded as a triumph. Biographers have suggested that his role in the success of the gathering, his attention to detail regarding titles, precedence and the social niceties of the Church, played a major role in his elevation to Archbishop eight years later, a post he held for over 30 years.
Publish and be damned – de Valera, the
Irish Press and the MacNeill Affair
THE Congress was as much a political event as it was a religious or social one. The newly elected de Valera Government decided to use the occasion to undermine the office of the Governor General, James MacNeill.
Ireland was still part of the British Commonwealth, and the Governor General was Britain’s representative to Ireland. He lived in the Vice-Regal lodge in the Phoenix Park and played a prominent role in the official life of the country.
According to historian Tim Pat Coogan, it had long been de Valera’s intention “to demean and eventually dispose of” the office of Governor General.
In April 1932, MacNeill wrote to inform the Government that he was inviting several guests to stay for the duration of the Congress. De Valera delayed his response until the invitations had gone out.
Then the Government wrote to MacNeill saying his guests were an embarrassment, and they were not invited to any functions connected with the Congress.
MacNeill waited until the Congress had ended before writing to complain. Unless he got an apology, he would publish his correspondence with de Valera, he said.
The apology was not given and, on July 10, McNeill had copies of the letters delivered to all the Dublin papers. De Valera promptly sent an army general and a troop of gardai to instruct the editors not to publish.
The resourceful MacNeill then sent copies to papers in the North and the UK. De Valera deployed the Army and the Gardai to prevent these papers being distributed in the Republic, but he was too late to stop the Daily Chronicle from making it into the shops.
De Valera then instructed the Irish newspapers to publish the correspondence also, which they did, thus ending an entertaining chase around newspaper offices, mail boat cargo holds and border crossings.
The dark art of spin was evident even in 1932. The Irish Press editorial on the matter concluded that the affair showed that MacNeill was “wholly unsuited to the position which he occupies”.