‘Infectious piousness’ – Advertising and the Eucharistic Congress, 1932

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

When consumerism and Catholicism collided in 1932. By Barry Sheppard


June of 2017 marked the 85th anniversary of the 31st International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin. This event saw a series of large public religious gatherings, masses and processions taking place between 22nd and 26th June 1932.

Hosted in a different international city each year, this was the first time the large international gathering of Catholic clergy, religious dignitaries and laity had been to Irish shores, and presented the state with a tremendous opportunity to announce itself on the world stage.

Hosting the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 was a major event for the young Irish Free State. It was also its first advertising extravaganza.

Of course, the event was primarily a religious gathering, nevertheless the Congress of 1932 has received much academic attention due to the impact the event had upon an Irish politics and national identity.  However, the impact the event had on the Irish economy, and more specifically the impact it had on society through the burgeoning Irish advertising industry has been less explored.

Arguably the 1932 Eucharistic Congress was the Irish Free State’s first advertising extravaganza, leading to an economic boom in the state.  A boom which reportedly brought in estimated £5 million to the Irish economy.[1] An advertising blitz for items of merchandise and Congress ‘tie-ins’ were found in national and regional daily and weekly newspapers throughout the state, not to mention Northern Ireland and some English publications.

Advertising was becoming more important to an increasingly fast-paced society.  Irish society was becoming increasingly ‘visual’ by the 1920s. This is reflected in increased illustrated newspaper advertising and in other imagery such as election posters.

Election posters from 1926 onwards, were becoming more ‘image-heavy’. The ruling Cumman na nGaedheal party recognised the power of visual imagery in capturing the attention of the public.  It became the first Irish party to turn to the services of a professional advertising agency, McConnell’s, which had only been founded a decade before, in 1916.[2]

The importance of professionalising advertising and sales gained increased recognition in Ireland around 1912, however this became stagnant as there were few advances made during the revolutionary period 1912 to 1922.

After this American influence came to bear as it was recognised that advertising was becoming much more sophisticated through both psychology and art.  In 1929 the first course in advertising was offered in Ireland at the Rathmines Technical Institute in Dublin.[3]

The formation of this particular course was tailored by the input of The Irish Association of Advertising Agencies and Irish Independent Newspapers.[4] The input by a major national daily newspaper is significant as it shows the increased importance of advertising in print media at the time.



Dubliners put up decorations for the Eucharistic Congress.

Hosting the Congress in Dublin was highly significant for a number of reasons. The increased normalisation of politics and a more settled society offered the world a more favourable view of the state after five years of political violence.

However, it has also been suggested that there was a need in Irish society for the pageantry which the Congress would bring to affirm some sort of national identity which had been missing since the foundation of the state.

Since British withdrawal in 1922 it was argued that ‘Ireland had been starved of spectacle. Gone were the regimental marching bands, displays with flags, cavalry formations, carriages of notables, festivities for the monarch’s birthday and for royal visits. Because of the disputed origin of the state in the Treaty, there was no national Independence Day and celebration as in the USA’.[5]

It was further argued that the hosting of such an event, Ireland could make its mark on the world through its own brand of Catholic spirituality.  A set of spiritual values, religious and some political leaders argued, could supersede those of other, more economically advanced nations.[6] Ironically it was this sense of spiritual strength, which would be manifested in public pageantry, that became the economic target by vendors selling Eucharistic Congress-related merchandise and materials.

Leading up to the Congress


In newspapers leading up to the event a range of merchandise from official Congress pins and badges through to especially commissioned pieces of Congress art and religious iconography were on display to cash in on the ‘Congress fever’ which had swept over the state.

Modern advertising techniques were applied to sell a pious public religious images for the Congress.

Common items bearing religious imagery would prove popular among a pious Irish public, but, through advertising, a certain amount of emotional pressure was also applied to sell the goods.  Advertised as both religious and patriotic, some of the items tapped into two very important strands of Irish identity in the new state.  Various items appealed to both faith and Irish history in an attempt to attract customers.

One such advert, appearing in multiple publications, was for ‘The Eucharistic Congress Souvenir Plaque’.  An item which fused Irish iconography with the religious, it read: ‘The design includes HIS HOLINESS THE POPE XI in the centre, with the words “Eucharistic Congress, Dublin A.D., 1932” in Gaelic type; the Papal Arms, the Papal and National Flags, the Bank of Ireland, O’Connell Monument, Round Tower, Wolf Hound and Harp, whilst an artistic scroll of Celtic pattern is intertwined on the border’.[7]

A doorway decorated for the Congress on Dublin’s Gardiner Street.

This type of item played on decades of tradition in Ireland as religious items of this type had become a mainstay of Irish Catholic life since Cardinal Paul Cullen’s ‘Devotional Revolution’ in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Cullen’s ‘revolution’ saw increased public religiosity among the Irish Catholic population.  The public religious exercises which Cullen had helped introduce were ‘reinforced by the use of devotional tools and aids: beads, scapulars, medals, missals, prayer books, catechisms, and holy pictures’.[8]

The rank and file Catholic population of Ireland, often from the less well-off sections of the community, came under pressure to buy the Congress-related wares on display in newspapers, shops and other outlets: It has been suggested that the burden of decorating was borne by the poor.

‘Photographs from that time show numerous flags and banners flying in the Coombe, Dominick Street, and Rutland Street [All poor or working class districts of central Dublin]. Banners bearing such messages as “Hail Christ Our King”, “God Bless Our Pope” and “Long Live St. Patrick,” and flags with images of the Virgin Mary and the Sacred Heart were found alongside papal flags, congress flags, and the tricolour throughout the poorer areas of Dublin’.[9]

international journalists such as G. K. Chesterton, were ‘struck by the efforts of Dublin people, most especially the impoverished tenement-dwellers’ to decorate the city.

Indeed, international journalists and commentators including the well-known Catholic intellectual G. K. Chesterton, were ‘struck by the efforts of Dublin people, most especially the impoverished tenement-dwellers, to embellish their streets and laneways with bunting, festoons, banners, garlands, floral arrangements, grottos, shrines and various other forms of religious decoration’.[10]

On top of this already considerable burden, there was an expectation that everyone would contribute to the various Congress Fund drives in the different dioceses.  Newspapers advertisements were again the medium used to reach the maximum audience, this time by the Church and Congress Committees.

Adverts appealing for funds would have no doubt put emotional pressure upon already stretched domestic budgets of the poor. One such advert in the Kilkenny People appealed in bold letters for people to ‘Be Generous’ and that ‘EVERY CATHOLIC is expected to subscribe’.  All family members were addressed with an appeal for children to also contribute: ‘Be generous and associate the children with the Congress, don’t let them go to Mass without giving them something to put on the Collection Plate’.[11]

As the event drew nearer Catholics were asked ‘Have You Given Anything Yet’?  This was in relation to a proposed erection of a monument to St Patrick, who was being connected to the Congress as Ireland’s spiritual father.[12]


Congress Badges and Flags


The most commonly advertised Congress item were that of the Congress badges and flags. The design of the badge was based on the medieval Irish Cross of Cong with a chalice and Eucharistic host added,[13] and at a price of one shilling it was affordable for most people.

Scores of adverts ran in the national dailies such as the Irish Press, Evening Herald, and the Irish Independent, as well as a host of regional publications, ensuring that the product reached as wide an audience as possible.  As well as adverts, numerous accompanying stories bombarded the public, imploring them to ‘Wear the Congress Badge’![14]

The instruction to wear the badge came directly from the official organising committee made up of both clergy and lay Catholics.  On the first of January 1932 the Committee released a statement on the policy of wearing the official badge of the Congress:

‘The Committee of the 31st International Eucharistic Congress suggests that a resolution to wear the official Congress Badge would fittingly inaugurate Congress Year for Catholics. It is earnestly desired that from now onwards till after the Congress the official Badge should be worn by every Catholic, young and old’.[15]

In the midst of the advertising campaign rumours began to circulate of foreign-made goods being circulated to vendors in Dublin and further afield.  This, of course occurred during one of several economic drives to ensure that people bought Irish-made goods across a number of areas.  Attempts at flooding the market with foreign-made religious items was not only unpatriotic, it bordered on sacrilege.

There was a strong emphasis on buying Irish-made goods, especially in the Irish Press newspaper.

A letter to the Irish Press on 20 January 1932 stated: “There are several firms in Dublin offering for sale Eucharistic Congress Flags, which are made in England with incorrect designs. We are asked by the Congress Committee to support Irish manufacture; then why not support those firms whose flags, etc., are manufactured in Ireland, thereby keeping our money at home?”[16]

The newspaper followed up with a number of other stories of the ‘abuse’ of foreign-made Congress goods being ‘dumped’ into Dublin, much to the chagrin of local manufacturers who had paid the Congress Committee for official licenses to produce the goods for the event.[17]

The Irish Press reported that a number of representatives of English firms had already visited Dublin hotels in an effort to distribute their unofficial flags, which the Press had claimed were being ‘turned out in English workshops’.[18]

Rumours of counterfeit Congress badges, shipped in from England also abounded.  It was thought that such rumours could ruin a person’s business at such a patriotic time in the nation’s life.  One such circulated rumour caused a manufacturer to publicly address the situation in the newspapers to save his business reputation.

“Dear Sir,

We are informed by a well-known shop in O’Connell Street which sells our Eucharistic Congress Souvenir Badges that a gentleman who called in to buy one during Christmas week emphatically declared that they were not made in Ireland.  On several occasions we have heard remarks passed to the same effect, and we would like to assure your readers that all our badges, including our Eucharistic Congress Souvenir Badges are made here in our own factory in Dublin, and they bear the Irish Trade Mark (No. 0920).

We would not trespass on your valuable space were it not for the fact that the country is at present flooded with all kinds of foreign-made Souvenir Badges, and the only guarantee which people have who wish to buy an Irish article is to look for the Irish Trade Mark. – Yours faithfully

The Dublin Jewellery Manufacturing Co. (G. Wilson)”[19]


Presenting a positive image


Dublin tenements.

Outside of official Congress merchandise, there was a desire for people and their property to look their best, if only for the benefit of international visitors arriving on Irish shores.

Again, pressure was put upon the city’s residents with the Congress Committee urging ‘the citizens of Dublin, in particular, that special attention should be given to front gardens’. It was stated that ‘It will be regrettable if individual citizens do not contribute to the scheme by giving a little attention to the beautification of their own houses’.[20]

The pressure worked.  Diarmaid Ferriter has stated that ‘leading up to the event ‘plants and baskets of flowers abounded, monuments were built and decorated’ and ‘houses were painted in congress blue and papal colours’.[21]

This presented a business opportunity for professional painters and decorators, gardeners and tailors, who took to the press to make a pitch for their expert services.  Gardening adverts from ‘Bulbs Unlimited’ of Monaghan asked the public ‘to secure plants to bloom for the Eucharistic Congress’[22]

The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne appealed to citizens to hire painters to re-paint their houses for the Congress.

Decorators appealed for customers to ”Paint now’ and ‘make your home bright and beautiful for the Congress Year’,[23] while Dublin-based companies such as Fletcher and Philipson Painters Ltd. advised customers to get their orders in early due to unprecedented demand.   Citizens were encouraged to place orders with house painting firms to have their houses ready for June’s events.   The importance of this was framed in terms of providing much needed employment for the city’s painting contractors.

Lord Mayor of Dublin, Alfie Byrne appealed ‘directly to those who have not yet actually put contracts in hand for the decoration of private houses and business premises.  By placing contracts now, citizens will be providing work for painters’. Byrne further stated: ‘The Dublin Corporation and the Dublin Port and Docks Board are giving much employment in this direction.  Many other public boards are doing everything possible to brighten up the city, and in this way they are giving employment to a considerable number of men at painting and other work’.[24]

The pressure to have houses in presentable order didn’t stop in front gardens, or outside walls.  Advertisers saw an opportunity to make the entire house presentable.  Adverts in the Munster Express implored readers to ‘Make your home attractive for Congress year’ with a range of new Furniture especially for the Congress.[25] Linen for the furniture adorned with ‘sacred emblems’ made specifically for the Congress were available for 15 shillings and 6 pence.[26] Even indoor lighting could have a religious tinge with ‘Original Electric Lighting Ideas’, a selection of light bulbs with stencilled on Eucharistic imagery.[27]

A number of tailors and dressmakers pitched their expertise in the daily newspapers in the months leading up to the Congress.  Adverts from Dublin firms, like O’Beirne & O’Neill of Middle Abbey Street invited their clients to ‘Be really well-dressed for Congress Week’, while stressing the importance of buying Irish materials.[28] A Tipperary firm, Gough, O’ Keefe and Naughton, of Nenagh promoted their suits and shoes so that ‘everyone can look their best for the forthcoming Eucharistic Congress’.

Claims that ‘ample preparations’ had been made to ensure that nobody will be left disappointed, shows that even outside of Dublin people were anticipating that the Congress would have a hugely positive impact on their business.[29]

High Altar


A high altar.

The high point of the Congress itself was the open air mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park on 26 June.  Approximately one million people attended this ceremony, an extraordinary number of people given the size of the population of the State.  The event was described as ‘the largest congregation ever known at Mass’.  The estimated million-strong crowd gathered in front of the High Altar erected in the Phoenix Park.[30]

Newspaper reports painted a picture of infectious piousness emanating through the city from the High Altar:

‘The chanting of the choir in the Phoenix Park and the recitation of their prayers, relayed by the loud speakers, was taken up by the crowds until the roar of hundreds of thousands of voices echoed through the streets transforming the city of Dublin into a vast cathedral, the gently fluttering flags overhead like the banners of a triumphant army hung in other and less spacious cathedrals throughout the world’.[31]

With bombastic newspaper reports and the sheer number of people attending the Phoenix Park ceremonies, the High Altar as an icon became a focal-point for pilgrims, a centre-piece in the most important event in the State’s early existence.

Historian John Turpin emphasises the importance of the High Altar:

‘The centrepiece of the congress was the enormous high altar in the classical style with a central covered space with dome, flanked by colonnaded wings, situated in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, designed by John Robinson. The classical style was specified in the commission to distance the congress from purely nationalist manifestations. The wings were reminiscent of Bernini’s colonnade at St Peter’s, Rome. The high altar became the visual symbol of the congress and reproductions appeared widely in shops throughout the city’.[32]

It is unsurprising that reproductions of the altar were widely sold after the event, given the success of the Congress.  However, craftsmen and advertisers also capitalised when the High Altar was dismantled.  A company named ‘High Altar Souvenirs’ advertised crosses of various sizes ‘made from wood of the High Altar, Phoenix Park, on which Pontifical High Mass was celebrated on 26 June, 1932’.[33]

Other materials from the High Mass, such colonnades, cardinal’s thrones, the ‘Triumphal Arch’, and pavilions were advertised for sale in newspapers for the more affluent citizens.[34]  Whereas pictorial records, linens, and other mementos were available for more modest budgets.  Everyone, however could enter a draw to win the car used by the Papal Legate during the congress, with proceeds going to ‘the pagan mission fields of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate’.[35]


Mass Media


Outside of traditional print media, the 1932 Eucharistic Congress was the first event in the Irish State to avail of modern broadcasting technology.  Congress organisers persuaded the government to use the national radio service to transmit congress ceremonies through its 2RN and 6CK stations, in Dublin and Cork (despite misgivings from the department of posts and telegraphs about using the national radio service for denominational matters).[36]  This too presented opportunities to technicians to advertise their services to make sure that those who couldn’t be there in person could still partake in such a monumental event.

The 1932 Eucharistic Congress was the first event in the Irish State to avail of modern broadcasting technology

Radio sets were now available to more people than ever with 30,000 licenses being issued by the time the Congress happened.  This was a perfect opportunity for vendors to increase their business by selling new sets to cash in on events, as well as repairing and maintaining sets already sold to previous customers. The Scientific Radio Service of Limerick, ran an advertising campaign called ‘The Eucharistic Congress Calling’, offering new radio sets and repairs on old devices.[37]

Audio recordings of the High Mass, as well as hymns used during the congress were advertised for those who owned gramophones, while the visual recordings of the proceedings were shown in cinemas across the country in the months which followed.

Described as ‘perhaps the most important film record preserved’ in the Irish Film Archive, it consisted of a ‘3-reel coverage, on 16 mm. gauge, of the Eucharistic Congress 1932, filmed and edited by Father F. M. Brown; S.J.  It shows details of the religious ceremonies, glimpses of Irish and foreign churchmen, informal portraits of well-known politicians and leaders in public life, social sidelights such as the Lord Mayor’s ceremonial coach and the old tramway system’.[38] All newspapers, with the notable exception of the Irish Press, advertised the official screening of the Congress film record.

This is an interesting and significant point, mainly due to the Catholic Church in Ireland’s staunch opposition to many aspects of cinema.   According to historian Kevin Rockett, in the 1920s and 1930s Irish bishops had blamed the cinema for carrying alien messages of consumerism and which led to economic and social discontent. Demands for higher wages and emigration were two direct consequences of watching films.[39] Arguably the use of cinema in this way was attempting to redress the imbalance.

It is perhaps easy to see the advertising campaigns related to the Congress as unrestricted free-for-alls which took advantage of the occasion and the pious nature of much of the population.  Some people recognised the potential for citizens and visitors to be taken advantage of when it came to purchasing merchandise, travel, and general goods and services for the congress.  Indeed, investigations were made into the deliberate marking up of travel prices for the Congress in comparison with GAA match day travel.[40]

Addressing concerns at the annual Dublin Chamber of Commerce conference in January 1932, President Mr J.J Halpin stated ‘may I remind traders and hotel keepers that the Eucharistic Congress, which may well be the largest ever held, is a solemn occasion.  The management and catering for a huge concourse of persons of every nationality is a tremendous undertaking.  May I exhort to all to give of their best to help in every way possible way to welcome our co-religionists from far countries. Let us look upon them as guests and allow our country to exercise its fascination unmarred by any extortion, so that our visitors may become frequenters of our beauty spots, and future customers for our goods’.[41]

Besides investigations in the travel price rises, finding people dissatisfied with the Congress is rare.  This is undoubtedly because of the wholly positive coverage the Congress received by all Irish media outlets at the time and afterwards.  Indeed ‘the print media had portrayed this event as one of healing that had brought together those from differing political traditions, and the rich and poor, in a display of Catholic unity’.[42] However, behind this façade of togetherness lay Dublin’s disaffected poor who questioned this notion of togetherness during the Congress and calling into question the integrity of the Catholicism which underpinned it.  In a letter uncovered in recent research, a Dublin tenement dweller clearly shows frustration with circumstances around the event:

“It is quite clear I am denied the right to provide Food, Clothes, & Shelter for my Wife + Family not to mention Education, if I must be denied the right to earn a living in such a callous manner and by people who call themselves Christian & hoist the Flags of Christianity during Congress Week but had in mind the Idea of Starving their less fortunate fellow Beings in a week or two after that so that they might increase/ their Profits”.[43]

The overwhelmingly positive coverage of the Congress, as well as the excitable lead up to the event, drowned out any dissenting voices among those who were charged with and making themselves and their humble houses presentable for the international guests and dignitaries.  This uncritical news coverage also provided advertisers with a positive platform to sell their Congress-related wares.

Readers who were being told on a daily basis of the historical significance of the event, the ideas of asserting national and religious identity in harmony with their fellow countrymen and women, were perhaps more likely to want to feel a part of the events by purchasing many of the items on display alongside the positive news stories.

In Ireland in 1932, Catholicism and consumerism, had in the short term at least, a happy marriage.




[1] http://www.mullingarparish.ie/bulletins/IEC_1932_national.pdf, p. 2

[2] Ciara Meehan, ‘Politics pictorialised: Free State election posters’ in Mel Farrell, Jason Knirck and Ciara Meehan (eds), A formative decade: Ireland in the 1920s (Sallins, Co. Kildare, 2015), p. 14.

Tim Ellis, Women, gender and masculinity in Irish political cartoons, c.1922-1939 (Unpublished Thesis), p. 4.

[3] Whelan Dr Bernadette, (2014) “Introduction to Irish marketing history”, Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol. 6 Issue: 1

[4] Irish Independent, 18 Oct. 1929.

[5] John Turpin, ‘Visual Culture and Catholicism in the Irish Free State, 1922–1949’ in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History / Volume null / Issue 01 / January 2006, pp 55 – 77

[6] David G. Holmes ‘The Eucharistic Congress of 1932 and Irish Identity’ in New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 55-78

[7] Irish Independent, 24 May 1932.

[8] Emmet Larkin ‘The Devotional Revolution in Ireland, 1850-75’ in The American Historical Review, Vol. 77, No. 3 (Jun., 1972), pp. 625-652.

[9] David Holmes, Eucharistic Congress Irish Identity, New Hibernia Review / Iris Éireannach Nua, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring, 2000), pp. 55-78

[10] Rory O’Dwyer, ‘On show to the world: the Eucharistic Congress, 1932’ in History Ireland Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2007), Volume 15.

[11] Kilkenny People, 29 Nov. 1930.

[12] Irish Independent, 24 June 1932.

[13] Alice Courtayne, ‘The story of the Eucharistic Congress’, Capuchin Annual (1933), p. 75.

[14] Kerry News, 1 Jan. 1932.

[15] Drogheda Independent, 1 Jan. 1932.

[16] Irish Press, 20 Jan. 1932.

[17] Irish Press, 1 Feb. 1932.

[18] Irish Press, 23 Jan. 1932.

[19] Irish Press 9 Jan. 1932.

[20] Irish Press 1 March. 1932.

[21] D. Ferriter, Pope and ceremony: how the 1932 congress melded church and State   http://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/pope-and-ceremony-how-the-1932-congress-melded- church-and-state-1.1063510

[22] Irish Independent, 3 May. 1932.

[23] Munster Express, 25 March. 1932.

[24] Irish Examiner, 25 March. 1932.

[25] Munster Express, 1 Jan. 1932.

[26] Munster Express, 4 Dec. 1931.

[27] Irish Press, 9 Jan. 1932.

[28] Irish Independent, 29 Jan. 1932.

[29] Nenagh Guardian, 19 Jan. 1932.

[30] Gary A. Boyd (2007) SUPERNATIONAL CATHOLICITY, Early Popular Visual Culture, 5:3, 317-333

[31] Irish Times, 27 Jun. 1932.

[32] John Turpin, ‘Visual Culture and Catholicism in the Irish Free State, 1922–1949’ in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History / Volume null / Issue 01 / January 2006, pp 55 – 77.

[33] Sunday Independent, 7 Aug. 1932.

[34] Irish Press 6 July. 1932.

[35] Irish Independent, 3 Sept. 1932.

[36] Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/modern-ireland-in-100-artworks-1932-eucharistic-congress-skywriting-over-dublin-1.2129019

[37] Limerick Leader, 25 June. 1932.

[38] Séamus O’Connor ‘A National Need: An Irish Film Archive’ in  An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 54, No. 213 (Spring, 1965), pp. 83-90

[39] Kevin Rockett ‘Protecting the Family and the Nation: The official censorship of American cinema in Ireland, 1923‐1954’ in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 20: No 3 (2000), pp. 283-300

[40] Nenagh Guardian, 9 April. 1932.

[41] Irish Independent, 28 Jan. 1932.

[42] Lindsey Earner-Byrne, Letters of the Catholic Poor Poverty in Independent Ireland, 1920–1940 (2017).

[43] Ibid.

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