‘Inflaming sectarian passions’ The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and the North of Ireland

Crowds in Dun Laoghaire await the arrival of Archbishop Logue in 1932 for the Eucharistic Congress. (Courtesy of the Irish Times)
Crowds in Dublin’s Earl Street in 1932 for the Eucharistic Congress. (Courtesy of the Irish Times)

How a Catholic celebration in Dublin inflamed sectarian passions in Northern Ireland. By Barry Sheppard.

Public religious commemorations, often exultant in tone, have had a significant impact in terms of influencing ideas of Irish nationhood. From the centenary of 1798 rebellion in 1898 to the Easter Rising Jubilee in 1966 and the centenary this year, 2016, public events have helped to shape Irish collective identity.

Hosting the 1932 Eucharistic Congress afforded the Irish state an opportunity to showcase its ‘triumphal Catholicism’ on a world stage. 

The public celebrations which accompanied the centenary of Catholic Emancipation 1829 centenary were described as ‘the public identification of the new state with an apparently unified and triumphant Catholicism’.[1]

Three years after this the Eucharistic Congress consolidated this ‘triumphant Catholicism by affording the Irish state an opportunity to showcase it on a world stage.  While there has been much written on the Congress’s effect upon Irish national identity, less has been written on how such events played out in a state made up of a differing political and religious identities only 100km from Dublin.

Contemporary newspaper representations of the Congress portrayed it as the apex of Irish history, or the high point of Irish religious history.[2] This triumphalist reporting no doubt had negative connotations among the Protestant unionist population in Northern Ireland.  These events are all the more potent when they mix nationalism with religion, public space and political identity.

Northern Ireland and the Irish Free state were only a decade out of revolutionary and sectarian conflict – the Congress inflamed passions in the North.

The prominence of these themes in the Congress of 1932 in particular resulted in instances of inter-communal conflict in Northern Ireland.  This study looks at the Catholic minority in the North at the time of the Congress and how the expression of religious culture and identity were viewed by both the Northern Government and by some of the Unionist population.

Both states; the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, were only a decade out of a revolutionary period which was particularly brutal towards the end in the North, and in particular the Belfast area.  The religious and political differences between the two states were keenly felt from the time of partition.  However, these differences were heightened around the Congress, and for the next several years.

Catholic refugees from Belfast in Dublin, May 1922
Catholic refugees from Belfast in Dublin, May 1922

The two states were generally defined by their adherence to the different strands of Christianity, the Free State being closely identified with Roman Catholicism, whereas the Northern state was a devotee of the reformed or Protestant church.

While to some extent these sectarian divisions were manifestations of rival national identities; Irish and British respectively, there was also a purely religious element.

The two clashed on matters of doctrine such as ‘Papal Infallibility – a ‘cornerstone of belief’ to the Catholics, ‘vile blasphemy’ to the Protestants’. These identities were further defined by the ‘differences in the style of ritual-incense, ‘false idols’ and ‘jewels’ for the Catholic ‘chapel,’ and austere surroundings for the Protestant ‘churches’.[1]

Against this backdrop of competing ideologies, instituted identities and the scars of conflict a decade previously the 31st Eucharistic Congress was held in Dublin.

The Eucharistic Congress

The huge open air mass at Dublin's Phoenix Park.
The huge open air mass at Dublin’s Phoenix Park. (Courtesy of Irish Times).

Eucharistic Congresses are Catholic congresses – gatherings of ecclesiastics and laymen for the purpose of ‘celebrating and glorifying the Eucharist and of seeking the best means to spread its knowledge’.

The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is one of the principal dogmas of the Catholic Faith and therefore has been the centre of Catholic worship and the source of Christian piety. Conversely, it is also one of the main disputes between the Roman Church and Protestantism.

The first Eucharistic Congress was held in Lille, France in 1881.  Besides the 1908 Congress which was held in London, there seems to have been little sectarian conflict surrounding the event.  In 1908 there was a considerable residue of anti-Catholic feeling in Edwardian England.[3]  Contemporary reports of the event stated that Protestant societies called upon the Ministry and Metropolitan police to ban processions related to the Congress, which were to pass Westminster Abbey.[4]

THe Eucharistic Congress was a Catholic public celebration that had been held since 1881.

However, problems of confessional rivalry in 1908 were mild in comparison to those of 1932, which were entwined with numerous territorial and political problems native to Ireland.

The strong nationalism of both states in many ways mirrored that of its neighbour, a fusion of politics and religion shaped much of public life, which fed into identity-based conflict.  Since partition, relations between the two states were virtually non-existent, yet there was always a watchful eye kept on the other.  This was certainly the case in the build up to the Congress.

After a number of years of conflict, partition, boycotts and civil strife, relations between the two Irish states were frosty at best. The ‘hands off’ approach to relations is illustrated by the Northern government’s reaction to being officially invited to the Congress by organisers in Dublin.

The Northern Ireland authorities were invited to attend. The top echelons of the Northern government ignored the invitations, but some Catholic members of Belfast Corporation attended the congress in their official robes of office

An internal response from Stormont was one of mild confusion as to how to reply to such an invitation.[5]  Officially the top echelons of the Northern government simply ignored the invitations, however some Catholic members of Belfast Corporation took up the offer to attend the congress in their official robes of office.  This act of symbolism and the invite to attend a very public display of Catholicism raised the ire of those connected to the Orange Order and other Protestant groupings in Northern Ireland.

This perceived act of disloyalty led to a meeting of the Belfast County Grand Lodge on 26th May 1932 to discuss the possibility of stopping Aldermen and Councillors attending such an event in an official capacity.  The following resolution was passed:

“as a Protestant Organisation we feel compelled to register an emphatic protest at the action of the Belfast Corporation in giving permission to Aldermen and Councillors to wear their Robes at the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress in Dublin and thus representing in an official capacity the Belfast Corporation.  We feel that the presence of these Aldermen and Councillors robed…will be taken as an indication that Protestant Belfast is weakening in its attitude to the idolatrous practices and beliefs of Rome”.[6]

   Posters appeared in various locations in Belfast erected by The Ulster Protestant League in response to Alderman being allowed to attend the Congress in official dress. Addressed to the ‘Protestant People of Belfast’, it asked:

Northern Protestants and unionists were outraged both by the attendance of Belfast Corporation members in robes of office at the ‘idolatrous’ Congress and by the absence there of the Union flag.

‘Why be represented at the Dublin Eucharistic Congress by Roman Catholic members of the Belfast Corporation who have obtained permission to wear the official robes in a country hostile to the King, Commonwealth and Protestantism’?[7]

   The pressure against a progressive and inclusive gesture by Belfast Corporation was further compounded in a letter to the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sir Crawford McCullough from Ulster Protestant League. The letter stated: “At a crowded meeting held last night in the Ulster Hall, the enclosed resolution was unanimously passed… We wish to know what steps you intend to take to have the decision of 2nd May, 1932, rescinded.  Your reply and the resolution will appear in the press”.[8] Nevertheless, the historic gesture was upheld and Catholic members of Belfast Corporation attended the Congress in official robes.[9]

Tensions related to symbolism were also highlighted by the omission of the British Union flag from the array of flags representing the nations attending the Congress.  This exclusion was raised in the British press, which referred to it as a ‘Gratuitous Insult to English Catholics’.[10] It was also raised British Houses of Parliament by Conservative MP John Gretton to Dominions Secretary J.H. Thomas.[11] The issue of flags would again come to the fore during the event along contested parade routes in the North.

Travelling to Dublin

A street riot in in Belfast, 1920.
A street riot in in Belfast, 1920.

It was estimated that 100,000 pilgrims made the cross border journey from the North.  Journeys were made by car, train, bus and even steamboat, with adverts for travel arrangements appearing in local newspapers months in advance of the event, such was the demand.

For the Congress finale, an open air mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park on 26th June exceptionally large numbers of pilgrims from Northern Ireland made their way in the early hours from numerous departure points in Belfast, Larne and Portadown.

What was a highly anticipated excursion soon turned into a crisis when a number of groups of pilgrims on their way to the Congress were attacked by Protestant loyalists in several locations.

Catholic pilgrims from the North were attacked by loyalists on their way south to the Congress.

In Larne a number of pilgrims from the area had chartered a steamboat to take them along the east coast to Dublin.  According to two local priests from the Larne area, a crowd of 150 in number were permitted to assemble in the area and attack Catholic travellers departing by steamboat and bus, unchallenged by police.

“At the scene of attack police were observed standing inactive while showers of stones rained past them upon the pilgrims.  At the quayside members of the mob advanced even to the ship’s side and insulted the pilgrims going on board, while the police, even when requested by one of the priests in charge, did not remove them.”[12]

Press reaction


A number of similar incidents across Northern Ireland that evening which were quickly relayed in both the Irish and British press. The Newsletter reported on in Sandy Row, South Belfast a loyalist crowd attempted ‘to surge into Roman Catholic quarters’ but were repelled by police.  Further on the same stretch of road a crowd of approximately 200 youths with Union Jacks and a Lambeg drum attempted to block the path of a number of pilgrims who were about to leave by train from the Great Northern Railway Station.

In the town of Ballymena, Co Antrim a 500-strong crowd of Loyalists gathered to confront the travelling Catholics.  It was reported that a number of the crowd stole parcels of food and tore the clothes from departing pilgrims.  The size and ferocity of the crowd was said to have prevented between 130-200 people from making the journey to Dublin.  Further attacks in Claudy and Coleraine in Co Derry saw pilgrims attacked on their bus journeys.[13] The Irish News sensationally reported that attempts had been made to derail a train carrying pilgrims near Armoy Co Antrim.[14]

The nationalist press denounced the failure of the RUC police to protect Catholic travellers.

In Britain the press coverage painted a picture of widespread disorder across the North.  The Dundee Courier and Advertiser told its readers of special trains laid on for the event were besieged by hostile gangs who ‘lined the railway banks, sang party songs, and hurled missiles at the trains’ in attacked in Belfast, Lisburn and Portadown.[15] The paper also reported of incidents of hand-to-hand combat between Orangemen and Catholics who clashed over objections to the erection of Eucharistic Flags in Co Tyrone.[16]

This incident was well covered in a number of other newspapers on both sides of the Irish Sea.  The Aberdeen Journal stated that following a service attended by approximately 300 Orangemen in Donnemanagh Church, Co Tyrone on Sunday 26th June, clashes with Catholics took place in the main street.

“The [Northern Ireland] Government condemns these cowardly outrages in the strongest possible manner”, while the Orange Order stated that it was ‘deeply concerned to learn of the disgraceful attacks’.

It was reported that the Orangemen resented the erection of Papal and Eucharistic flags being flown on their proposed march route, and ordered that they be taken down.  Once this was refused Orangemen and hundreds of assembled Catholics, who ‘held crucifixes in their hands and sang “Faith of Our Fathers”’ came to blows.[17]  The press account also noted that stones were thrown and several shots rang out, while members of the police were ‘roughly handled’.  After the scuffles irate Orangemen tore down and burned any remaining flags and bunting.[18]

The response from the nationalist press in the North was unsurprisingly robust. Attempting to portray what had happened in terms of good and evil, the Irish News lambasted the Loyalists who attacked pilgrims in various parts of the province. “While one section of the people – drawn from all parts of the world – were united in Dublin seeking divine graces, another section in the North were doing the foul work of the Anti-God forces…..groups of blackguards in various parts of the Six Counties have chosen to tell the world that they, at any rate, have no use for Religion’.[19]

The attacks were quickly condemned by government officials. The Newsletter and several other British news outlets reported that the Ulster Government and the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland expressed their condemnation of the various attacks.  “The Government condemns these cowardly outrages in the strongest possible manner”, while the Orange Order stated that it was ‘deeply concerned to learn of the disgraceful attacks’.[20]

Unsurprisingly, the denunciations were met with a dismissive response by the main Nationalist newspaper the Irish News, which laid the blame squarely at the political classes of Unionism and the Orange Order.  It claimed those who engaged in the violence were the ‘ignorant puppets’ of ‘their better-educated leaders, who have never missed an opportunity for inflaming sectarian passions whenever an opportunity arises’.[21]

Pressure was mounting on the Stormont government to act against those who had attacked pilgrims, as up to that point little or no arrests had been made.  It was also alleged that police had been forewarned that attacks were planned, yet no preventative action was taken.[22]  The Bishop of Down and Conor, Daniel Mageean sought out the Minister for Home Affairs, Sir Dawson Bates to highlight his concern at the events and the alleged inaction of the police.


Dear Sir,

Last Sunday I sent you a telegram calling your attention to the attack made in Larne at 2am that morning on the pilgrims to the Eucharistic Congress.  On my return from Dublin I requested the priests in charge of the pilgrims to send me an account of the affair, and I beg to enclose a copy of it.

In view of the attitude of the police on the occasion, and of the fact that no arrests have yet been made in connection with the outrage, although a list of some of the delinquents has been given to the police, I shall send these letters to the press unless measures are taken without delay to bring the culprits to justice.[23]


Concerns were raised by businessmen as to how the outrages would affect cross-border trade. Belfast businessman Mr EWJ Harvey reached out to Lord Craigavon to relay the palpable anger among businesses in the Free State at the treatment of their co-religionists and the lack of an official response.  He highlighted the possibility of another Northern trade boycott:

My Lord,

I have just returned from a business trip to Co Monaghan and Co Louth, and, as a Protestant Representative of a Northern firm, I would respectfully draw your attention to the extreme bitterness which exists as the result of the attacks on R.C’s returning from Dublin Congress.

They are quite convinced that our Government did not take any steps whatever to protect the returning Catholics from attacks and that nothing will be done to compensate the sufferers or punish the perpetrators.

A Boycott of Northern goods is contemplated.

I do trust the Government will act immediately and thus do much to wards righting a great wrong and help to retain the small amount of business which we Northern firms still contrive to secure in the face of duties etc.[24]

Publicly, the government did little to acknowledge any concern regarding a proposed boycott, although the matter was raised internally.  For them the prime concern was the security of the Northern state around the border, and the potential for disorder to spread to the cities of Belfast and Derry should there be a breach of security in border regions.  Bates felt that anger among nationalists could lead men from the South to use vulnerable points along the border to attack the North in reprisal for violence towards Catholics during the Congress.

Feeling that Enniskillen was a particularly vulnerable point he argued “I think that, while nothing can prevent it happening, we will be able to make it more difficult for the attackers having regard to the new arrangement in regard to the “B” Specials, and the powers that we have under the Civil Authorities Act, but if large bodies of men come across the border we have no means whatever of dealing with the situations except by means of troops”.[25]

Bates felt that the chronic unemployment which existed at the time was an underlying factor which combined with the attacks on the travelling Catholics could be a catalyst for widespread disorder.  However, it appeared that the need for troops was considered a final option, with the threat of economic measures perhaps being enough of a deterrent.

“It might be said that such an action would be provocative, but, on the other hand, if the British Government intend to use arbitrary powers and prevent by taxation imports of all goods from the Free State, that in itself is an action which may have the result of precipitating the very action which I want to guard against by the use of troops”.[26]


An investigation on the disorder was ordered amid allegations of police incompetence and collusion with the attackers.  In Belfast the investigation found that matters had remained quiet until late on Saturday night, 25th June, and early on the following morning when ‘a rowdy element’ appeared on Great Victoria Street where approximately 35,000 left by various means of transportation. The report stated that disorder only occurred after the pilgrims had departed, with windows being smashed and some looting occurring.

An investigation on the disorder was ordered amid allegations of police incompetence and collusion with the attackers. 

In Larne the most serious disorder occurred. The report stated that while approximately 500 people took police advice to depart early in the evening for the Congress, 700 more insisted on parading through the town: ‘The sight of this unusual procession through the town in the dead of night, in badly lighted streets, had an unsettling effect upon the unruly element of the Protestant side’.[27] A 700 strong hostile crowd attacked busses, while at the port ‘an immense crowd had then gathered and stones were being thrown from a distance.  All the available police were then employed in pushing back the crowd’.[28]

A number of other flashpoints were examined including Ballymena, Lurgan, Lisburn and Portadown.  Nevertheless, the report found no evidence of police culpability.  In the wake of the report and subsequent arrests relating to the disorder, Bates raised some concerns with Lord Craigavon and about the nature of the sentences which were to be handed down to the attackers.

Bates stated that he was somewhat perturbed lest the Resident Magistrates should go in for ‘savage sentences’. Arguing that any such sentencing could unsettle a comparable peace which had descended and handicap the Government should any further disorder occur:

“I had a long talk with the Attorney and the Chief Crown Solicitor, and the view that we took was that it would suffice if the rank and file of the offenders and those who bore good characters were bound over to keep the peace and that moderate sentences should be imposed on those of bad character and the ring-leaders. I do not want when the new Parliament House is opened, or when, on the other hand, we might be engaged in very violent disturbances in connection with the Free State, to have the Government handicapped by having 70 or 80 young fellows in gaol”.[29]

   The insistence on leniency for the perpetrators in this case highlights a siege mentality among northern politicians at the time.  The religious and cultural differences between the two states and the public declaration of faith by one at times fed into the anxieties of the other.  Political and religious identities had become extremely ingrained within the two states since their establishment. With the added elements of the revolutionary period and the enforced partition of the two states little over a decade previously, any public displays of identity involving large numbers of people would have been a perceived threat to the other.

The almost carnival atmosphere in which flags and bunting were festooned upon countless streets and houses were looked upon as an indication of the complete acceptance of the ideals of the Congress from the top to the bottom of Irish society.

This is, of course in stark contrast to how similar items were seen as a source of contention along contested parade routes, which ended with the burning of Papal and Eucharistic flags.  Incidents of inter-communal conflict happened long before and after the events of June 1932.  However, the sheer size of the events in Dublin and further afield arguably brought Catholic identity to the fore for the first time in the Northern state, with explosive results.



[1] Elliot Leyton Opposition and Integration in Ulster in Man, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Jun., 1974), pp. 185-198

[1] Gillian McIntosh ‘Acts of ‘national communion’: the centenary celebrations for Catholic Emancipation, the forerunner of the Eucharistic Congress’ in Joost Augusteijn (ed) Ireland in the 1930s, (Dublin, 1999), p.84.

[2] Holmes, ‘The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and Irish Identity’ p56.

[3]  G. I. T. Machin ‘The Liberal Government and the Eucharistic Procession of 1908’ in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 34, No. 4, (1983), pp 559-583.

[4] The Spectator, 12 Sep. 1908.

[5] Mr F. O’Reilly to Sir Dawson Bates, 6 Mar. 1931 (CAB9B/200/)

[6] Memo to Sir Crawford McCullough from Belfast County Grand Orange Lodge, 28 May. 1932 (LA/7/3A/5)

[7] Rory O’Dwyer, ‘The Eucharistic Congress, Dublin 1932: An Illustrated History’, (Dublin, 2009), p.13.

[8] H. Niblock to Sir Crawford McCullough, 30 May. 1932 (LA/7/3A/5)

[9] Ulster Herald, 18 June, 1932.

[10] The Hartlepool Mail, 24 June, 1932.

[11] Western Daily Press, 24 June, 1932.

[12] Fr Bernard MacLaverty C.C. and Fr Peter Kelly C.C. to Larne Parochial House 29 June 1932 (CAB9B/200/ Govt of Northern Ireland File on the Eucharistic Congress).

[13] The Newsletter, 27 June, 1932.

[14] The Irish News, 28 June, 1932.

[15] Dundee Courier and Advertiser, 28 June, 1932.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Aberdeen Journal, 28 June 1932.

[18] Ibid

[19] The Irish News, 27 June, 1932.

[20] The Newsletter, 28 June, 1932.

[21] The Irish News, 28 June, 1932.

[22] The Irish News, 29 June, 1932.

[23] D. Mageean Bishop of Down and Connor to Sir Dawson Bates, 29 June 1932. (CAB9B/200/ Govt of Northern Ireland File on the Eucharistic Congress).

[24] EWJ Harvey to Viscount Craigavon, 29 June 1932 (CAB9B/200/)

[25] Sir Dawson Bates to Viscount Craigavon, 2 July 1932. (CAB9B/200/)

[26] Ibid.

[27] Director General’s Office, Royal Ulster Constabulary Belfast Report into Eucharistic Congress Disorder, 8 July 1932 (HA8/494)

[28] Ibid.

[29] Sir Dawson Bates to Viscount Craigavon, 26 July 1932 (CAB9B/200/)

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