The Irish Story has published an excellent piece by Barry Sheppard exploring how the 1932 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin “inflamed sectarian passions” in Northern Ireland.
Held once every four years, an International Eucharistic Congress is a gathering of Roman Catholic clergy, religious and laity for the purpose of bearing witness to the “Real Presence of Jesus” in the Eucharist, one of the church’s core beliefs. The 31st such Congress, 22–26 June 1932, arrived 10 years after the partition of Ireland and three years after the 1929 centennial of Catholic Emancipation. Sheppard quotes another author who described the later event as “the public identification of the new state with an apparently unified and triumphant Catholicism.”
Sheppard continues that contemporary newspaper representations of the Congress portrayed it as the apex of Irish history, or the high point of Irish religious history. Such “triumphalist reporting no doubt had negative connotations among the Protestant unionist population in Northern Ireland.”
The result were a series of bloody clashes in the north, and a hardening of the island’s already bitter sectarian divide. As I read the story, several questions immediately came to my mind:
- What did English Catholic author C. K. Chesterton have to say about this?
I pulled my copy of “Christendom in Dublin” from the shelf. Chesterton doesn’t mention the violence in the north in his 1933 book about the Congress. He does open with a chapter titled “The Flutter of the Flags,” a breezy discourse on the Union Jack, the tricolour of the then Irish Free State and the Papal flag. “It must be remembered that, to the Dublin populace, the Union Jack is not so much the popular flag of the English people; it is the party flag of one Irish party; the old Orange party of Ascendancy.”
Later, Chesterton writes that seeing so much of Christendom in Dublin was like being taken to the top of a mountain and seeing all the kingdoms of the earth. He adds: “If any bright wit from Portadown or Belfast retorts that the Devil, in the person of the Papal Legate, would naturally take me there, I am content to bow and smile.”
- What did the American press have to say about this?
This four-deck headline on page 2 of the 27 June edition of The New York Times reflects the international coverage:
Catholics Mobbed in Belfast Region
Crowds Stone Pilgrims Boarding Trains for Eucharistic Congress in Dublin
Rioters Knock Girls Down
Tear Hats, Lunch Baskets and Umbrellas From Women–Buses and Steamers Attacked
- What does history have to say about this?
In his 2009 book, “The Eucharistic Congress, Dublin 1932”, author Rory O’Dwyer observes that charges the event only served to further consolidate the partition of Ireland are undeniable. Still, Ireland’s religious and political divisions were already “firmly entrenched” by this time. Then, he slyly notes:
Two weeks (after the Congress), main streets in most Northern towns were profusely decorated with loyalist symbols of the Twelfth of July celebrations. There was no record of any damage to these decorations.
Midsummer “marching season” violence between Catholics and Protestants did occur long before the 1932 Congress, and some of the worst such rioting happened just three years later. That’s detailed in another piece in The Irish Story by John Dorney.