It is hard to imagine in 2022 how much the Eucharistic Congress ninety years ago in 1932 would have meant to Ireland and indeed the Catholic world in a time when religion was so much more a part of everyday life, writes Nicky Rossiter.
Ireland was a young country just a decade into its independence in 1922 and it was to take on an occasion that might be described as a cross between The Great Exhibition, The World Cup, The Olympics and The Eurovision. Defined as gatherings of ecclesiastics and laymen ‘for the purpose of celebrating and glorifying the Holy Eucharist and of seeking the best means to spread its knowledge and love throughout the world’ (Catholic Encyclopaedia).
Preparations began years before the event. Dublin was chosen as the venue in 1929 and from then on committees were busy working on the logistics.
Things we often forget about when we look back those 90 years are the small mundane things. It was estimated that there would be a need for about 8,000 extra accommodation beds in Dublin for the event. Added to that was where were all of the expected visitors going to eat. New restaurants and cafes would be needed. These would need staff, especially chefs or cooks so these needed to be trained.
Then we might consider the native Irish who would be attending. Motor cars were very scarce still and buses and trains could only transport so many. It was an era of the bicycle, with it being quite common for people to cycle from Cork to Dublin for an All-Ireland Final.
But imagine the many thousands who would attend the Congress arriving by bicycle or maybe horse or ass and cart. All of these needed to be accommodated somewhere. Imagine a few thousand bicycles, almost all identical parked or just dropped near a venue.
The congress took place over five days but ‘the Congress period’ was legally designated as commencing on 18 June and ending on 1 July and laws had to be passed to facilitate it. The Eucharistic Congress (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 1932 made provision for special traffic control regulations, special exemptions for hotels and restaurants in the Dublin area and numerous other arrangements.
As a result camps were established in Cabra and Artane. Accommodation was provided in national schools, local halls and library buildings. Mattresses were produced in advance of the congress to enable countless Dublin households to accommodate visiting relatives and other pilgrims. The liners in which people travelled to Ireland served as ‘floating hotels’. Shops did a roaring trade selling white dresses and other accoutrements in the weeks before the event.
There was also an informative and intellectual side to the events. Public lectures relating to the Eucharist and to Ireland and her history took place in the Theatre Royal, the Savoy Theatre, the Mansion House and University College Dublin.
The enthusiasm for the congress was shown by the high levels of religious observance in advance of and during the event. Thousands participated in retreats and special services to pray for the congress. Diocesan and parochial units were organised throughout Ireland by a Eucharistic Congress League. A ‘Crusade of Prayer’ was organised to pray for the success of the congress and involved thousands of people.
On the political front there were decisions to be made. Cumann na nGaedheal was the party in power as all the preparations were being made and no doubt they hoped to be the ones welcoming the international guests to the Congress.
W. T. Cosgrave, who had been President (equivalent of Taoiseach) since 1922, brought the election forward to February so that it would be done and dusted by the time the dignitaries arrived in June. It proved to be a miscalculation as Fianna Fáil’s triumph meant that the new president, Éamon de Valera, who had been excommunicated from the church for his anti-Treaty stance, was the one to welcome the cardinals to Ireland.