At a recent Sunday Mass in the Parish Church I picked up a postcard addressed to the Taoiseach Enda Kenny, intended to be signed and posted to Government Buildings asking for an invitation to be extended to the Pope to visit Ireland for the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress. My initial reaction was one of surprise and then of annoyance to think that an Irish Government would have to be petitioned to invite the Pope to our country. Surely I thought our wounded Church has not plummeted to such depths as to render its leader unwelcome in the country which had withstood religious persecution over centuries. The papal invitation, if it is to issue from the Government, is for the Pope to visit Ireland during the Eucharistic Congress which takes place between 10th to 17th June of this year.
The Eucharistic Congress will be the second Congress of its type ever to be held in Ireland. The previous Congress was held from 21st to 26th June 1932 at a time when the country was recovering from the ravages of the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War.
Reading through newspaper reports for 1932 I could not but realise how the Irish people of 80 years ago rose to the great occasion which was the Eucharistic Congress in contrast to the rather muted preparations which are currently in place for this years event. Even allowing for the wounded state of the Catholic Church it seems likely that Ireland’s second Eucharistic Congress will be an event of underwhelming proportions. If it is, it will be in marked contrast to the events of 1932 when the entire country was gripped with Eucharistic Congress fever of enormous intensity.
While the main Congress events took place in Dublin every town and village in Ireland hosted religious events in local churches attended by those who could not make the journey to the capital city. Public transport was augmented by private transport comprising private cars and hackney cars, as well as lorries which brought huge crowds of people from rural Ireland to Dublin city. Here in Athy the local people entered into the Eucharistic Congress spirit with enthusiasm and energy. The Kildare Observer reported on 16th June 1932 that ‘decorations for the Eucharistic Congress in Athy are almost if not quite universal. Flags, banners, buntings spanning every street have given the old town a very festive appearance – in fact the town has blossomed into a “perfect riot of colour”’.
Religious ceremonies in Athy started on the first Sunday of the Eucharistic Congress, with two Masses for women at 7.00 a.m. and 8.00 a.m. This was followed by two Masses for the men of St. Michael’s Parish in the local Parish Church and all the local newspapers reported large attendances by both sexes. On Tuesday morning a children’s Mass was arranged for 9 o’clock in the morning and at the same time on that day a special Mass was held in what was described as ‘the new hall’ in the Christian Brothers in St. John’s Lane, with the Parish Priest, Fr. McDonnell, as the celebrant.
Athy Urban District Council arranged for notices to be posted in the town calling on local traders to close their premises on Thursday, 23rd June for the Congress celebrations. A subsequent report indicated that all the local shopkeepers complied and over 500 Athy locals took advantage of the free day to travel to Dublin. The Urban District Council also arranged for the decorating of the town and made special arrangements for the cleaning of the streets. Shop fronts were painted with the encouragement of the Council and footpaths, long out of repair, were repaired, while all the public buildings in the town were decorated with bunting and flags.
The local newspapers reported the holding of midnight Mass in St. Michael’s Parish Church and also in the Dominican Church on the Wednesday night. ‘Dusk fell, illuminations started everywhere – in almost every house. Each window had its one lighted candle or lamp. The shrines on the side streets and suburbs were also ablaze with light and the whole town presented a very brilliant appearance.’
It was also reported that owing chiefly to the energies of Joe May, Clerk of the Athy County Home, a wireless set had been installed to give the elderly people in the Home the opportunity of hearing the religious ceremonies during Congress week. The wireless set, which cost £50, was paid for with the proceeds of a raffle which Joe May and a local committee had organised.
Loudspeakers were also set up in the Peoples Park where immense crowds gathered and brought chairs which were placed around the trees as the commentary of the events in Dublin was broadcast. It has recently been claimed to me that the loudspeakers were provided by the proprietor of the nearby I.V.I. Foundry, Colonel Hosie.