|What was the significance of the Eucharistic Congress of 1932 to the Irish Free State?
Background & Rationale of Staging Congress
he International Eucharistic Congress, held throughout the world every three to four years, has been described as a ‘Catholic Olympic Games.’ Bringing together Catholics of many nations and languages, it is an occasion of great international importance and status. In the Irish Free State of 1932, barely ten years after the official end of the Irish Civil War, an occasion of this magnitude was very welcome both to underline the independence of the new state and also to possibly heal recent, deep wounds of political and social division. It offered the Irish Free State the opportunity to project itself further onto the international stage, showcasing its internationalism and maturity both as a state with a distinct cultural identity and a place of international congregation.
Government Attitudes (CnanG) & International Relations Strategy
he Irish Free State, an overwhelmingly Catholic State, was lead by a staunchly-Catholic Government, including the Chairman of the Chief Executive, W.T. Cosgrave. The Catholic Church, since 1922, had been steadily asserting itself as the moral vanguard of the State, with its influence on Irish society, particularly education, growing year by year. Cumann na nGaedhael introduced several conservative social policies, reflecting the close relationship between the Free State and the Catholic Church. With a strong emphasis on developing Irish independence and identity, Cumann na nGaedhael had adopted a cautious, but highly effective international presence. Central to this was the securing of recognition from other countries & international organisations, such as its membership of the League of Nations from 1923 on.
Diplomatic Relations with Vatican & Choice of Dublin
he Irish Free State established diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1929, which lead to the appointment of a Papal Nuncio in Dublin. This was a reflection of Cumann na ngaedheal’s proactive policy in relation to foreign affairs: similar to joining the League of Nations which would protect the Free State’s political status, establishing relations with the Vatican would define the cultural identity of the State and also offer a certain political validation. Cosgrave was determined to showcase the Irish Free State in this way, hoping that it would heal the bitter divisions caused by the Irish Civil War of 1922 – 1923 and indeed, the often vicious reprisals caused by Civil War bitterness. The Vatican agreed that Ireland should stage the 31st International Eucharistic Congress in 1932 as a commemoration of St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland.
1932 Electon/ FF in Power/ Eoin O’Duffy/ Church views on Anti-Treaty TDs
n an effort to avoid a clash between the Congress and the scheduled General Election, Cosgrave brought the election forward in 1932. To his surprise, Cumann na nGaedhael lost to a resurgent, populist Fianna Fáil, led by Eamonn DeValera. Eoin O’Duffy, the Garda Commissioner had been appointed by Cosgrave to organise the Congress with all the accommodation, logistics and planning involved. With Fianna Fáil in power, O’Duffy’s position would now be under threat. However, as a sign of the significance of the Eucharistic Congress, DeValera would wait until the following year to replace him as Garda Commissioner. DeValera, as leader of Fianna Fáil and the most prominent leader of the Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin ten years previously, saw the Congress as an opportunity both for the State and Fianna Fáil’s place in Irish society. Ever since the Civil War, the Church had condemned the actions of the Anti-Treaty IRA & Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin. In certain cases, anti-treaty IRA members were excommunicated. The significance of this opportunity for DeValera and his followers was that it presented them with an opportunity to find mainstream acceptance in Irish society again.
Preparations/ Funding/ Decorations/ Uniqueness of Event/ The ‘Congress’
n the year leading up to the Congress itself, Church meetings, prayer meetings, fund-raising and celebrations were held throughout the country in every parish and diocese. Church gate collections helped to fund the cost of staging the event in Dublin. In Dublin itself, the city centre was transformed with bunting and almost every facade (shop or house front) received a new coat of paint. There was a palpable feeling of celebration in the air, albeit mixed with a certain religious piety and austerity. As a new state, this was the first mass cultural celebration of Irish identity since independence. A special newspaper, ‘The Congress’ was published to commemorate the event.
Arrival of Papal Legate
State & Military Welcome
hen the Papal Legate arrived on June 20th, 1932, he was received by a spectacular ‘fly-by’ by the Irish Air Corps in the shape of a Christian Cross. Allied to this, a Hussar Cavalry detachment escorted the Legate, Lorenzo Lauri throughout the city. The Irish Free State was very clearly showing its complete willingness to dedicate every facet of the State to this cultural occasion. DeValera & Cosgrave, walking side by side, emphasised the unifying nature of this cultural occasion. Considering the often brutal conflict between both Pro-Treaty and Anti-Treaty, only eight to ten years previously, this was indeed a significant moment for the Irish Free State.
he arrival of the papal legate was accompanied by over 200 Catholic Bishops and eight Cardinals, signifying the global occasion that was unfolding. Allied to this, thousands of foreigners from across Europe, USA and Australia also attended. In the case of many Catholic Irish-Americans, this was indeed a significant moment. Returning to the country which their parents and grandparents had left as destitute and poor, fleeing persecution, famine and unemployment, returning to the Irish Free State was a celebration both of their ethnic and cultural identity, as well as a celebration of the Irish political independence struggle. Throughout the city and country, churches continued prayer services and celebrations to accommodate both native Irish and foreigners.
Congress Week/ 25% of population/ Pope’s broadcast message
ongress week, held between 22nd and 26th June, centred on the massive congregation of Catholic worshippers in the Phoenix Park. An equivalent of 25% of the Irish Free State population attended, organised in solemn and obedient rows in front of the specially-built altar. A highlight of Congress week was the broadcast message from the Pope in Rome, heard by everyone over loudspeaker, underlining the attention and importance placed on the Irish Free State on this international occasion.
Church-State Significance/ DeValera & McQuaid/ Bunreacht na hEireann (1937) & ‘Catholic Articles’
he 31st Eucharistic Congress also provided an opportunity for both the government and the Catholic Church in Ireland to deepen their relationship. The most important relationship, solidified by this occasion was that of DeValera and Bishop John Charles McQuiad. McQuaid, who went to great lengths to emphasise and ensure the unity of the political classes on show, developed a mutually-beneficial relationship with DeValera. The Congress, a success for both Church and State, was especially significant for Fianna Fáil. Firmly associated with the celebration of Catholicism, DeValera’s new-found closeness with the Church would be later reflected in the new constitution of 1937, Bunreacht na hEireann. In this new constitution, heavily influenced by McQuaid, the Church was recognised as having a “special position” (Article 44) within Irish society. DeValera continued the conservative Catholic trend banning divorce (Article `41). He did, however, stop short of establishing officially the Catholic Church as the state religion.
Conclusion: Impact & Significance/ Legacies
he 31st International Eucharistic Congress was an occasion that was mutually-beneficial to both Church and State. The emergence of the Catholic Church as a powerful broker, both in political and social influence was reflected in the significance attached to the event by the State itself. The State, pursuing an ever-greater degree of independence, welcomed the opportunity to showcase itself on the international stage and make strong cultural ties and allies into the bargain. The influence of the Catholic Church on the Irish Free State was quite significant; from the early years of the state right up until the later 1980’s, the Catholic Church would remain the most powerful and universal agent of Irish social life, particularly in education. When Pope John Paul II conducted a Papal Visit in 1979, the occasion was reminiscent of the Congress in 1932. Huge crowds attended the papal Mass in the Phoenix Park, where John Paul II congratulated the Irish people on their distinct, strong Catholic faith, while pleading for peace in Northern Ireland. Little did he realise, that from this point on, the Catholic Church’s influence would begin to wane in Irish society. In this sense, one can see that the Church provided and delivered on the need for a distinct cultural identity, both for its own sake and for the ambitions of greater Irish independence after 1932. The Irish Free State, understanding the importance and opportunity of this occasion, welcomed and emphasised the Catholic cultural identity of its people.