Pat Keenan on happenings in and around the capital
Irelands history since independence is short. But how times have changed. My parents were born in a British Ireland and I was born into the harsh and often uncaring 1940s. In 1920, facing a difficult reality of its own making, Britain partitioned the island on sectarian grounds, the Protestant northern counties and the Catholic south. In 1922 the Irish Free State was formed and just ten years after that the sectarian divide was reaffirmed as Dublin hosted the 31st International Eucharistic Congress at the Phoenix Park. For five days in June 1932 Dublin became at the centre of the Catholic world. It was in fact the largest Eucharistic Congresses of the 20th century. An estimated one third of the state’s population attended, over one million people. Among them a young girl from Kildare who in time would be my mother.
It was at the time selected to mark the 1,500th anniversary of St Patrick’s arrival and for many it was a fulfilment of history, a recompense for years of religious persecution. Whatever interpretation it would have a profound effect on religious, social and political life on both sides of the border in the years that followed.
Immediately in Northern Ireland troubles flared when the Unionist communities watched tens of thousands of Catholics make their way south across the border to join the congress in Dublin. And further with an open-air congress gathering in Belfast’s Corrigan Park attracted by some 80,000 people listening to an open-air broadcasts of the events in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
Ulster Protestant League posters appeared across Belfast reading: ;Protestant People of Belfast. 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?’ Rising political tensions led inevitably to confrontations on the streets, the catalyst for many sectarian flare-ups with many Protestants even fearing a possible imminent attack from the Irish Free State. In Larne, pilgrims boarding a chartered steamboat to Dublin came under an attack. In Belfast pilgrims entering the Great Northern Railway Station were attacked and in Ballymena loyalists attacked and prevented 200 from making the journey to Dublin. Confrontations flared in Lurgan, Lisburn, Portadown, Claudy and Coleraine. There was even an attempt to derail a train at Armoy, in Co.Antrim.
Dublin hosted a second Eucharistic Congress in 2012, a much smaller and unassuming affair compared to the triumphalism of the previous one. Northern Ireland has changed too where Protestants are no longer the majority.
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