The Eucharistic Congress 1932 Essay

When consumerism and Catholicism collided in 1932. By Barry Sheppard


June of 2017 marked the 85th anniversary of the 31st International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. This event saw a series of large public religious gatherings, masses and processions taking place between 22nd and 26th June 1932.

Hosted in a different international city each year, this was the first time the large international gathering of Catholic clergy, religious dignitaries and laity had been to Irish shores, and presented the state with a tremendous opportunity to announce itself on the world stage.

Hosting the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 was a major event for the young Irish Free State. It was also its first advertising extravaganza.

Of course, the event was primarily a religious gathering, nevertheless the Congress of 1932 has received much academic attention due to the impact the event had upon an Irish politics and national identity.  However, the impact the event had on the Irish economy, and more specifically the impact it had on society through the burgeoning Irish advertising industry has been less explored.

Arguably the 1932 Eucharistic Congress was the Irish Free State’s first advertising extravaganza, leading to an economic boom in the state.  A boom which reportedly brought in estimated £5 million to the Irish economy.[1] An advertising blitz for items of merchandise and Congress ‘tie-ins’ were found in national and regional daily and weekly newspapers throughout the state, not to mention Northern Ireland and some English publications.

Advertising was becoming more important to an increasingly fast-paced society.  Irish society was becoming increasingly ‘visual’ by the 1920s. This is reflected in increased illustrated newspaper advertising and in other imagery such as election posters.

Election posters from 1926 onwards, were becoming more ‘image-heavy’. The ruling Cumman na nGaedheal party recognised the power of visual imagery in capturing the attention of the public.  It became the first Irish party to turn to the services of a professional advertising agency, McConnell’s, which had only been founded a decade before, in 1916.[2]

The importance of professionalising advertising and sales gained increased recognition in Ireland around 1912, however this became stagnant as there were few advances made during the revolutionary period 1912 to 1922.

After this American influence came to bear as it was recognised that advertising was becoming much more sophisticated through both psychology and art.  In 1929 the first course in advertising was offered in Ireland at the Rathmines Technical Institute in Dublin.[3]

The formation of this particular course was tailored by the input of The Irish Association of Advertising Agencies and Irish Independent Newspapers.[4] The input by a major national daily newspaper is significant as it shows the increased importance of advertising in print media at the time.



Hosting the Congress in Dublin was highly significant for a number of reasons. The increased normalisation of politics and a more settled society offered the world a more favourable view of the state after five years of political violence.

However, it has also been suggested that there was a need in Irish society for the pageantry which the Congress would bring to affirm some sort of national identity which had been missing since the foundation of the state.

Since British withdrawal in 1922 it was argued that ‘Ireland had been starved of spectacle. Gone were the regimental marching bands, displays with flags, cavalry formations, carriages of notables, festivities for the monarch’s birthday and for royal visits. Because of the disputed origin of the state in the Treaty, there was no national Independence Day and celebration as in the USA’.[5]

It was further argued that the hosting of such an event, Ireland could make its mark on the world through its own brand of Catholic spirituality.  A set of spiritual values, religious and some political leaders argued, could supersede those of other, more economically advanced nations.[6] Ironically it was this sense of spiritual strength, which would be manifested in public pageantry, that became the economic target by vendors selling Eucharistic Congress-related merchandise and materials.

Leading up to the Congress


In newspapers leading up to the event a range of merchandise from official Congress pins and badges through to especially commissioned pieces of Congress art and religious iconography were on display to cash in on the ‘Congress fever’ which had swept over the state.

Modern advertising techniques were applied to sell a pious public religious images for the Congress.

Common items bearing religious imagery would prove popular among a pious Irish public, but, through advertising, a certain amount of emotional pressure was also applied to sell the goods.  Advertised as both religious and patriotic, some of the items tapped into two very important strands of Irish identity in the new state.  Various items appealed to both faith and Irish history in an attempt to attract customers.

One such advert, appearing in multiple publications, was for ‘The Eucharistic Congress Souvenir Plaque’.  An item which fused Irish iconography with the religious, it read: ‘The design includes HIS HOLINESS THE POPE XI in the centre, with the words “Eucharistic Congress, Dublin A.D., 1932” in Gaelic type; the Papal Arms, the Papal and National Flags, the Bank of Ireland, O’Connell Monument, Round Tower, Wolf Hound and Harp, whilst an artistic scroll of Celtic pattern is intertwined on the border’.[7]

This type of item played on decades of tradition in Ireland as religious items of this type had become a mainstay of Irish Catholic life since Cardinal Paul Cullen’s ‘Devotional Revolution’ in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Cullen’s ‘revolution’ saw increased public religiosity among the Irish Catholic population.  The public religious exercises which Cullen had helped introduce were ‘reinforced by the use of devotional tools and aids: beads, scapulars, medals, missals, prayer books, catechisms, and holy pictures’.[8]

The rank and file Catholic population of Ireland, often from the less well-off sections of the community, came under pressure to buy the Congress-related wares on display in newspapers, shops and other outlets: It has been suggested that the burden of decorating was borne by the poor.

‘Photographs from that time show numerous flags and banners flying in the Coombe, Dominick Street, and Rutland Street [All poor or working class districts of central Dublin]. Banners bearing such messages as “Hail Christ Our King”, “God Bless Our Pope” and “Long Live St. Patrick,” and flags with images of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart were found alongside papal flags, congress flags, and the tricolour throughout the poorer areas of Dublin’.[9]

international journalists such as G. K. Chesterton, were ‘struck by the efforts of Dublin people, most especially the impoverished tenement-dwellers’ to decorate the city.

Indeed, international journalists and commentators including the well-known Catholic intellectual G. K. Chesterton, were ‘struck by the efforts of Dublin people, most especially the impoverished tenement-dwellers, to embellish their streets and laneways with bunting, festoons, banners, garlands, floral arrangements, grottos, shrines and various other forms of religious decoration’.[10]

On top of this already considerable burden, there was an expectation that everyone would contribute to the various Congress Fund drives in the different dioceses.  Newspapers advertisements were again the medium used to reach the maximum audience, this time by the Church and Congress Committees.

Adverts appealing for funds would have no doubt put emotional pressure upon already stretched domestic budgets of the poor. One such advert in the Kilkenny People appealed in bold letters for people to ‘Be Generous’ and that ‘EVERY CATHOLIC is expected to subscribe’.  All family members were addressed with an appeal for children to also contribute: ‘Be generous and associate the children with the Congress, don’t let them go to Mass without giving them something to put on the Collection Plate’.[11]

As the event drew nearer Catholics were asked ‘Have You Given Anything Yet’?  This was in relation to a proposed erection of a monument to St Patrick, who was being connected to the Congress as Ireland’s spiritual father.[12]


Congress Badges and Flags


The most commonly advertised Congress item were that of the Congress badges and flags. The design of the badge was based on the medieval Irish Cross of Cong with a chalice and Eucharistic host added,[13] and at a price of one shilling it was affordable for most people.

Scores of adverts ran in the national dailies such as the Irish Press, Evening Herald, and the Irish Independent, as well as a host of regional publications, ensuring that the product reached as wide an audience as possible.  As well as adverts, numerous accompanying stories bombarded the public, imploring them to ‘Wear the Congress Badge’![14]

The instruction to wear the badge came directly from the official organising committee made up of both clergy and lay Catholics.  On the first of January 1932 the Committee released a statement on the policy of wearing the official badge of the Congress:

‘The Committee of the 31st International Eucharistic Congress suggests that a resolution to wear the official Congress Badge would fittingly inaugurate Congress Year for Catholics. It is earnestly desired that from now onwards till after the Congress the official Badge should be worn by every Catholic, young and old’.[15]

In the midst of the advertising campaign rumours began to circulate of foreign-made goods being circulated to vendors in Dublin and further afield.  This, of course occurred during one of several economic drives to ensure that people bought Irish-made goods across a number of areas.  Attempts at flooding the market with foreign-made religious items was not only unpatriotic, it bordered on sacrilege.

There was a strong emphasis on buying Irish-made goods, especially in the Irish Press newspaper.

A letter to the Irish Press on 20 January 1932 stated: “There are several firms in Dublin offering for sale Eucharistic Congress Flags, which are made in England with incorrect designs. We are asked by the Congress Committee to support Irish manufacture; then why not support those firms whose flags, etc., are manufactured in Ireland, thereby keeping our money at home?”[16]

The newspaper followed up with a number of other stories of the ‘abuse’ of foreign-made Congress goods being ‘dumped’ into Dublin, much to the chagrin of local manufacturers who had paid the Congress Committee for official licenses to produce the goods for the event.[17]

The Irish Press reported that a number of representatives of English firms had already visited Dublin hotels in an effort to distribute their unofficial flags, which the Press had claimed were being ‘turned out in English workshops’.[18]

Rumours of counterfeit Congress badges, shipped in from England also abounded.  It was thought that such rumours could ruin a person’s business at such a patriotic time in the nation’s life.  One such circulated rumour caused a manufacturer to publicly address the situation in the newspapers to save his business reputation.

“Dear Sir,

We are informed by a well-known shop in O’Connell Street which sells our Eucharistic Congress Souvenir Badges that a gentleman who called in to buy one during Christmas week emphatically declared that they were not made in Ireland.  On several occasions we have heard remarks passed to the same effect, and we would like to assure your readers that all our badges, including our Eucharistic Congress Souvenir Badges are made here in our own factory in Dublin, and they bear the Irish Trade Mark (No. 0920).

We would not trespass on your valuable space were it not for the fact that the country is at present flooded with all kinds of foreign-made Souvenir Badges, and the only guarantee which people have who wish to buy an Irish article is to look for the Irish Trade Mark. – Yours faithfully

The Dublin Jewellery Manufacturing Co. (G. Wilson)”[19]


Presenting a positive image


Outside of official Congress merchandise, there was a desire for people and their property to look their best, if only for the benefit of international visitors arriving on Irish shores.

Again, pressure was put upon the city’s residents with the Congress Committee urging ‘the citizens of Dublin, in particular, that special attention should be given to front gardens’. It was stated that ‘It will be regrettable if individual citizens do not contribute to the scheme by giving a little attention to the beautification of their own houses’.[20]

The pressure worked.  Diarmaid Ferriter has stated that ‘leading up to the event ‘plants and baskets of flowers abounded, monuments were built and decorated’ and ‘houses were painted in congress blue and papal colours’.[21]

This presented a business opportunity for professional painters and decorators, gardeners and tailors, who took to the press to make a pitch for their expert services.  Gardening adverts from ‘Bulbs Unlimited’ of Monaghan asked the public ‘to secure plants to bloom for the Eucharistic Congress’[22]

The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne appealed to citizens to hire painters to re-paint their houses for the Congress.

Decorators appealed for customers to ”Paint now’ and ‘make your home bright and beautiful for the Congress Year’,[23] while Dublin-based companies such as Fletcher and Philipson Painters Ltd. advised customers to get their orders in early due to unprecedented demand.   Citizens were encouraged to place orders with house painting firms to have their houses ready for June’s events.   The importance of this was framed in terms of providing much needed employment for the city’s painting contractors.

Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne appealed ‘directly to those who have not yet actually put contracts in hand for the decoration of private houses and business premises.  By placing contracts now, citizens will be providing work for painters’. Byrne further stated: ‘The Dublin Corporation and the Dublin Port and Docks Board are giving much employment in this direction.  Many other public boards are doing everything possible to brighten up the city, and in this way they are giving employment to a considerable number of men at painting and other work’.[24]

The pressure to have houses in presentable order didn’t stop in front gardens, or outside walls.  Advertisers saw an opportunity to make the entire house presentable.  Adverts in the Munster Express implored readers to ‘Make your home attractive for Congress year’ with a range of new Furniture especially for the Congress.[25] Linen for the furniture adorned with ‘sacred emblems’ made specifically for the Congress were available for 15 shillings and 6 pence.[26] Even indoor lighting could have a religious tinge with ‘Original Electric Lighting Ideas’, a selection of light bulbs with stencilled on Eucharistic imagery.[27]

A number of tailors and dressmakers pitched their expertise in the daily newspapers in the months leading up to the Congress.  Adverts from Dublin firms, like O’Beirne & O’Neill of Middle Abbey Street invited their clients to ‘Be really well-dressed for Congress Week’, while stressing the importance of buying Irish materials.[28] A Tipperary firm, Gough, O’ Keefe and Naughton, of Nenagh promoted their suits and shoes so that ‘everyone can look their best for the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress’.

Claims that ‘ample preparations’ had been made to ensure that nobody will be left disappointed, shows that even outside of Dublin people were anticipating that the Congress would have a hugely positive impact on their business.[29]

High Altar


The high point of the Congress itself was the open air mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park on 26 June.  Approximately one million people attended this ceremony, an extraordinary number of people given the size of the population of the State.  The event was described as ‘the largest congregation ever known at Mass’.  The estimated million-strong crowd gathered in front of the High Altar erected in the Phoenix Park.[30]

Newspaper reports painted a picture of infectious piousness emanating through the city from the High Altar:

‘The chanting of the choir in the Phoenix Park and the recitation of their prayers, relayed by the loud speakers, was taken up by the crowds until the roar of hundreds of thousands of voices echoed through the streets transforming the city of Dublin into a vast cathedral, the gently fluttering flags overhead like the banners of a triumphant army hung in other and less spacious cathedrals throughout the world’.[31]

With bombastic newspaper reports and the sheer number of people attending the Phoenix Park ceremonies, the High Altar as an icon became a focal-point for pilgrims, a centre-piece in the most important event in the State’s early existence.

Historian John Turpin emphasises the importance of the High Altar:

‘The centrepiece of the congress was the enormous high altar in the classical style with a central covered space with dome, flanked by colonnaded wings, situated in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, designed by John Robinson. The classical style was specified in the commission to distance the congress from purely nationalist manifestations. The wings were reminiscent of Bernini’s colonnade at St Peter’s, Rome. The high altar became the visual symbol of the congress and reproductions appeared widely in shops throughout the city’.[32]

It is unsurprising that reproductions of the altar were widely sold after the event, given the success of the Congress.  However, craftsmen and advertisers also capitalised when the High Altar was dismantled.  A company named ‘High Altar Souvenirs’ advertised crosses of various sizes ‘made from wood of the High Altar, Phoenix Park, on which Pontifical High Mass was celebrated on 26 June, 1932’.[33]

Other materials from the High Mass, such colonnades, cardinal’s thrones, the ‘Triumphal Arch’, and pavilions were advertised for sale in newspapers for the more affluent citizens.[34]  Whereas pictorial records, linens, and other mementos were available for more modest budgets.  Everyone, however could enter a draw to win the car used by the Papal Legate during the congress, with proceeds going to ‘the pagan mission fields of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate’.[35]

Mass Media


Outside of traditional print media, the 1932 Eucharistic Congress was the first event in the Irish State to avail of modern broadcasting technology.  Congress organisers persuaded the government to use the national radio service to transmit congress ceremonies through its 2RN and 6CK stations, in Dublin and Cork (despite misgivings from the department of posts and telegraphs about using the national radio service for denominational matters).[36]  This too presented opportunities to technicians to advertise their services to make sure that those who couldn’t be there in person could still partake in such a monumental event.

The 1932 Eucharistic Congress was the first event in the Irish State to avail of modern broadcasting technology

Radio sets were now available to more people than ever with 30,000 licenses being issued by the time the Congress happened.  This was a perfect opportunity for vendors to increase their business by selling new sets to cash in on events, as well as repairing and maintaining sets already sold to previous customers. The Scientific Radio Service of Limerick, ran an advertising campaign called ‘The Eucharistic Congress Calling’, offering new radio sets and repairs on old devices.[37]

Audio recordings of the High Mass, as well as hymns used during the congress were advertised for those who owned gramophones, while the visual recordings of the proceedings were shown in cinemas across the country in the months which followed.

Described as ‘perhaps the most important film record preserved’ in the Irish Film Archive, it consisted of a ‘3-reel coverage, on 16 mm. gauge, of the Eucharistic Congress 1932, filmed and edited by Father F. M. Brown; S.J.  It shows details of the religious ceremonies, glimpses of Irish and foreign churchmen, informal portraits of well-known politicians and leaders in public life, social sidelights such as the Lord Mayor’s ceremonial coach and the old tramway system’.[38] All newspapers, with the notable exception of the Irish Press, advertised the official screening of the Congress film record.

This is an interesting and significant point, mainly due to the Catholic Church in Ireland’s staunch opposition to many aspects of cinema.   According to historian Kevin Rockett, in the 1920s and 1930s Irish bishops had blamed the cinema for carrying alien messages of consumerism and which led to economic and social discontent. Demands for higher wages and emigration were two direct consequences of watching films.[39] Arguably the use of cinema in this way was attempting to redress the imbalance.

It is perhaps easy to see the advertising campaigns related to the Congress as unrestricted free-for-alls which took advantage of the occasion and the pious nature of much of the population.  Some people recognised the potential for citizens and visitors to be taken advantage of when it came to purchasing merchandise, travel, and general goods and services for the congress.  Indeed, investigations were made into the deliberate marking up of travel prices for the Congress in comparison with GAA match day travel.[40]

Addressing concerns at the annual Dublin Chamber of Commerce conference in January 1932, President Mr J.J Halpin stated ‘may I remind traders and hotel keepers that the Eucharistic Congress, which may well be the largest ever held, is a solemn occasion.  The management and catering for a huge concourse of persons of every nationality is a tremendous undertaking.  May I exhort to all to give of their best to help in every way possible way to welcome our co-religionists from far countries. Let us look upon them as guests and allow our country to exercise its fascination unmarred by any extortion, so that our visitors may become frequenters of our beauty spots, and future customers for our goods’.[41]

Besides investigations in the travel price rises, finding people dissatisfied with the Congress is rare.  This is undoubtedly because of the wholly positive coverage the Congress received by all Irish media outlets at the time and afterwards.  Indeed ‘the print media had portrayed this event as one of healing that had brought together those from differing political traditions, and the rich and poor, in a display of Catholic unity’.[42] However, behind this façade of togetherness lay Dublin’s disaffected poor who questioned this notion of togetherness during the Congress and calling into question the integrity of the Catholicism which underpinned it.  In a letter uncovered in recent research, a Dublin tenement dweller clearly shows frustration with circumstances around the event:

“It is quite clear I am denied the right to provide Food, Clothes, & Shelter for my Wife + Family not to mention Education, if I must be denied the right to earn a living in such a callous manner and by people who call themselves Christian & hoist the Flags of Christianity during Congress Week but had in mind the Idea of Starving their less fortunate fellow Beings in a week or two after that so that they might increase/ their Profits”.[43]

The overwhelmingly positive coverage of the Congress, as well as the excitable lead up to the event, drowned out any dissenting voices among those who were charged with and making themselves and their humble houses presentable for the international guests and dignitaries.  This uncritical news coverage also provided advertisers with a positive platform to sell their Congress-related wares.

Readers who were being told on a daily basis of the historical significance of the event, the ideas of asserting national and religious identity in harmony with their fellow countrymen and women, were perhaps more likely to want to feel a part of the events by purchasing many of the items on display alongside the positive news stories.

In Ireland in 1932, Catholicism and consumerism, had in the short term at least, a happy marriage.




[1], p. 2

[2] Ciara Meehan, ‘Politics pictorialised: Free State election posters’ in Mel Farrell, Jason Knirck and Ciara Meehan (eds), A formative decade: Ireland in the 1920s (Sallins, Co. Kildare, 2015), p. 14.

Tim Ellis, Women, gender and masculinity in Irish political cartoons, c.1922-1939 (Unpublished Thesis), p. 4.

[3] Whelan Dr Bernadette, (2014) “Introduction to Irish marketing history”, Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol. 6 Issue: 1

[4] Irish Independent, 18 Oct. 1929.

[5] John Turpin, ‘Visual Culture and Catholicism in the Irish Free State, 1922–1949’ in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History / Volume null / Issue 01 / January 2006, pp 55 – 77

[6] David G. Holmes ‘The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and Irish Identity’ in New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 55-78

[7]Irish Independent, 24 May 1932.

[8] Emmet Larkin ‘The Devotional Revolution in Ireland, 1850-75’ in The American Historical Review, Vol. 77, No. 3 (Jun., 1972), pp. 625-652.

[9] David Holmes, Eucharistic Congress Irish Identity, New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 55-78

[10] Rory O’Dwyer, ‘On show to the world: the Eucharistic Congress, 1932’ in History Ireland Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2007), Volume 15.

[11]Kilkenny People, 29 Nov. 1930.

[12]Irish Independent, 24 June 1932.

[13] Alice Courtayne, ‘The story of the Eucharistic Congress’, Capuchin Annual (1933), p. 75.

[14]Kerry News, 1 Jan. 1932.

[15] Drogheda Independent, 1 Jan. 1932.

[16] Irish Press, 20 Jan. 1932.

[17] Irish Press, 1 Feb. 1932.

[18] Irish Press, 23 Jan. 1932.

[19] Irish Press 9 Jan. 1932.

[20] Irish Press 1 March. 1932.

[21] D. Ferriter, Pope and ceremony: how the 1932 congress melded church and State church-and-state-1.1063510

[22] Irish Independent, 3 May. 1932.

[23] Munster Express, 25 March. 1932.

[24] Irish Examiner, 25 March. 1932.

[25] Munster Express, 1 Jan. 1932.

[26] Munster Express, 4 Dec. 1931.

[27] Irish Press, 9 Jan. 1932.

[28] Irish Independent, 29 Jan. 1932.

[29] Nenagh Guardian, 19 Jan. 1932.

[30] Gary A. Boyd (2007) SUPERNATIONAL CATHOLICITY, Early Popular Visual Culture, 5:3, 317-333

[31] Irish Times, 27 Jun. 1932.

[32] John Turpin, ‘Visual Culture and Catholicism in the Irish Free State, 1922–1949’ in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History / Volume null / Issue 01 / January 2006, pp 55 – 77.

[33] Sunday Independent, 7 Aug. 1932.

[34] Irish Press 6 July. 1932.

[35] Irish Independent, 3 Sept. 1932.

[36] Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks:

[37] Limerick Leader, 25 June. 1932.

[38] Séamus O’Connor ‘A National Need: An Irish Film Archive’ in  An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 54, No. 213 (Spring, 1965), pp. 83-90

[39] Kevin Rockett ‘Protecting the Family and the Nation: The official censorship of American cinema in Ireland, 1923‐1954’ in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 20: No 3 (2000), pp. 283-300

[40] Nenagh Guardian, 9 April. 1932.

[41] Irish Independent, 28 Jan. 1932.

[42] Lindsey Earner-Byrne, Letters of the Catholic Poor Poverty in Independent Ireland, 1920–1940 (2017).

[43] Ibid.

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How a Catholic celebration in Dublin inflamed sectarian passions in Northern Ireland. By Barry Sheppard.

Public religious commemorations, often exultant in tone, have had a significant impact in terms of influencing ideas of Irish nationhood. From the centenary of 1798 rebellion in 1898 to the Easter Rising Jubilee in 1966 and the centenary this year, 2016, public events have helped to shape Irish collective identity.

Hosting the 1932 Eucharistic Congress afforded the Irish state an opportunity to showcase its ‘triumphal Catholicism’ on a world stage. 

The public celebrations which accompanied the centenary of Catholic Emancipation 1829 centenary were described as ‘the public identification of the new state with an apparently unified and triumphant Catholicism’.[1]

Three years after this the Eucharistic Congress consolidated this ‘triumphant Catholicism by affording the Irish state an opportunity to showcase it on a world stage.  While there has been much written on the Congress’s effect upon Irish national identity, less has been written on how such events played out in a state made up of a differing political and religious identities only 100km from Dublin.

Contemporary newspaper representations of the Congress portrayed it as the apex of Irish history, or the high point of Irish religious history.[2] This triumphalist reporting no doubt had negative connotations among the Protestant unionist population in Northern Ireland.  These events are all the more potent when they mix nationalism with religion, public space and political identity.

Northern Ireland and the Irish Free state were only a decade out of revolutionary and sectarian conflict – the Congress inflamed passions in the North.

The prominence of these themes in the Congress of 1932 in particular resulted in instances of inter-communal conflict in Northern Ireland.  This study looks at the Catholic minority in the North at the time of the Congress and how the expression of religious culture and identity were viewed by both the Northern Government and by some of the Unionist population.

Both states; the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, were only a decade out of a revolutionary period which was particularly brutal towards the end in the North, and in particular the Belfast area.  The religious and political differences between the two states were keenly felt from the time of partition.  However, these differences were heightened around the Congress, and for the next several years.

The two states were generally defined by their adherence to the different strands of Christianity, the Free State being closely identified with Roman Catholicism, whereas the Northern state was a devotee of the reformed or Protestant church.

While to some extent these sectarian divisions were manifestations of rival national identities; Irish and British respectively, there was also a purely religious element.

The two clashed on matters of doctrine such as ‘Papal Infallibility – a ‘cornerstone of belief’ to the Catholics, ‘vile blasphemy’ to the Protestants’. These identities were further defined by the ‘differences in the style of ritual-incense, ‘false idols’ and ‘jewels’ for the Catholic ‘chapel,’ and austere surroundings for the Protestant ‘churches’.[1]

Against this backdrop of competing ideologies, instituted identities and the scars of conflict a decade previously the 31st Eucharistic Congress was held in Dublin.

The Eucharistic Congress

Eucharistic Congresses are Catholic congresses – gatherings of ecclesiastics and laymen for the purpose of ‘celebrating and glorifying the Eucharist and of seeking the best means to spread its knowledge’.

The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is one of the principal dogmas of the Catholic Faith and therefore has been the centre of Catholic worship and the source of Christian piety. Conversely, it is also one of the main disputes between the Roman Church and Protestantism.

The first Eucharistic Congress was held in Lille, France in 1881.  Besides the 1908 Congress which was held in London, there seems to have been little sectarian conflict surrounding the event.  In 1908 there was a considerable residue of anti-Catholic feeling in Edwardian England.[3]  Contemporary reports of the event stated that Protestant societies called upon the Ministry and Metropolitan police to ban processions related to the Congress, which were to pass Westminster Abbey.[4]

THe Eucharistic Congress was a Catholic public celebration that had been held since 1881.

However, problems of confessional rivalry in 1908 were mild in comparison to those of 1932, which were entwined with numerous territorial and political problems native to Ireland.

The strong nationalism of both states in many ways mirrored that of its neighbour, a fusion of politics and religion shaped much of public life, which fed into identity-based conflict.  Since partition, relations between the two states were virtually non-existent, yet there was always a watchful eye kept on the other.  This was certainly the case in the build up to the Congress.

After a number of years of conflict, partition, boycotts and civil strife, relations between the two Irish states were frosty at best. The ‘hands off’ approach to relations is illustrated by the Northern government’s reaction to being officially invited to the Congress by organisers in Dublin.

The Northern Ireland authorities were invited to attend. The top echelons of the Northern government ignored the invitations, but some Catholic members of Belfast Corporation attended the congress in their official robes of office

An internal response from Stormont was one of mild confusion as to how to reply to such an invitation.[5]  Officially the top echelons of the Northern government simply ignored the invitations, however some Catholic members of Belfast Corporation took up the offer to attend the congress in their official robes of office.  This act of symbolism and the invite to attend a very public display of Catholicism raised the ire of those connected to the Orange Order and other Protestant groupings in Northern Ireland.

This perceived act of disloyalty led to a meeting of the Belfast County Grand Lodge on 26th May 1932 to discuss the possibility of stopping Aldermen and Councillors attending such an event in an official capacity.  The following resolution was passed:

“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”.[6]

 Posters appeared in various locations in Belfast erected by The Ulster Protestant League in response to Alderman being allowed to attend the Congress in official dress. Addressed to the ‘Protestant People of Belfast’, it asked:

Northern Protestants and unionists were outraged both by the attendance of Belfast Corporation members in robes of office at the ‘idolatrous’ Congress and by the absence there of the Union flag.

‘Why be represented at the Dublin Eucharistic Congress by Roman Catholic members of the Belfast Corporation who have obtained permission to wear the official robes in a country hostile to the King, Commonwealth and Protestantism’?[7]

  The pressure against a progressive and inclusive gesture by Belfast Corporation was further compounded in a letter to the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sir Crawford McCullough from Ulster Protestant League. The letter stated: “At a crowded meeting held last night in the Ulster Hall, the enclosed resolution was unanimously passed… We wish to know what steps you intend to take to have the decision of 2nd May, 1932, rescinded.  Your reply and the resolution will appear in the press”.[8] Nevertheless, the historic gesture was upheld and Catholic members of Belfast Corporation attended the Congress in official robes.[9]

Tensions related to symbolism were also highlighted by the omission of the British Union flag from the array of flags representing the nations attending the Congress.  This exclusion was raised in the British press, which referred to it as a ‘Gratuitous Insult to English Catholics’.[10] It was also raised British Houses of Parliament by Conservative MP John Gretton to Dominions Secretary J.H. Thomas.[11] The issue of flags would again come to the fore during the event along contested parade routes in the North.

Travelling to Dublin

It was estimated that 100,000 pilgrims made the cross border journey from the North.  Journeys were made by car, train, bus and even steamboat, with adverts for travel arrangements appearing in local newspapers months in advance of the event, such was the demand.

For the Congress finale, an open air mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park on 26th June exceptionally large numbers of pilgrims from Northern Ireland made their way in the early hours from numerous departure points in Belfast, Larne and Portadown.

What was a highly anticipated excursion soon turned into a crisis when a number of groups of pilgrims on their way to the Congress were attacked by Protestant loyalists in several locations.

Catholic pilgrims from the North were attacked by loyalists on their way south to the Congress.

In Larne a number of pilgrims from the area had chartered a steamboat to take them along the east coast to Dublin.  According to two local priests from the Larne area, a crowd of 150 in number were permitted to assemble in the area and attack Catholic travellers departing by steamboat and bus, unchallenged by police.

“At the scene of attack police were observed standing inactive while showers of stones rained past them upon the pilgrims.  At the quayside members of the mob advanced even to the ship’s side and insulted the pilgrims going on board, while the police, even when requested by one of the priests in charge, did not remove them.”[12]

Press reaction


A number of similar incidents across Northern Ireland that evening which were quickly relayed in both the Irish and British press. The Newsletter reported on in Sandy Row, South Belfast a loyalist crowd attempted ‘to surge into Roman Catholic quarters’ but were repelled by police.  Further on the same stretch of road a crowd of approximately 200 youths with Union Jacks and a Lambeg drum attempted to block the path of a number of pilgrims who were about to leave by train from the Great Northern Railway Station.

In the town of Ballymena, Co Antrim a 500-strong crowd of Loyalists gathered to confront the travelling Catholics.  It was reported that a number of the crowd stole parcels of food and tore the clothes from departing pilgrims.  The size and ferocity of the crowd was said to have prevented between 130-200 people from making the journey to Dublin.  Further attacks in Claudy and Coleraine in Co Derry saw pilgrims attacked on their bus journeys.[13]The Irish News sensationally reported that attempts had been made to derail a train carrying pilgrims near Armoy Co Antrim.[14]

The nationalist press denounced the failure of the RUC police to protect Catholic travellers.

In Britain the press coverage painted a picture of widespread disorder across the North.  The Dundee Courier and Advertiser told its readers of special trains laid on for the event were besieged by hostile gangs who ‘lined the railway banks, sang party songs, and hurled missiles at the trains’ in attacked in Belfast, Lisburn and Portadown.[15] The paper also reported of incidents of hand-to-hand combat between Orangemen and Catholics who clashed over objections to the erection of Eucharistic Flags in Co Tyrone.[16]

This incident was well covered in a number of other newspapers on both sides of the Irish Sea.  The Aberdeen Journal stated that following a service attended by approximately 300 Orangemen in Donnemanagh Church, Co Tyrone on Sunday 26th June, clashes with Catholics took place in the main street.

“The [Northern Ireland] Government condemns these cowardly outrages in the strongest possible manner”, while the Orange Order stated that it was ‘deeply concerned to learn of the disgraceful attacks’.

It was reported that the Orangemen resented the erection of Papal and Eucharistic flags being flown on their proposed march route, and ordered that they be taken down.  Once this was refused Orangemen and hundreds of assembled Catholics, who ‘held crucifixes in their hands and sang “Faith of Our Fathers”’ came to blows.[17]  The press account also noted that stones were thrown and several shots rang out, while members of the police were ‘roughly handled’.  After the scuffles irate Orangemen tore down and burned any remaining flags and bunting.[18]

The response from the nationalist press in the North was unsurprisingly robust. Attempting to portray what had happened in terms of good and evil, the Irish News lambasted the Loyalists who attacked pilgrims in various parts of the province. “While one section of the people – drawn from all parts of the world – were united in Dublin seeking divine graces, another section in the North were doing the foul work of the Anti-God forces…..groups of blackguards in various parts of the Six Counties have chosen to tell the world that they, at any rate, have no use for Religion’.[19]

The attacks were quickly condemned by government officials. The Newsletter and several other British news outlets reported that the Ulster Government and the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland expressed their condemnation of the various attacks.  “The Government condemns these cowardly outrages in the strongest possible manner”, while the Orange Order stated that it was ‘deeply concerned to learn of the disgraceful attacks’.[20]

Unsurprisingly, the denunciations were met with a dismissive response by the main Nationalist newspaper the Irish News, which laid the blame squarely at the political classes of Unionism and the Orange Order.  It claimed those who engaged in the violence were the ‘ignorant puppets’ of ‘their better-educated leaders, who have never missed an opportunity for inflaming sectarian passions whenever an opportunity arises’.[21]

Pressure was mounting on the Stormont government to act against those who had attacked pilgrims, as up to that point little or no arrests had been made.  It was also alleged that police had been forewarned that attacks were planned, yet no preventative action was taken.[22]  The Bishop of Down and Conor, Daniel Mageean sought out the Minister for Home Affairs, Sir Dawson Bates to highlight his concern at the events and the alleged inaction of the police.


Dear Sir,

Last Sunday I sent you a telegram calling your attention to the attack made in Larne at 2am that morning on the pilgrims to the Eucharistic Congress.  On my return from Dublin I requested the priests in charge of the pilgrims to send me an account of the affair, and I beg to enclose a copy of it.

In view of the attitude of the police on the occasion, and of the fact that no arrests have yet been made in connection with the outrage, although a list of some of the delinquents has been given to the police, I shall send these letters to the press unless measures are taken without delay to bring the culprits to justice.[23]


Concerns were raised by businessmen as to how the outrages would affect cross-border trade. Belfast businessman Mr EWJ Harvey reached out to Lord Craigavon to relay the palpable anger among businesses in the Free State at the treatment of their co-religionists and the lack of an official response.  He highlighted the possibility of another Northern trade boycott:

My Lord,

I have just returned from a business trip to Co Monaghan and Co Louth, and, as a Protestant Representative of a Northern firm, I would respectfully draw your attention to the extreme bitterness which exists as the result of the attacks on R.C’s returning from Dublin Congress.

They are quite convinced that our Government did not take any steps whatever to protect the returning Catholics from attacks and that nothing will be done to compensate the sufferers or punish the perpetrators.

A Boycott of Northern goods is contemplated.

I do trust the Government will act immediately and thus do much to wards righting a great wrong and help to retain the small amount of business which we Northern firms still contrive to secure in the face of duties etc.[24]

Publicly, the government did little to acknowledge any concern regarding a proposed boycott, although the matter was raised internally.  For them the prime concern was the security of the Northern state around the border, and the potential for disorder to spread to the cities of Belfast and Derry should there be a breach of security in border regions.  Bates felt that anger among nationalists could lead men from the South to use vulnerable points along the border to attack the North in reprisal for violence towards Catholics during the Congress.

Feeling that Enniskillen was a particularly vulnerable point he argued “I think that, while nothing can prevent it happening, we will be able to make it more difficult for the attackers having regard to the new arrangement in regard to the “B” Specials, and the powers that we have under the Civil Authorities Act, but if large bodies of men come across the border we have no means whatever of dealing with the situations except by means of troops”.[25]

Bates felt that the chronic unemployment which existed at the time was an underlying factor which combined with the attacks on the travelling Catholics could be a catalyst for widespread disorder.  However, it appeared that the need for troops was considered a final option, with the threat of economic measures perhaps being enough of a deterrent.

“It might be said that such an action would be provocative, but, on the other hand, if the British Government intend to use arbitrary powers and prevent by taxation imports of all goods from the Free State, that in itself is an action which may have the result of precipitating the very action which I want to guard against by the use of troops”.[26]


An investigation on the disorder was ordered amid allegations of police incompetence and collusion with the attackers.  In Belfast the investigation found that matters had remained quiet until late on Saturday night, 25th June, and early on the following morning when ‘a rowdy element’ appeared on Great Victoria Street where approximately 35,000 left by various means of transportation. The report stated that disorder only occurred after the pilgrims had departed, with windows being smashed and some looting occurring.

An investigation on the disorder was ordered amid allegations of police incompetence and collusion with the attackers. 

In Larne the most serious disorder occurred. The report stated that while approximately 500 people took police advice to depart early in the evening for the Congress, 700 more insisted on parading through the town: ‘The sight of this unusual procession through the town in the dead of night, in badly lighted streets, had an unsettling effect upon the unruly element of the Protestant side’.[27] A 700 strong hostile crowd attacked busses, while at the port ‘an immense crowd had then gathered and stones were being thrown from a distance.  All the available police were then employed in pushing back the crowd’.[28]

A number of other flashpoints were examined including Ballymena, Lurgan, Lisburn and Portadown.  Nevertheless, the report found no evidence of police culpability.  In the wake of the report and subsequent arrests relating to the disorder, Bates raised some concerns with Lord Craigavon and about the nature of the sentences which were to be handed down to the attackers.

Bates stated that he was somewhat perturbed lest the Resident Magistrates should go in for ‘savage sentences’. Arguing that any such sentencing could unsettle a comparable peace which had descended and handicap the Government should any further disorder occur:

“I had a long talk with the Attorney and the Chief Crown Solicitor, and the view that we took was that it would suffice if the rank and file of the offenders and those who bore good characters were bound over to keep the peace and that moderate sentences should be imposed on those of bad character and the ring-leaders. I do not want when the new Parliament House is opened, or when, on the other hand, we might be engaged in very violent disturbances in connection with the Free State, to have the Government handicapped by having 70 or 80 young fellows in gaol”.[29]

The insistence on leniency for the perpetrators in this case highlights a siege mentality among northern politicians at the time.  The religious and cultural differences between the two states and the public declaration of faith by one at times fed into the anxieties of the other.  Political and religious identities had become extremely ingrained within the two states since their establishment. With the added elements of the revolutionary period and the enforced partition of the two states little over a decade previously, any public displays of identity involving large numbers of people would have been a perceived threat to the other.

The almost carnival atmosphere in which flags and bunting were festooned upon countless streets and houses were looked upon as an indication of the complete acceptance of the ideals of the Congress from the top to the bottom of Irish society.

This is, of course in stark contrast to how similar items were seen as a source of contention along contested parade routes, which ended with the burning of Papal and Eucharistic flags.  Incidents of inter-communal conflict happened long before and after the events of June 1932.  However, the sheer size of the events in Dublin and further afield arguably brought Catholic identity to the fore for the first time in the Northern state, with explosive results.



[1] Elliot Leyton Opposition and Integration in Ulster in Man, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 185-198

[1] Gillian McIntosh ‘Acts of ‘national communion’: the centenary celebrations for Catholic Emancipation, the forerunner of the Eucharistic Congress’ in Joost Augusteijn (ed) Ireland in the 1930s, (Dublin, 1999), p.84.

[2] Holmes, ‘The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and Irish Identity’ p56.

[3]  G. I. T. Machin ‘The Liberal Government and the Eucharistic Procession of 1908’ in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 34, No. 4, (1983), pp 559-583.

[4]The Spectator, 12 Sep. 1908.

[5] Mr F. O’Reilly to Sir Dawson Bates, 6 Mar. 1931 (CAB9B/200/)

[6] Memo to Sir Crawford McCullough from Belfast County Grand Orange Lodge, 28 May. 1932 (LA/7/3A/5)

[7] Rory O’Dwyer, ‘The Eucharistic Congress, Dublin 1932: An Illustrated History’, (Dublin, 2009), p.13.

[8] H. Niblock to Sir Crawford McCullough, 30 May. 1932 (LA/7/3A/5)

[9]Ulster Herald, 18 June, 1932.

[10] The Hartlepool Mail, 24 June, 1932.

[11]Western Daily Press, 24 June, 1932.

[12] Fr Bernard MacLaverty C.C. and Fr Peter Kelly C.C. to Larne Parochial House 29 June 1932 (CAB9B/200/ Govt of Northern Ireland File on the Eucharistic Congress).

[13]The Newsletter, 27 June, 1932.

[14]The Irish News, 28 June, 1932.

[15]Dundee Courier and Advertiser, 28 June, 1932.

[16] Ibid.

[17]Aberdeen Journal, 28 June 1932.

[18] Ibid

[19]The Irish News, 27 June, 1932.

[20]The Newsletter, 28 June, 1932.

[21]The Irish News, 28 June, 1932.

[22]The Irish News, 29 June, 1932.

[23] D. Mageean Bishop of Down and Connor to Sir Dawson Bates, 29 June 1932. (CAB9B/200/ Govt of Northern Ireland File on the Eucharistic Congress).

[24] EWJ Harvey to Viscount Craigavon, 29 June 1932 (CAB9B/200/)

[25] Sir Dawson Bates to Viscount Craigavon, 2 July 1932. (CAB9B/200/)

[26] Ibid.

[27] Director General’s Office, Royal Ulster Constabulary Belfast Report into Eucharistic Congress Disorder, 8 July 1932 (HA8/494)

[28] Ibid.

[29] Sir Dawson Bates to Viscount Craigavon, 26 July 1932 (CAB9B/200/)

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