What was the significance of the Eucharistic Congress, 1932, for the Irish Free State? The Eucharistic Congress was possibly the most important event in Ireland between the end of the civil war and the beginning of World War Two. The Eucharistic Congress is a religious festival held every three to four years in different countries around the world, bringing together clergy and ordinary Catholics from many countries. The vast majority of the population of the Free State were Catholics and hosting the Eucharistic Congress provided an opportunity to show the world that Catholicism was a key element of Irish identity.
Following independence the influence of the Catholic Church on Irish society increased significantly. President of the Executive, W. T. Cosgrave was a staunch Catholic and was a close personal friend of Archbishop Byrne of Dublin. With the exception of Ernest Blythe, the entire Irish cabinet held similar religious views to Cosgrave. The Cumann na nGaedheal government from 1922-1932 adopted a conservative approach to social and moral issues. In particular the government facilitated Catholic Church control over education and imposed strict censorship laws in order to counteract what was seen as a decline in moral values after World War One.
The Cumann na nGaedheal government also enjoyed good relations with the Vatican and in 1930 established formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican leading to the appointment of a Papal Nuncio in Dublin. Cosgrave’s government began negotiations with the Vatican in 1929 about hosting the Eucharistic Congress in Ireland. Cosgrave felt that it would increase the prestige of the country, and by extension, his government and it would bring the country together after the divisions of the civil war. In 1932 the Vatican announced that the 31st Eucharistic Congress would be held in Ireland to commemorate the 1,500 year anniversary of the coming of St. Patrick to Ireland.
Unfortunately for Cumann na nGaedheal they lost the general election in 1932 before the Eucharistic Congress took place. Despite all their efforts it would be DeValera and Fianna Fail who would lead the country during the Congress. Fianna Fail’s relationship with the Catholic hierarchy was strained. The Catholic Church had openly condemned the anti-Treaty side during the civil war and many of these people were now prominent in Fianna Fail. However, once elected in 1932, DeValera immediately sought to improve relations between his party and the Catholic Church. The Eucharistic Congress provided an ideal opportunity for him to achieve this task.
In the period leading up to the Eucharistic Congress Fianna Fail worked hard to ‘prove’ itself to the Catholic Church. In April the Oireachtas voted in favour of putting a crucifix in the Dail chamber and suspended the sitting of the Dail and Seanad during church holidays. The Dail also passed the Eucharistic Congress Bill which set out various plans for hosing the Congress.
In the run-up to the Congress many religious services were held in every parish throughout the country. The government provided most of the cost for hosting the event but further money was raised through church gate collections and from overseas donations. In Dublin streets, public buildings and houses were decorated with flags and bunting and a single issue newspaper, The Congress, was published to commemorate the event. Every corner of the country was involved in preparing for the Congress.
Hundreds of thousands of people participated in the Congress which ran for five days from 22-26 June 1932. Thousands of people travelled from America, Europe and Australia to participate in the event, including over 200 Catholic bishops and eight cardinals. Churches stayed open continuously during the event to allow people to pray. The event was a huge success for both the Catholic Church and for the government.
The Eucharistic Congress marked the highpoint of the Catholic Church in Ireland and was a source of pride for many Irish Catholics who saw it as an assertion of Ireland’s international status and independence. The event helped to cement the relationship between the government and the Catholic hierarchy. The impact of this relationship was to be seen in the continuation of the conservative social policies of the Fianna Fail government and in the new Irish Constitution that was introduced in 1937.
When DeValera proposed a new constitution in 1937 Article 44 outlined the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church in Ireland. Furthermore the constitution banned divorce in Ireland and many women opposed the clause which stated that ‘the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved’. While the constitution did not oblige women to remain in the home, the marriage bar which was introduced in 1935 prevented married women from working in the civil service.