Wednesday 17 January 2018

As Dublin prepares for the 50th International Eucharistic Congress, Ronan Abayawickrema talks to some of those who attended the last such congress held in Ireland, back in 1932

It was one of the largest public spectacles in Ireland in the 20th Century, and a defining moment in the history of the nascent Irish state. The 31st International Eucharistic Congress, which was held from June 21-26 1932 in Dublin, saw an official visit to Ireland by the Pope's special representative Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri and the arrival of hundreds of churchmen from around the world, including cardinals and bishops from Africa, Australia, China, Serbia and the US.

As well as its obvious spiritual importance, the 1932 congress had a significant political dimension. The Free State was just 10 years old in 1932, and the newly installed Fianna Fail government of Eamon de Valera was keen to demonstrate to the world that Ireland was a leading Catholic nation. Indeed, so important was the congress that the Dail passed a specific act to cover the event.

Yet, in addition to the politicians and high-ranking clergy, the congress was also attended by vast numbers of lay people. Some 100,000 worshippers converged on the Phoenix Park for an open-air Mass on Saturday, June 26. And for many of those who attended events during congress week, the experience would form a defining moment in their lives. Indeed, 80 years later, memories of the 1932 congress are still clear for four of those who attended the event as children.

Frank Forde was 10 in the year of the congress, and he and his brother were brought by their parents to one of the two masses held in the Phoenix Park. They walked to the park from their home in Dublin's Dominick Street, and he recalls that the two boys were dressed up in white suits and given tin cups from which to drink milk during the day.

Mr Forde (90) also remembers "the bunting across the trees and the papal flags... and the crowds of people. We saw all the dignitaries, the clergy... the bishops, cardinals and archbishop, all the hierarchy. They were all there."

Had the impending congress been a big talking point among his friends at school? "We knew as children there was something going on... but it wouldn't really register (fully) on a 10-year-old." His abiding memories of the week of the congress are of "hustle and bustle, people moving about and crowds of people coming out of the church."

Mr Forde held on to one of the papal flags produced for the congress as a cherished memento. Years later, in the 1950s, when he had a family of his own and had moved out of the city centre to Walkinstown, "my eldest daughter was about 10 years of age, I think. You had these rag-and-bone men going up and down the street (calling) "rags and bones"; she rushed into the house and grabbed my wife's best coat, the blanket off the baby... and the papal flag, and rushed out and gave it to him -- for a balloon! That's how we lost the papal flag," he laughs.

Patricia Gill was just two and a half when her parents brought her to one of the Phoenix Park masses, and although she has no memory of the Mass, a particular anecdote about her attendance of it has followed her throughout her life.

"At one stage during the Mass, I got very hungry," says Ms Gill (82), "and I shouted out in a loud voice, 'Patsy wants her pudney pie!' Everybody heard, and my mother and father were very embarrassed." She says that her mother told everybody about it when she was growing up, and the story has passed right down to her grandnieces and nephews "and every time they meet me, they sing 'Patsy wants her pudney pie!' So, I'm notorious in the family."

Tom Murphy remembers the journey from his home near Lusk, north Co Dublin into town on the bus with his mother to Mass in the Phoenix Park as a cause of great excitement for an eight-year-old. "We got a free day off school ... it was a day out for me -- getting into Dublin at that time, in 1932, was a bit of a novelty."

Mr Murphy (88) also recalls the vast crowds in the park. "It was impossible to get a seat, we were standing most of the day."

People travelled from all over Ireland to attend the main congress events in Dublin, and Thomas O'Hagan, who was 10 at the time, travelled down from Dundalk on the train.

"We said the rosary from Dundalk to Drogheda, and again from Drogheda to Dublin," he says. He remembers the preparations for the 1932 congress well. "There was a tremendous build-up... The papers were full of it, and it was the talk of the school. An extraordinary thing was that people seemed to change... people who were your enemies ... (suddenly) had a very nice manner to each other. Nice and affable, and everybody (was) happy," he says, adding "but then it wasn't too long after the congress that normal life resumed!"

While Mr O'Hagan's siblings were involved with local festivities held to coincide with the congress, he was the only one lucky enough to travel to Dublin with his father. They attended Mass both in the Phoenix Park and in Croke Park.

Mr O'Hagan also has vivid memories of hearing John McCormack sing at the Phoenix Park mass. "I was down on the ground and I could see nothing... but then the next thing, down comes this voice singing 'Panis Angelicus'. I didn't know it was Count John McCormack, but to me it was just music from God -- an extraordinary feeling -- being sent just for me."

He describes the sound as "crystal clear", testament to the huge, state-of-the-art PA system employed for the open-air masses. He also recalls the pomp and ceremony of one of the processions through Dublin.

'One thing that impressed me was the Irish Army. The soldiers had a new uniform... and they looked the part. And at that time, the Government was trying to force our good points on the rest of the world... We were just entering nationhood... and (the congress) was the first big effort at tourism," he said.

Eight decades later, Mr Forde, Ms Gill, Mr Murphy and Mr O'Hagan all plan to attend one of the masses at the 2012 Eucharistic Congress, and, at 89, Mr O'Hagan is the oldest volunteer helping with this year's celebrations.

All four retain strong memories of the 1932 Eucharistic Congress, and it's clear that they still feel a deep connection to the faith awakened or bolstered at that event. Says Mr O'Hagan, "It was the biggest event of my life -- nothing else beats it."

Irish Independent Supplement

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