How Europe’s Most Conservative Country Became its Most Liberal

An excerpt from Niall O’Dowd’s new book.

A New Ireland by Niall O'Dowd published 2020
Author and Irish America Co-editor Niall O’Dowd

Faith of Their Fathers—The Eucharistic Congress of 1932

“The men and women of long ago … from the high place in Heaven won by their heroic piety … must have looked down upon this glorious scene with serene happiness and benediction.”

Dundalk Democrat editorial 1932

The closest equivalent to Pope John Paul’s visit in 1979 was the 1932 Eucharistic Congress given to Ireland because it was the 1,500th anniversary of St Patrick’s coming to Ireland in 432. As a gauge of how religious the country had become, the Eucharistic Congress is a defining moment, the highest ever point of Catholic Church influence in Ireland at least until the visit of the popes.

Like with the two subsequent papal visits, the final public mass of the congress—the high point—was held in Phoenix Park with approximately one million present of the Irish population of 3.1 million.

The mass was celebrated by Michael Joseph Curley, Archbishop of Baltimore. Count John Mc Cormack the world-famous Irish tenor sang “Panis Angelicus” at the mass. Following the mass, four processions left the Park to O’Connell Street where approximately 500,000 people gathered on O’Connell Bridge for the concluding blessing given by the Papal Legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri.

The event was a landmark in several ways. It brought a coming together of the population under the Vatican flag just a decade after a bloody civil war had ended. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Eamon De Valera had actually been excommunicated by the church when he decided to take up arms against the first Free State government over the treaty the ill-fated Michael Collins had signed with the British. 

Now that was forgotten as he met and chatted with senior Vatican and Irish bishops. He also appeared with the opposition leadership, which only a decade before had been intent on killing him and vice versa.

Secondly, the fledgling Irish Free State proved it could manage a massive public event even in the time of an international economic depression. Seven ocean liners were docked along the Liffey River to serve as floating hotels and meeting places. The half dozen rickety planes of the Irish Air Force even managed an overhead fly-past in the flying formation of a cross.

Irish radio had just become a major part of people’s lives. The 2RN government station, later RTE, covered the World Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in 1932 using the new high-powered transmitter installed at Athlone.

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 making it a massive communal experience. Large crowds gathered at neighbor’s houses all over Ireland and in public places to hear the divine word.

Lastly, it was a massive affirmation of the bond between church and people, one the British had tried for centuries to break. The Congress left indelible evidence that the faith of their fathers was just as strong in the new generation. Fifteen hundred years after Saint Patrick, his church was seemingly embedded forever in the lives of the Irish people he once served.

The Dundalk Democrat described the event:

“Here men and women are proud to give evidence of their Faith: proud of being sons and daughters of the dead and gone Catholics who kept the flame alive in evil days of persecution and spoliation… . …The men and women of long ago…… from the high place in Heaven won by their heroic piety…… must have looked down upon this glorious scene with serene happiness and benediction.”

Protestant Ulster recently separated from the Catholic Free State by partition felt very different. Some Catholic members of Belfast Corporation attended the Congress in their robes.

The Belfast Orange Lodge objected in the strongest terms:

 “As a Protestant Organisation we feel compelled to register an emphatic protest at the action of the Belfast Corporation in giving permission to Aldermen and Councillors to wear their Robes at the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress in Dublin and thus representing in an official capacity the Belfast Corporation. We feel that the presence of these Aldermen and Councillors robed…will be taken as an indication that Protestant Belfast is weakening in its attitude to the idolatrous practices and beliefs of Rome.”

Despite the rank opposition from the North, the Eucharistic Congress was an incredible success unmatched in fealty to the Catholic Church until September 1979.

Looking back at the event 80 years later, the Irish Times was not as enthused putting it mildly:

“At a top-down level, the Catholic Church at the time of the Congress, was already “‘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.’”

A New Ireland is available on Amazon.


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