By Mary Sheerin
The 31st International Eucharistic Congress, held in Dublin in June 1932, could be deemed one of the most remarkable public events hosted by Ireland in the early 20th Century.
Ireland was chosen as the venue, ostensibly at least, to commemorate the 1,500th anniversary of St. Patrick’s arrival in Ireland. I well remember, being taught in school that St Patrick came to Ireland in 432. It was drummed into us.
It is no exaggeration to say that for those five days of the Congress, the eyes of the world were upon Ireland. Key hierarchical prelates from America, Australia, Europe and further afield came to Dublin. International media crammed the city, including the renowned Catholic intellectual, G. K. Chesterton.
For 2RN this represented a broadcasting challenge they had never foreseen would happen. To their credit, and that of Seamus Clandillon and the Post Office engineers, they acquitted themselves extremely well; for the Congress was on a scale to test a far greater organisation than 2RN.
The ceremonies included a Men’s Mass held in the ‘fifteen acres’ of the Phoenix Park on 23 June; a Women’s Mass in the same location on 24 June; a Children’s Mass on 25 June. All were attended by hundreds of thousands, whilst the main pontifical High Mass in the Phoenix Park on 26 June was attended by more than a million people. There were large choirs of both children and adults and the renowned tenor, John McCormack sang Panis Angelicus.
At the Consecration of the Mass, Army Officers presented arms and in a brilliantly orchestrated sequence, thirty-six glinting sword blades were pointed towards the altar. The absolute silence amongst the congregation was broken by six trumpeters sounding a royal salute.
This was followed by the tolling of an ancient bell traditionally associated with St. Patrick and borrowed from the National Museum for the Mass.
Another significant highlight of this Mass was a live broadcast by Pope Pius Xl from the Vatican. It was the first time the Pope’s voice was heard in Ireland.
Apart from the solemnity of the occasion it was a spectacular performance organised with precision and detail. The broadcast was transmitted via an elaborate PA system with loudspeakers located in the Park, along the city quays and other key points. It would be true to say that Dublin became a virtual open-air cathedral.
All the programmes were broadcast from Athlone and the High Mass in the Phoenix Park was relayed by all stations of the BBC.
Following the High Mass there was an enormous procession from the Park, down the quays, culminating at O’Connell Bridge where solemn Benediction took place. The chief celebrant was the the papal legate, Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri.
There were also ceremonies in the Pro-Cathedral and State Receptions in Dublin Castle. Seamus Clandillon and his small staff succeeded in covering all events. It was a measure of their commitment and professionalism that they overcame the challenges posed.
For the people of Ireland it was an uplifting experience that gave them hope and confidence in their national identity. Ireland was a very religious country back then; the faith of the people was strong and fervent. Ireland was then a country where pictures of the Sacred Heart and the Pope were to be found in almost every home.
Religious practice was their touchstone; their enduring faith helped them survive those harsh and poverty stricken times back then.
Thus, the Eucharistic Congress presented a valuable snapshot of a period in modern Irish history when religious devotion and fervour were at an apex.
The Congress broadcasts brought the appeal of wireless into many homes that had hitherto been without it. People in rural Ireland felt that they were taking part in the great events in Dublin. They had followed all the ceremonies; they had heard John McCormack sing; and the crowning glory had been to hear the voice of the Pope himself right there in their own homes.
To say it was a great experience for them is an understatement. It was also a convincing manifestation of the power of broadcasting. For those who were suspect about the wireless that wonderful week of the Congress soon dispelled those doubts. Broadcasting had proved itself. 2RN was here to stay.
In political terms, for Eamon de Valera and his minority government, it was a triumph. Six months after the Congress, de Valera called a snap election. Fianna Fáil were returned with a majority. They were to stay in power until 1948.